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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Diverse Washington Legislature opens for 2019 session

Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, second from left, stands as she is honored  Monday at the Capitol. Lekanoff was sworn in  as the first Native American woman to serve in the Washington House. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – The tribal drums and chanting that filled the House of Representatives chamber Monday served a double purpose.

They celebrated the election of the first Native American woman to the House, Swinomish tribal member Debra Lekanoff, and they added emphasis to Speaker Frank Chopp’s statement less than an hour earlier that the 2019 Legislature is the most diverse in history.

“Our job is to represent the state,” Chopp said after being elected speaker for a record 12th session. “This House will be the most representative of the people in history.”

After being sworn in with all the other members and with the chamber adjourned for the day, Lekanoff was wrapped in a special blanket, presented with a ceremonial paddle and treated to the Salish “Woman’s Blessings Song” in a ceremony on the House floor as Gov. Jay Inslee, Chopp and tribal leaders looked on.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Lekanoff said, echoing the sentiments of Chopp, Republican leader J.T. Wilcox and many of her colleagues. “I’m here to represent all of Washington.”

Overall, the 2019 session has more women than any time since 2000, and more minorities than any previous Legislature. Another first in the large House freshman class is My-Linh Thai, a Vietnamese American who is the first member who came to this country as a refugee and became a naturalized citizen.

In the Senate, newly elected Democrat Mona Das was born in India.

That 2019 freshman class – currently at 22 members with one more yet to be appointed to fill a vacated seat – boosts the number of women in the House to 40. That’s five more than last year, and the 30 Democratic women constitute a majority of the 57-member majority caucus.

Those Democratic freshmen lean progressive and could push the House on social and spending issues.

“I call them ‘The Resistance.’ They ran to resist what’s gone on the last two years in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way.

Members of both parties will have a full agenda, Chopp and Wilcox told members after the gavel came down to open the session. They must improve the state’s mental health care system and reduce homelessness, particularly among children.

“We should see them as our own children in our own families,” Chopp said, his voice breaking. “For God’s sake, let’s do this.”

The House should strive for maximum debate with maximum diversity and thought, he said.

While the Legislature may be more diverse in some respects, Wilcox said, it is much less diverse geographically. Most Democrats are from Western Washington, and all Eastern Washington districts except one – central Spokane’s 3rd District – are Republican.

Although all parts of Washington may have the “same kind of heart-rending human problems,” he added, there may be different solutions for different locations and minority Republicans will be offering some ideas.

With the 19 women in the Senate, Washington ranks fourth among the 50 state legislatures for the highest percentage of women at 40 percent. It’s one short of the record 60 women legislators in 1999-2000, but the 2019 session could tie that record in a week or so if a woman is selected to fill the Senate opening caused by Democrat Kevin Ranker’s recent withdrawal over sexual misconduct allegations.

The lone member of that freshman House class from Spokane, Republican Jenny Graham, said last week’s orientation session with the new representatives convinced her the chamber will have a wide diversity, not just on gender, race, political belief or geography, but also on life experiences.

Graham, who is white, calls herself a “trades mom” because her family has worked for generations in blue collar and service jobs – from changing tires at Les Schwab to cosmetology to waiting tables at restaurants – rather than white collar or professional offices.

She also has one of the more unusual paths to elective office, spending nearly a decade lobbying the Legislature to extend the statute of limitations on child sex crimes after her sister was a victim of serial killer Gary Ridgway. The Legislature agreed in 2013.

On Monday, Graham was sworn in at a special ceremony with her family, with her hand on her sister’s Bible.