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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Fighter’: First female pick for U.S. attorney for eastern Washington reflects on Spokane roots

Vanessa Waldref, a Spokane native, served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Eastern Washington from 2013 to 2020.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Vanessa Waldref, if confirmed, will be the first woman U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. She’ll also be one of the youngest U.S. attorneys in the country.

After Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell recommended her for the post to the Biden administration Monday evening, Waldref, a Spokane native, pondered what it meant to her to break a glass ceiling in the district where she grew up .

“The entry hall to the U.S. Attorney’s office is filled with pictures of excellent leaders and lawyers,” she said Tuesday night. “And they have all been men.”

Lately, she’s been reading a children’s book about late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to her 7-year-old daughter, who asks, “What do you mean, women couldn’t be lawyers?”

“I love it, because she’s coming from the perspective of a kid whose mom is a lawyer and whose mom loves being a lawyer. She has this innate sense of, ‘Of course women should be able to excel in any career,’” Waldref said.

Jacob Rooksby, dean of the Gonzaga University School of Law, where Waldref is an adjunct professor, believes having a woman as the chief law enforcement officer for the district sets an example for students – especially if it’s Waldref.

At age 41, Waldref has “limitless” career potential in the years ahead, Rooksby said. But, knowing her, he can’t imagine she’s focused on anything other than “the job, not what comes 20 years from now.”

“I think it’s fair to say eastern Washington is a region in the state that has seen structural barriers to women reaching leadership positions, in whatever sector, but certainly legal,” Rooksby said.

“Law, like many fields, has suffered from an old-boys-network syndrome. You had to be one of the boys to move up. We’re seeing that change finally in 2021, and her appointment is symbolic, I think, of the broader structural changes underway in this profession.”

Rooksby describes Waldref as “remarkable,” “committed,” and “fair and kind.”

While some adjunct professors teach and go about their professional lives, he said Waldref shows up for every element of the job.

In law, she’s a “dogged prosecutor” who also knows how to compromise.

“She’s not someone who’s going to back down from a fight that’s a well-deserved one, but she’s also not going to engage in a fight for the sake of it,” he said.

Mike Ormsby, the former U.S. attorney for the district who hired Waldref as an assistant in 2013, said he has complete faith in her.

“She’s very smart – she’s also very engaging – and she’s very thoughtful and strategic in how she approaches issues,” Ormsby said.

Waldref’s sister, former Spokane city councilwoman Amber Waldref, concurs.

“She’s a fighter, she’s a competitor,” Amber Waldref said. “In a U.S. Attorney, you want someone who is going to fight hard and win cases for our region.”

Ormsby found about a quarter of his time as U.S. attorney was devoted to tribal issues, an area Vanessa Waldref has a special interest in.

Vanessa Waldref said the district is unique because of its many square miles of open land.

“With the diversity of the federal lands – beautiful national forests, the Grand Coulee Dam, tribal lands – one of the responsibilities of the U.S. Attorney’s Office is to protect these lands and all the people who live here,” she said. “This area is vast and diverse, so to keep our communities safe and strong really means engaging with stakeholders.”

Amber Waldref believes her sister’s deep roots in the district will help. Their grandmother was a farmer in Pomeroy – “dryland farming, which is very challenging.”

Their mother has worked for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane for more than 40 years and set an example for them as a woman “in charge,” Amber Waldref said. Their father was a carpenter who then studied to become a nurse while Amber Waldref was in high school.

Amber Waldref said their family edged up from blue-collar living to solid middle class over a period of about 20 years.

In their childhood “world” of northeast Spokane, Amber Waldref could think of only a handful of classmates with white-collar parents.

“When Vanessa and I showed up at Gonzaga Prep, that was the first time we were like, ‘Oh, we have less than others,’ ” she said. “So Vanessa and I have learned to navigate many worlds.”

Both sisters are Georgetown University alumna.

Vanessa Waldref aspired to be a lawyer since she was her daughter’s age, and aspired to be a U.S. attorney for at least a decade.

For an assignment in the second grade, she drew pictures of herself in two potential careers – as a lawyer holding a gavel captioned, “I want justice!” and as a tennis player.

“I don’t have the forehand or backhand or serve to make that a reality,” Vanessa Waldref said through a smile.

Amber Waldref said when her sister was in middle school, she was the “ringleader” among some classmates who organized a vigil to draw attention to homelessness in Spokane.

“I mean, this is the stuff she came up with all the time,” Amber Waldref said.

More than a decade later, as a clerk for federal judge John Bates in Washington D.C., Vanessa Waldref said she saw how he valued the “competent and strong advocacy” by assistant United States attorneys in his courtroom.

“That made me identify that, that’s what I want to be,” she said. “I want to go into the courtroom and advocate for the United States of America.”

She can’t speak to the Department of Justice’s not-yet-defined priorities for 2021, but considers issues of clean air and water, safety and respect for people of all races, and effective governing as important issues locally and nationally.

Through it all, Amber Waldref believes her sister will bring with her an earnest love for the region.

“I think we have this sense of love of the land and love of community and I think that perspective is important. I don’t think you’d get that if you grew up in New York City and moved to Spokane,” she said. “I’m just really proud of her. She had this vision at a young age and we all knew she was going to be up to something pretty important.”