I am saddened about the passing on March 7 of retired State Rep. Helen Sommers, who’d been in Hospice care for Alzheimer’s in Florida, where she’d resided for several years. According to her sister with whom I had talked on Sunday, two days prior to Helen’s death, her end was near. Eerily, I'd felt compelled to call her sister to find out how Helen was doing. I’m very glad I did as I brought up her condition at the meeting of the King County Council the next day when I spoke on the Council's National Women's History Month Proclamation. I also spoke about Helen's stellar career representing the 36th Legislative District for 36 years as well as her having worked for decades as an economist for King County. And then she died the next day.
I was honored to have been a seatmate of Helen's as I also represented the 36th Legislative District in the Senate. She was a remarkable person and policymaker with a brilliant mind as well as genuine empathy. In addition, likely not known by many who found her intimidating, she had a wonderful sense of humor, loving to relax and laugh with good friends over wine and oysters.
Missing you, Helen, you irreplaceable you.
Below is what I wrote in Helen’s oral history published in 2010.
When you look back on her 36-year career, it is very memorable and very significant. She was always known for fiscal responsibility and fiscal prudence and was not afraid to stand up to powerful groups on what she believed would be best for the state.
And, with Helen, it’s not so much individual bills she prime-sponsored – and I’m sure there is a very long list of bills she sponsored in her 36 years – but it’s more the stature of Helen Sommers.
What had drawn me to Helen right from the start was her strength of character, which was apparent immediately, along with her strong support of women and her being a mentor of women going into public office. Helen had been one of the founders of the Washington State Chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and was one of the first to convince me to run for public office. In 1988, I was involved as a member of the 36th District Democrats when Helen and Becky Bogard, a friend and lobbyist, asked me to run for the open House seat in the 36th District. That was when Rep. Seth Armstrong had been injured in an automobile accident and did not seek re-election. (Rep. Seth Armstrong served four terms in the House as Helen’s 36th District seatmate, from 1981-89).
Helen had kept a constant lookout for women who she thought would do well in politics and as public policymakers. So I was really honored whenshe asked me to run for the House in 1988. But, unfortunately, I had to decline as the timing didn’t work for me then, and that’s when Larry Phillips decided to run, and he won.
Although I couldn’t run then, it was something I had wanted to do, and having Helen’s support and encouragement really did help me to make that decision to go for the appointment in 1991, when Larry Phillips won his race for King County
Councilmember and resigned his seat.
I was successful in getting the appointment even though it was one of the toughest campaigns I ever had. I was appointed by the King County Council and sworn in on Jan. 13, 1992, the first day of the 1992 session. Washington State had just gone through the process of redistricting when I was appointed.
When I first began as a legislator, a lot of people were intimidated by Helen. She certainly was intimidating to me for a while. Not so much before I went to the Legislature because our friendship was in a different context. But then, when I got to know Helen as a colleague, I grew to have a very positive professional relationship with her. From my observations, she always treated people fairly and respectfully. Whether she was House Democratic Caucus Chair (1992), Appropriations Chair (1994), Ranking Member (1995-98), co-chair (1999-2001), or again as chair of the Appropriations Committee (2001-2009), she was impartial, focusing on the public policy of the legislation, not the politics behind it. She was extremely smart and knowledgeable.
During the three years of the 49-49 tie, Helen would behave the same way – have the same conduct with Democrats and Republicans alike. As co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, she worked well with two Republican co-chairs: Rep. Tom Huff, and in the final year of the three-year tie with Rep. Barry Sehlin.
I remember back in 1993 when I was still in the House, Helen, Gary Locke and I were sitting in the members’ dining room. No one else was around. Gary, who had been Appropriations chair, was leaving the House to become King County Executive.
So, I asked Helen the question with Gary’s leaving, if she would want to stay on as Caucus Chair or go for the Appropriations position? “Oh, of course I would go for Appropriations Committee Chair. There’s no comparison!” And she did the next year
in the 1994 session. But in the November 1994 election, Republicans won the House majority and held it for four years, before the 1999-2001 three-year tie. Then, for the final seven years of her career, (2002-2008), Helen served as chair of Appropriations – and a particularly formidable one!
There’s so much about Helen that most people don’t know. For example, Helen has an absolutely fabulous sense of humor. I think most legislators, most staff and even most lobbyists don’t know that. When she was working in the Legislature, she was all business. But, when you’d be with her off campus at a dinner or a party, she was always a lot of fun. She has a great sense of humor and at social events would let down her hair, crack jokes and laugh constantly. On the job she was so focused on the business end and wouldn’t seem to get distracted easily. She had that ‘Laser-point Focus’ that was constant, and that’s what most people probably saw in her. It was all business, getting the job done and sticking to the agenda.
Helen had a passion for higher education and research. Of course, funding of higher education isn’t mandated in law; it is totally discretionary. But, fortunately, Helen was a great protector of higher education funding. I had served as chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee or was ‘Ranking Minority Member’ for several years, so had helped write the Senate higher education budget. I’d get very frustrated at times because the Senate higher education budget was never up to what my expectations were.
When budgets come out of the House or Senate, first they are designed, to some extent, to establish leverage over the other chamber. In the Senate, we would include less funding for higher education knowing that Helen would make sure the House would come out with a stronger higher education budget. The Senate budget would include more for human services than Helen’s budget would, so it would come out balanced in the end. I was particularly gratified that Helen shared my passion for funding research which brings so much to our state’s economy and, of course, to advancement of our knowledge base. She also could always be counted on for funding of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture on the U.W. Seattle campus.
I know the Legislature and the people of Washington will long feel the loss of Helen Sommers. When people look back on her career, they will undoubtedly view it as exceptionally memorable and significant. It’s not so much the individual bills she prime sponsored, but more the stature of Helen Sommers and what she stood for. She was known for fiscal responsibility, fiscal prudence, and support for higher education. Although she was such a ‘tight steward’ of public funds, she recognized the value of making investments in higher education, for example, and the down-side of not doing so! So, she not only had a breadth of command of issues and the funding area of our state, but also an enormous in-depth understanding of the consequences our funding decisions play in the long-term vitality of the state of Washington.
During the last 10 years or so, Helen became a leader on a new issue for her – the importance of early childhood learning! She talked a lot about the early brain development between birth to age three. She was very focused on providing learning opportunities to the youngest children, and when I observed her, she was unfailingly engaged with children who visited Olympia. So again, she could look beyond just political considerations to what was really important to her. She commanded her own ship really well for a long time as Appropriations Chair, Capital Budget and Higher Education Committees. I think that’s it: the integrity she always maintained, the high regard people throughout the state had for her. Her toughness served her well in the challenges of being chair of the Appropriations Committee, as well as of all the other committees she chaired over her career.
Helen was never afraid to stand up to powerful groups on what she believed would be best for the state – not to do so for political reasons or concern about her own elections, but for her very strong belief in what was best for the state of Washington!
The other thing about Helen – she never seemed to me to try to grab headlines to get praise. Many of us legislators want to make sure we get credit for something we’ve done, but that never seemed important to her. I think that says a lot about her. In fact, she’d seem surprised when people would make a big deal about her and her accomplishments.
Representative Mary Lou Dickerson and I held a farewell party for Helen at my home following the 2008 session. We invited Seattle area House and Senate Democrats and a few others she wanted there, as well. We had a really good turnout and guests took turns talking about Helen. She just sat there quietly, very gracious, and laughed with others. But she seemed continually surprised with so many people paying her accolades.
Helen’s been a wonderful mentor and friend – to me and to a very large number of others.