OLYMPIA – Lisa Brown is stepping down as director of the Washington state Department of Commerce, a move certain to increase speculation that she may run for Spokane mayor later this year.
Brown, 66, a former Spokane legislator and Senate majority leader, was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve as director in February 2019. The Department of Commerce did not give a reason why Brown was stepping down. Brown has been considered a top possible choice to run for mayor of Spokane this year, though she has not said officially whether she is running. The last time Brown, a Democrat, ran for public office was in 2018 in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
“I am proud of our work over the last four years and confident that this team will continue to excel in equitable community and economic development,” Brown said in a statement.
Brown said in an interview that she would announce her next steps in early March and wants to spend the next few weeks wrapping up her work at Commerce. She acknowledged last year that she was considering a run for mayor.
“I have considered that, and I haven’t made a decision about it,” Brown said in a December interview. “And it’s not an easy decision, because this work here at Commerce is really important.”
Before she was appointed, Brown represented the 3rd Legislative District in Spokane in the state House of Representatives from 1993 to 1996, and in the state Senate until 2013. She served as chancellor of Washington State University Spokane from 2013 to 2017.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward announced last July that she would be running for re-election. She said in an interview that she had heard Brown would likely be stepping down from Commerce, but that she did not want to comment on Brown’s possible mayoral run until she officially announced it.
Woodward has already raised more than $82,700, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Brown has clashed with Woodward over the city’s response to homelessness, specifically the Camp Hope encampment in east central Spokane. Brown has criticized Woodward for not doing enough to help those in Camp Hope find housing, while Woodward has criticized Brown for not doing enough at Commerce to combat homelessness.
Brown said the Commerce Department is in the process of asking for more investments into the governor’s right-of-way initiative, which helps get people living in rights-of-way, such as at Camp Hope, into housing.
“I think progress has been really positive there,” Brown said.
Former City Council President Ben Stuckart, who lost the Spokane mayoral race against Woodward in 2019, previously told The Spokesman-Review that he would consider another run this year if Brown did not run. On Monday, Stuckart said he would not be running again to become mayor of Spokane, but that he had not been told definitively whether Brown planned to run.
The state Democratic Party has indicated the Spokane’s mayoral race will be a priority this year, though state party chair Shasti Conrad did not say whom they might be supporting.
“We are definitely really keen on the mayor’s race this year and are going to be active in seeing what we can do to flip that seat,” Conrad said in an interview last week.
Inslee said in a statement Brown has led Commerce through “enormous change” in the last few years. During the pandemic, Brown steered the department through unprecedented levels of relief and funding assistance for local governments, tribes, small businesses, nonprofit organizations and others, he said.
“Lisa is a trailblazer in her own right who has shattered glass ceilings and looks for ways to clear the path for others to succeed, within the agency and among the communities that Commerce serves,” Inslee said in a news release.
Inslee will appoint a replacement for Brown. It’s unclear when Inslee will announce his appointment, but Brown said it will likely be near the end of her time as director.
Brown said the pandemic had a huge effect on Commerce, which led to her pivoting to a role that provided more direct assistance to local jurisdictions.
Looking back at her last four years at Commerce, she said she was proud of the work the department has done to make sure funding is distributed across all regions in the state, and to increase its presence in communities across the state. Brown pointed to an increased Spokane presence and a new Commerce office in the Tri-Cities.
Brown also worked to expand the department’s community engagement and outreach teams, and provide funding for small businesses and entrepreneurs from historically marginalized communities.
“Strengthening communities is Commerce’s mission,” Brown said. “We have a short name and a big toolbox of programs, grants and technical assistance to deploy.”
In her final weeks, Brown said she will be focusing on the legislative session. The Commerce Department has asked for more investments into housing, credit building and support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
S-R reporter Emry Dinman contributed to this report.