After 21 years in legislature, Representative Helen Sommers becomes chair of House Appropriations Committee on January 10, 1994.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 7/06/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11076

On January 10, 1994, Democratic State Representative Helen Sommers (b. 1932) of Seattle's 36th District, is appointed chair of the House Appropriations Committee by Speaker Brian Ebersole (b. 1947). It is a position for which she is eminently qualified but had sought without success for much of her more than two decades in the legislature. The seat becomes available when fellow Democrat Gary Locke (b. 1950), who held the position, is elected King County Executive and resigns his seat in the House mid-term. Sommers will hold the chairmanship for only one year before the Republicans capture a majority in the House in 1995 and she will not regain sole possession until the Democrats again take control in 2002. Sommers will then preside over the committee until her retirement in 2008, the second-longest-serving representative in the history of the House.

The Start of a Long Career

After working for the Mobil Oil Company in Caracas, Venezuela, for 14 years, Helen Sommers, a New Jersey native, moved to Seattle in 1968, enrolled at the University of Washington, and quickly earned bachelor's and master's degrees in economics. She soon became involved in the League of Women Voters, served as second president of the Seattle-King County chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and in 1972 was elected first president of that group's statewide chapter. A self-described "born feminist," Sommers spoke publicly and often against economic discrimination based on sex and soon became an influential voice for women's rights. This, and her credentials in economics, won her appointment to the newly formed Seattle Women's Commission in 1971, and soon after to a tax-reform commission established by Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925).

While serving as an analyst and administrative assistant for the King County Council, Sommers found a political mentor in Councilmember Bernice Stern (1916-2007). In 1972, with the encouragement of Stern, the League of Women Voters, and NOW, she challenged longtime Republican Representative Gladys Kirk (1903-1974) for the 36th District House seat that Kirk had held for since 1956. Sommers won by a comfortable margin, becoming the first Democratic representative elected in the 36th since 1944.

Very few states have full-time, well-paid legislators with large staffs. When Sommers first entered the House it was a body that met only every two years in regular session, although under Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), who served from 1965 to 1977, special sessions in off years were routine. Regular annual sessions began in 1980, mandated by a constitutional amendment, and legislators for the first time received the assistance of full-time, professional staff. Long considered a part-time legislature, it became, in the year Sommers was first elected, a hybrid, neither full-time as in California, New York, and Pennsylvania, nor truly part-time, as is common in many states, particularly those with smaller populations.

Annual sessions and relatively low pay (set since 1986 by a Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials) requires most Washington legislators to have a high degree of time flexibility and second source of income. Sommers, for example, remained an employee of the King County Council during her first 12 years in the legislature, taking a leave of absence to campaign. These factors have tended to result a legislature heavily populated by attorneys, business owners and executives, and the retired. A 2007 survey of legislators nationwide listed 24 occupations and the percentage represented by each in state legislatures. "Economist" was not even included as a category. Although it is difficult to determine now, it is possible that Helen Sommers was the only state legislator in 1972 with a solid educational and work background in economics. Her expertise was recognized immediately when House speaker Leonard Sawyer (b. 1925) appointed her vice-chair of the House Revenue Committee, an unusual honor for a new member.

Putting Expertise to Work

Quite early in her legislative career, Sommers tackled an issue that was long overdue for resolution -- the shambolic condition of the State's public-pension system, which was deeply in debt and widely abused. It was a task that could have been designed to make enemies. Many public employees, particularly police officers and firefighters, were "double-dipping," retiring or going on disability from one government job, then taking another, which qualified them for two separate pensions. The system was facing bankruptcy and something needed to be done.

In 1975 a controversial pension-reform bill that was in significant part informed by Sommers's expertise came to the House floor. Supporters believed they had the bare 50 votes needed for passage, but then Ken Eikenberry (b. 1932), a Republican who occupied the Position 2 seat in the 36th District, unexpectedly voted against the bill, and it failed. He followed up this switch by announcing in 1976 that he would abandon his safe House seat and try to oust Sommers from Position 1. Their respective pension-reform votes were a major campaign issue, Sommers prevailed, and Eikenberry was out. He was replaced in his abandoned Position 2 seat by Joe Taller, a less confrontational Republican, and pension reform was passed in the 1977 session (the legislature, until 1980, met only once every two years in regular session).

Gender, Personality, Politics

By almost any measure -- education, intelligence, expertise, diligence -- Helen Sommers qualified for leadership in the legislature. But she had two primary factors working against her, one that diminished within a few years, and one that would take a little longer. The first was sexism, plain and simple. In 1973, the year Sommers first came to the House, it was still very much a boys' club, and she was one of only 12 women members in the 98-seat body. At least in part due to her example, this number would, with occasional setbacks, increase almost every session thereafter during Sommers's time in the House, and reached a high when 40 women were elected in 1993 and again in 1996. As their numbers increased, sexism, or at least overt sexism, faded. First the voters and then legislative colleagues came to realize that women were the equal of men in intelligence, diligence, and political skill, and that they brought a perspective to the job that had been lacking in their absence.

The second factor holding back Sommers was both more personal and less tractable. She took her role as a legislator very seriously, found very few occasions for levity, and was openly intolerant of the sort of horse-trading that for so many years had greased the legislative skids in Olympia. She was not unaware of the effect her difficult personality had on her colleagues or on her advancement. As she told a Seattle reporter in 1985,

"My style is different. I don't operate on the basis of favors. If I don't like a bill, I won't change my mind just because someone really wants it ... . Clearly, I'm outspoken. And I'm impatient, too. But women aren't supposed to say strong things. They aren't supposed to be impatient'' ("Helen Sommers' Talents Wasted ...").

As a result, Sommers was never as popular with her colleagues in the legislature as she was with the voters who sent her there year after year, often by huge margins. The House Democratic leadership, sensitive to the opinions of its caucus members, consistently appointed male members to committee chairmanships that Sommers was, by almost any objective measure, more qualified to hold. She was characterized, even by friends, as brusque, abrasive, impatient, nearly impervious to persuasion, and intolerant of the old-boy traditions of the House. Her grasp of complex economic issues was never in doubt, but her perceived inability to work in harmony with many of her colleagues, even those in her own party, was a strong barrier to success in the internal give-and-take of House politics.

Of course, the leadership could not completely deny Sommers her due, and over the years she chaired several House committees, including the State Government Committee and the Revenue, Higher Education, and Capital Budget committees. But the position she always wanted most was to head the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which as it name indicates was responsible for providing, largely through setting tax policy, the ways and means to finance government operations and programs. At least one chairmanship she was given seemed almost designed to cause her political pain. In 1985 Sommers was appointed to head the Legislative Budget Committee, which sat in judgment of state-funded programs and agencies and recommended whether they should continue or be modified or terminated, a job that put her on a collision course with, among others, the state ferry-workers' union.

Time after time Sommers would openly campaign in the Democratic caucus for leadership positions. In 1980, with the House in a 49-to-49 tie, she tried and failed to become Democratic caucus chair. In 1981, with the Democrats in the minority, she made a late effort to become minority leader, and was again defeated. In 1982, after elections that put Democrats back in the majority for the 1983 session, she waged a campaign to become chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, but it was given to Representative Dan Grimm (b. 1945) of Puyallup, who was her junior in tenure and lacked her deep expertise in budget matters. She found this defeat particularly galling, telling The Seattle Times, "I didn't believe it was possible that such an unfair thing could happen -- that a rank beginner would be picked over someone with my experience'' ("Helen Sommers' Talents Wasted ...").

Success, at Last

As things turned out, Sommers never would become head of ways and means, because in 1987 a new Democratic House speaker, Joe King, divided it into three separate committees -- appropriations, revenue, and capital budget. With ways and means no longer an option, Sommers switched her sights and campaigned in 1989 to be appointed chair of the Appropriations Committee. But King appointed Representative Gary Locke instead, giving Sommers the chair of the Capital Budget Committee. Sommers's disappointment was tempered somewhat by her friendship with Locke and her respect for his intelligence and diligence, and they were able to work well together during his tenure.

Finally, in 1993, the door opened for Sommers to take the job she had waited many years to get. Locke was elected King County Executive and resigned from the House mid-term. When the legislature reconvened on January 10, 1994, the House Appropriations Committee had a new chair -- Helen Sommers. It was a testament both to her stubbornness and to at least a slight softening of personality. Shortly after assuming the seat, she told a reporter, with some self-deprecation and a small smile, "I have exactly the wrong personality for this job. I’m impatient. I’m blunt. I’m candid. I’m told I don’t smile enough." Sommers was never short of self-awareness, but the smile marked a change. The article went on to say:

"By her own measure, Sommers, 61, has had 'the rough edges beaten off me' in several failed attempts to win leadership posts. Colleagues say she spends more time cajoling and soliciting their ideas, less time skewering them with figures and policy arguments. And she laughs more" ("After Two Decades, Helen Sommers Rises to Prominence ...").

In, Out, and In Again

Sommers's first stint as chair of appropriation would be short, and her return to full authority long delayed. In the November 1994 elections the Republicans captured the House, winning 62 seats to the Democrats 36. After less than a year in the appropriations chair, Sommers was now just the ranking minority member on the committee. What she had wanted for so long Republican voters snatched away in a matter of months. The GOP would retain control of the House from 1995 through 1998 while Sommers waited, more or less patiently, for her turn to come around again.

In 1999, 2000, and 2001 the House was evenly divided, 49 to 49, and Sommers's cup was half full, or half empty, as she shared the chair of the Appropriations Committee with Republicans. In 2002 the Democrats wrested back a razor-thin majority of 50 to 48 in the House, and she again took sole possession. The Democrats increased their margin in the House for the next two election cycles, and Sommers kept the appropriations chair that she had fought so long to capture and which so closely fit her expertise. She was still there in 2008 when she announced that, after 36 years serving the 36th District, she would retire from politics. With the single exception of the legendary John L. O'Brien (1911-2007), Helen Sommers was the longest-serving representative, male or female, in the history of that body.


Sources: Helen Sommers, an Oral History: 1973-2009 (Olympia: Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, 2010); "Full- and Part-Time Legislatures," National Conference of State Legislatures website accessed June 5, 2015 (http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/full-and-part-time-legislatures.aspx); "Legislators' Occupations In All States," National Conference of State Legislatures website accessed June 5, 2015 (http://www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/legislator-occupations-national-data.aspx); Walter Hatch, "Helen Sommers' Talents Wasted, Allies Complain," The Seattle Times, April 24, 1985, p. D-1; Jim Simon, "After Two Decades, Helen Sommers Rises to Prominence, Scowl and All," Ibid., March 10, 1994, p. A-1; Andrew Garber and Ralph Thomas, "Sommers to Leave Legislature -- Appropriations Chair Retiring After 36 Years," Ibid., March 12, 2008, p. B-2; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Sommers, Helen Elizabeth (b. 1932)" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 5, 2015).

Related Topics:   Government & Politics | Women's History

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