Remembering Helen Sommers

Longtime 36th Rep. served for nearly four decades

Only one legislator in the history of the state of Washington served in the Legislature for longer than Helen Sommers.

For 36 years, she represented the 36th Legislative District in the House of Representatives, serving as chair of the House Appropriations Committee for a decade before retiring in 2008.

The Seattle lawmaker passed away earlier this month at the age of 84.

Sommers is being remembered by her colleagues for her fiscal acumen on state budget dealings, her commitment to education, and her feminist roots, along with efforts to help elect more women to office.

She first arrived in Seattle in the late 1960s, after nearly 15 years in Venezuela, working with Mobil Oil in Caracas. A co-worker had encouraged her to take correspondence courses from the University of Washington, and took summer classes on campus for two years before deciding to move to the city. She later earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the university.  

Sommers soon became involved in the women’s rights efforts of the early 1970s, leading the Seattle-King County chapter, and later the statewide chapter of the National Organization for Women, in addition to work with the League of Women Voters.

“She was a feminist before anyone in Washington State was talking about feminists,” said current 36th District Rep. Gael Tarleton.

Not long after, she received encouragement to seek public office, and challenged Rep. Gladys Kirk in an effort to become the first Democrat from the 36th District since the 1930s.

According to an oral history interview Sommers did in 2009, she doorbelled a precinct per day (there were 109 total), seven days a week in her first campaign.

“Queen Anne and Magnolia are very, very hilly,” she said. “I spent every day walking up those hills to reach as many voters as I could. I campaigned hard and met a lot of people and I won their support. I didn’t have much money to finance my race, so I made up for it with hard work.”

The hard work paid off, and Sommers became one of just 12 women in the 98-member House (there were no women in the Senate at that time).

In her nearly four decades in Olympia, those margins shifted, with the state eventually having the highest percentage of female legislators in the nation.

One of Sommers’ lasting accomplishments was her work on the state’s public-pension system, helping to pass pension reform in the late 70s for a system that had been abused and in deep debt when she arrived in Olympia. The state’s pension system is now regularly considered among the best-funded in the country.

“We have one of the strongest pension systems in the nation, and it is directly attributable to Helen,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle. “Our systems are well-funded, the core financial integrity of our investment board and our investments are managed efficiently.”

Carlyle also recalled her commitment to financial responsibility.

“She had just a fabulous sense of fiscal responsibility and she treated every penny from the taxpayer as if it was the last,” he said. “She just really cared about spending the public money wisely.”

When Carlyle succeeded her in the House, he said her outgoing request was that he keep a watchful eye on higher education.

“She was very focused on higher education, and she asked me with a genuine sense of sincerity to really watch out for the University of Washington,” he said. “To just recognize the role that it plays in the economy and that it plays in giving kids from the district and from the city and from the state something to aspire to.”

In 2008, she received the first (and thus far only) Regents Medal from the UW Board of Regents, which cited her pension reform work, along with her efforts which led, in part, to the establishment of branch campuses by the state’s two major public universities, and her support of state funding of university research.

Her legacy is also likely to live on in a more concrete way as well.

An measure to name a new capitol campus building in Olympia — one that will house the Washington State Patrol, the Office of Financial Management and several other legislative agencies — after Sommers passed the House last month, and Carlyle said he’s “cautiously optimistic” it will garner Senate approval as well. It would be the first building named in honor of a woman on the capitol campus in the history of the state.

It’s a fitting tribute for someone who took a keen interest in the campus. She brought a UW arborist to the campus in the early 1990s to identify and photograph the trees on the site, with the results later turned into a booklet for self-guided tours.

“That’s what building opening I want to be at, when it is named for Helen Sommers,” Tarleton said. “She loved this state, and we are lucky to have had her represent us.”

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