Jeanne Kohl-Welles. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan King County Council
Jeanne Kohl-Welles. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan King County Council
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Since 1994, Jeanne Kohl-Welles has served residents of Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard as a member of the state Senate. Now, though her role has changed and her tenure in Olympia has come to an end, the area she represents remains relatively static.  

Along with parts of the 32nd, 43rd and 46th legislative districts, Metropolitan King County Council District 4 also includes the entirety of the 36th, “so I’ll still have all my constituents,” Kohl-Welles said. 

On Jan. 1, Kohl-Welles officially joined the County Council, filling the seat vacated by chair Larry Phillips. 

Phillips originally approached Kohl-Welles in spring 2014, she said, asking her to run for his seat should he decide to retire. When that decision came a year later, she consulted with her family and close friends, along with other elected officials. 

“I thought about it for a few days,” she said, “and decided to go for it.”

Phillips said while he still had a passion for the job and struggled with the decision, he came to the conclusion that it was time to “forge a new path for the balance of my life.”

Having worked with Kohl-Welles for several decades — she originally succeeded Phillips in the state House of Representatives in the early 1990s — he thought she would be a good fit for the role. 

“I thought she was very much in-step with the values and the desires of our constituents and worked very, very hard to bring about significant progressive changes,” he said. 

Seven months after announcing her run, Kohl-Welles cruised to an easy victory, taking more than 85 percent of the vote over Republican challenger Rufe Orr to win the seat and a four-year term. 

 

Shifting focus

The transition from the state to the county level comes with plenty of adjustments. 

While cautioning that she’ll learn more as she gets acquainted with the day-to-day operations of the County Council, Kohl-Wells said the biggest difference is likely the scope of the work. 

“In the Legislature, we deal with broad public policy, and at the county, it’s more of an implementation of that policy, as well as addressing that need for that local governance,” she said. 

Kohl-Wells said the work of the county government has been described as dealing with the “nut and bolts,” where the response is more immediate to the issues at hand. 

“Things happen pretty fast at the county level,” she said. 

With the shift in responsibilities on the County Council also comes a different perspective on issues Kohl-Welles has spent years working on in Olympia. 

In particular, Kohl-Welles mentioned her work on medical marijuana policy and how her focus will now change from the broad, statewide implications of legislation to how the new law passed last year will be implemented locally. 

Criminal and juvenile justice are another area Kohl-Welles said she has previously worked broadly on and will now have an opportunity to address more directly at the county level. That includes conversations on the status of the new Children and Family Justice Center.

She also noted her longtime efforts on combatting human trafficking, including the passage of a bill in 2007 that created the new crime of commercial sexual abuse of a minor. Last year, Kohl-Welles sponsored a bill that created a new anti-trafficking task force, one she’ll now serve on as a county representative. 

While she’s worked with the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the Seattle city attorney and various community groups before, she’ll now be tasked with collaborating with those entities from a different position. 

The previous focus on broader public policy has been something Kohl-Welles has liked, and she said she’ll miss working on issues of both K-12 and higher education, both of which fall mostly outside of the county’s jurisdiction. 

Along with working with the “nuts and bolts” of policy, Kohl-Wells said she appreciates that the council is considered a full-time legislative body and is officially nonpartisan. 

Meanwhile, Phillips said he hopes he’s remembered for his work on the protection of natural resources and efforts to maintain the high quality of life in the county as it continues to grow. 

And while he’ll miss the wide variety of public policy issues, he won’t miss the fatigue and the constant frenetic pace. 

“It’s a true retirement for me,” he said. 

Now, he said, he’ll look for a few areas — mentioning climate change, the protection of natural resources and conservation efforts as potential options — to continue working on. 

 

Changing seats

With Kohl-Welles vacating her seat in the Senate, the County Council voted on Jan. 7 on the pair of openings created by her departure. 

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle was the only candidate to formally seek the Senate opening, while six (later five) candidates competed for the recommendation of Democratic precinct committee officers in the 36th District for the House seat left open by Carlyle. 

In that vote, Noel Frame took the top spot on the three-person nominating list submitted to the council, ahead of Jeff Manson and Sarah Reyneveld.

Both Carlyle and Frame were confirmed by a 9-0 vote of the council on Jan. 7 for their respective appointments. 

The Senate seat and both House seats will be up for election in November. 

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