Jeanne Kohl-Welles represented Seattle's 36th District in the Washington State Senate from 1994 to 2015, when she left the legislature after winning election to an open seat on the King County Council. Her career in politics began in 1992 when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in the state House of Representatives. She won election to a two-year term in 1993 and went on to serve as House majority whip in the 1994 legislative session. In October of that year, Governor Mike Lowry appointed her to finish the term of long-serving state Senator Ray Moore (1912-2003), who was forced to resign when it was determined that he was a legal resident of Hawaii. Kohl-Welles (then using the single last name "Kohl") won the seat on her own in the 1994 November election and cruised to victory in every subsequent election until moving to the county council in 2015. A Democrat, she chaired the wide-ranging and powerful Labor, Commerce, & Consumer Protection Committee and sat on the Ways & Means, Judiciary, and Rules committees. In addition to her work as a council member, Kohl-Welles is a sociology lecturer, researcher, author, and consultant at the University of Washington and is an international expert and speaker on human trafficking.
Education and Career
Kohl-Welles was born Jean Elizabeth Pearl Kohl on October 19, 1942, in Madison, Wisconsin. Her father was a real-estate broker and her mother a public school teacher. In 1952 the family moved to Los Angeles, where Kohl attended North Hollywood High and graduated from Polytechnic High School. She enrolled in California State University at Northridge, earning a bachelor's degree in 1965 and a master's degrees in education in 1970. After working as a fourth-grade teacher, Kohl continued her education at UCLA, taking a master's in sociology in 1973 and a Ph.D. in the sociology of education in 1974.
During these years of schooling and work, Kohl married twice and had five children. There were some tough economic times during graduate school, and Kohl, then a single mother, took a variety of part-time teaching jobs at California State University (Fullerton and Long Beach) and other local colleges. Being a single mother and primary provider for her large brood was an experience that would resonate in many of the laws and policies for which she later would become a determined advocate.
In 1972 Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges, was enacted. The law was not to take full effect until 1975, but in 1973 Kohl began advising administrators on implementing the act. While still in graduate school and teaching part-time at California State University at Long Beach, she and one of her college professors formed a company called Sex Role Consultants to assist school districts in preparing to comply with the law. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1974, Kohl became assistant dean of students at UC Irvine, overseeing women's programs and services. From 1978 to 1984 she both taught and worked as an educational-equity specialist for Region IX of the U.S. Dept of Education, advising school administrators in California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Guam, and the Mariana Islands on compliance with Title IX. She also consulted with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, monitoring school-district compliance with nondiscrimination laws and regulations.
In 1985, Kohl and her fiancé, Alex Welles (b. 1945), moved the family to Seattle, settling on the western slope of Queen Anne Hill. She took a part-time job as a lecturer in the women's studies and sociology departments at University of Washington and worked on various research projects. She and Welles married later that year, but it was not until 1996 that she changed her last name to "Kohl-Welles."
Kohl soon got busy in Seattle's political grassroots, working with the 36th District Democrats, and in 1989 she became a member of the board of trustees of the Queen Anne Community Council. During her three years on the council she gained valuable political experience and was a key player in facing up to controversial issues.
In 1990 white supremacists started leaving hate-filled fliers on Queen Anne windshields and violence against gays was finally being recognized as a serious issue. Kohl convened a community-council task force to address malicious harassment and hate crimes, topics that were much less the focus of attention then than they are now.
Kohl also gained valuable insight on the issue of homelessness when she served on a council committee considering a controversial plan to use the abandoned Metro bus barn just east of Seattle Center (the current site of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters) as a shelter. This involved negotiations between strongly competing interests -- neighborhood residents, most of whom opposed the plan; housing advocates, most of whom supported it; shelter providers; and the homeless themselves. Agreement was finally reached, and starting in December 1990 the bus barn was used to house 99 homeless people. This lasted until May of 1991, when the city purchased the defunct Aloha Inn Motel on Aurora Avenue N and opened it for temporary and permanent homeless housing. Kohl would later tell a reporter, "That was a very volatile situation. It was a very good experience for me in terms of a political baptism" (Capestany).
A Start in Government
Kohl-Welles's career in state politics started in 1992 when the King County Council appointed her to replace 36th District Representative Larry Phillips (b. 1956), who had been elected to the King County Council on the 1991 ballot. The district encompasses Magnolia, Queen Anne, Phinney Ridge and parts of Ballard, Crown Hill, the Denny Regrade, Fremont, Greenwood, Lake Union, Loyal Heights, and Sunset Hill. By the time she was required to run in the November 1992 election, Kohl had the advantage of being a one-session incumbent, and she told primary voters that although she was new to the job, she was working hard and deserved a chance to win a full two-year term.
The voters agreed; she handily defeated Mary Lou Dickerson (b. 1946) in the primary, and in the November race she easily outpolled a Republican challenger who was bold enough to oppose her in the safely Democratic 36th. As a woman, Kohl was not alone in her victory. Touted as the "Year of the Woman," 1992 saw elections across the land in which women made political gains, and in few places was the trend as strong as in Washington state. In one notable race, Patty Murray (b. 1950) defeated a popular Republican, Rod Chandler, for a seat in the U.S. senate. Murray had become the Democratic candidate when incumbent Senator Brock Adams
(1927-2004) was forced to withdraw after allegations of sexual misconduct, but her victory in the general election burnished Washington's record as a national leader in entrusting women with powerful political offices.
Since her election to the Senate in 1994, Kohl-Welles, when opposed, consistently won re-election with well over 80 percent of the vote. She regularly received endorsements from educators, labor, women, environmental activists, realtors, public safety workers, and community advocacy organizations. The King County Municipal League consistently rated her "outstanding."
On to the Senate
Kohl's election to the Senate in 1994 came when 36th District Senator Ray Moore (1912-2003) resigned after it was disclosed that he actually lived in Hawaii and thus was not a full-time resident of his legislative district as the law required. In a somewhat petulant resignation letter to Governor Mike Lowry (1939-2017), Moore insinuated that Kohl-Welles had conspired with gay activists to bring him down, this despite the fact that questions about his eligibility began with a Seattle Times investigative piece. He later apologized for his comments.
Kohl-Welles ran unopposed in the primary and won easily against another sacrificial Republican in the general election. Unlike 1992, however, 1994 was not another Year of the Woman, but rather a Year of the Republicans. Democrats managed to retain a majority in the state Senate, but a noisy and conservative Republican majority in the House drove much of the legislative agenda.
Although she had sought and won the position of majority whip while in the House, Kohl-Welles chose in the Senate to concentrate on becoming chair of a meaningful committee on which she could utilize here expertise in social issues and education. The Human Services and Corrections Committee seemed like a good fit, but that chair was taken. Kohl was assigned instead to head the Higher Education Committee, which also dealt with issues for which her background and training would prove valuable.
Kohl-Welles's influence in the Senate was enhanced in 2004 when she became chair of what, under two years of Republican rule, had been called the Commerce & Trade Committee. The committee's brief also encompassed labor matters, something the Republican committee chair was loathe to recognize and failed to acknowledge in the committee's name. Under Kohl-Welles's leadership it was renamed the Labor and Commerce Committee, and then the Labor, Commerce, and Research & Development Committee, and it began to fulfill its mandate in labor issues as well.
This panel, (which in November 2008 was expanded to include consumer matters and renamed the Labor, Commerce, & Consumer Protection Committee), gave Kohl-Welles the opportunity to work on legislation in a range of areas, including consumer law; the regulation of liquor, gambling, horse racing, and the lottery; workers' compensation; unemployment insurance; collective bargaining; and the regulation of certain professions. This would be a full plate for any committee chair, but somehow Kohl-Welles has found time to also be active in the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Center for Women Policy Studies.
A Rich Legislative Record
As a senator and committee chair, Kohl-Welles sponsored legislation addressing a wide range of topics, but some of the most far-reaching measures she fought for reflect her progressive views and sense of social justice. She was particularly effective and foresighted in sponsoring legislation on sexual abuse and harassment, gender equity, human trafficking, and the medical use of marijuana. A small sampling of the legislation that she sponsored or cosponsored over the years, and which has been enacted into law, illustrates her deep commitment to these and other issues:
1993-94 biennium: Kohl-Welles sponsored legislation requiring school districts to establish policies and procedures to prohibit sexual harassment. This topic was barely on the public's radar at the time, and Washington was only the third state in the nation to enact such laws.
1995-1996 biennium: Bills authorizing local governments to designate drug-free zones around parks and recreational areas and setting standards for crib safety to protect infants from injury.
1997-1998 biennium: A law requiring school districts to take additional steps to comply with Title IX; legislation establishing a pilot project to make educational and vocational training opportunities available to criminal offenders.
1999-2000 biennium: Legislation providing disciplinary sanctions for sexual misconduct by employees of custodial agencies; creating a fund to provide high quality, accessible, and affordable child care at higher-education institutions; setting new standards for the investigation of cases of child abuse and neglect; mandating sick leave and leave-sharing for part-time academic employees at community and technical colleges.
2001-2002 biennium: Laws regulating international matchmaking organizations doing business in the state; ensuring the health and safety of newborn infants who have been abandoned and exempting from criminal liability persons who abandon them into the custody of a qualified person.
2003-2004 biennium: Legislation requiring the development and adoption by law enforcement agencies of rules regarding vehicle pursuit; mandating that the sale of all foods on school grounds during regular school hours comply with established nutrition standards; providing increased access to information on disciplinary actions taken against school employees; requiring school employees to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
The 2005-2006 biennium was a busy one for Kohl-Welles. Among other legislation she sponsored were bills requiring the disclosure of information about mold in residential dwelling units; improving services to victims of human trafficking; repealing the crime of "slander of a woman"; placing restrictions on the marketing or merchandising of credit cards to students at the state's colleges and universities; authorizing an independent, nonprofit Washington Academy of Sciences; permitting homeowners' associations to remove all remnants of discrimination, such as racial covenants, from their governing documents.
2007-2008 biennium: Anticipating a problem that would not cause wide concern for some time, Kohl-Welles sponsored legislation requiring cyber bullying to be included in school district harassment-prevention policies. She also put forward bills calling for the development of sexual harassment policies and procedures and mandatory training for all state employees; clarifying the law on medical marijuana; barring employers from attempting to dissuade employees from filing workers' compensation claims; imposing penalties for engaging in the commercial sexual abuse of minors; and creating a wine and beer tasting pilot project in grocery stores.
2009-2010 biennium: Kohl-Welles sponsored legislation protecting health care professionals from liability and prosecution for the authorization of marijuana use to qualifying patients; prohibiting unfair practices in public community athletics programs by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex; requiring persons licensed to practice medicine, psychologists, mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and social workers to receive training on the issue of human trafficking; requiring standards for and the certification of treatment facilities for problem and pathological gamblers; allowing the delayed prosecution of certain sex offenses committed against minors until the victim's 28th birthday; and imposing humane requirements on certain dog-breeding practices in so-called "puppy mills."
In the 2011 session, enacted legislation sponsored by Kohl-Welles included bills authorizing funding to house victims of human trafficking and their families; regulating the handling of hazardous drugs such as chemotherapy agents; and temporarily modifying the unemployment insurance program to address current economic conditions.
The progressive nature of much of the legislation Kohl-Welles sponsored over the years in the legislature led to her being characterized by Republicans as an archetypal "Seattle liberal." But her support for many causes has often been informed more by personal experience than political dogma.
Her efforts to allow the use of medical marijuana, for instance, were spurred in large part by the experience of a friend who, dying from cancer, found some relief from her pain and suffering by smoking marijuana. This led Kohl-Welles to investigate the merits of the issue. Based on what she learned, she become a key player behind the successful initiative in 1998 that legalized patient access to marijuana, and she has worked in the Senate to ensure that the law protects both health-care providers and patients from prosecution. Her expertise has made her a nationally recognized expert on the reform of cannabis laws, and long before its recreational use became legal she sponsored legislation that made possession of moderate amounts of marijuana a civil, rather than criminal, infraction.
Even more directly, Kohl-Welles's years as a single mother of five children contributed to her strong advocacy for day-care availability and for protecting children from exploitation and harm. As long ago as 1988, she received a federal grant to study child sexual-abuse laws and prevention programs in the schools of various states. By the mid-1990s she was recognized as a court-qualified expert on sexual harassment, sex discrimination, bullying, and child sexual abuse, and has been a frequent speaker at conferences on those subjects. Again, she proved to be a trailblazer on an issue that had not yet received widespread recognition. As she recalls:
"It was difficult convincing my colleagues of the need [for tighter hiring standards and penalties for school employees who engage in sexual misconduct] until The Seattle Times' "Coaches Who Prey" investigative series was published in December, 2003. Overnight, the public and my legislative colleagues understood and my legislation was enacted in the 2004 session ..." (Municipal League).
Human trafficking is another topic in which Kohl-Welles's professional expertise informed her actions as a legislator, and this is one area in which she had broad support from Republicans, including Attorney General Rob McKenna (b. 1962). She has been an invited speaker on trafficking at workshops and conferences around the country and in foreign lands, including Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Brazil, Chile, and the Ukraine. Her efforts have had wide impact -- her 2002 bill regulating international matchmaking organizations doing business in this state was later used as a model for the federal International Marriage Brokers Regulations Act, introduced in 2003 by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (b. 1958) and Rep. Rick Larsen (b. 1965) and signed into law in 2006.
Of course, not every piece of legislation that Kohl-Welles sponsored in the Senate became law. Bills she introduced on such subjects as gun control, voting rights for felons, and embryonic cell research failed to gain sufficient support to reach the governor's desk. In 2009, she took the bold step of sponsoring legislation that would have levied a 1-percent income tax on those making more than $500,000 a year, which also ran into stiff opposition and failed to pass.
Moving to the County Council
On April 8, 2015, Kohl-Welles announced that she would be leaving the legislature to run for the District 4 position on the King County Council made open by the retirement of Larry Phillips, whom she had been appointed to replace in the House of Representatives back in 1992 when he first won the council seat. In announcing her candidacy, she said:
“It’s been an incredible privilege, honor and pleasure representing my constituents for the last 23 years in Olympia in what has been the most significant work of my career. On the Metropolitan King County Council, I’ll bring forth the same values and tackle the same issues, as well as income inequality, racial disproportionality in the criminal and juvenile-justice systems, environmental sustainability, and transportation choices” ("State Sen. Kohl-Welles to Run ... ")
Her opponent in the 2015 council race, Rufe Orr, raised little money, and Kohl-Welles easily won the election to succeed Phillips.
Awards and Honors
Jeanne Kohl-Welles's work both before and after entering political life has brought her widespread recognition and multiple awards and honors. Just a few among the many that have come her way are:
- Legislator of the Year, Humane Society of the U.S. (2010)
- Planned Parenthood Shining Star (May 2009)
- Ancil Payne Leadership Award, Washington CeaseFire (2007)
- Public Policy Official Recognition, Jewish Federation of Seattle and King County (2007)
- Louise Miller Arts Advocacy Award, Washington State Arts Alliance (2007)
- Legislator of the Year, Progressive States Network (2007)
- Legislator of the Month (human trafficking legislation), Center for Policy Alternatives, June 2005
- Queen Anne Citizen of the Decade, Queen Anne/Magnolia News, November 2002
- Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Women’s Conference Circle (1995-98)
- YouthCare Advocate of the Year (1995)
- Woman of Achievement Award, Business and Professional Women -- Washington State (1995).
Family, Work, Philosophy
In addition to her chairmanship, Kohl-Welles was a member of the Ways & Means, Judiciary, and Rules committees in the state Senate, and when the legislature was not in session she worked as a sociology lecturer and researcher at the University of Washington and as an author and consultant. She currently lives on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle with her husband.
Commenting on being a legislator in an era of deep public cynicism about politics and politicians, Kohl-Welles once said:
"I believe strongly, even passionately, that my serving as a legislator is my calling. Although it may appear to be a cliché, I genuinely believe that it is a privilege, a blessing, and an honor. It’s also an enormous responsibility that I do not take lightly or for granted. Being in a position to effect social change, to make a difference in people’s lives, to inspire young people to become public servants, and to facilitate and take part in finding solutions to complex problems all bring immense gratification to me ... .
"As Chair of the Senate Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee (LCCP), arguably the most difficult policy committee in the Senate, I believe I am regarded by our Republican and Democratic members, as well as staff and stakeholders, as being a fair, respectful and effective leader, promoting participation among all members and in achieving agreements as much as possible to particularly thorny legislation. It doesn’t get any more challenging than trying to forge agreements between organized labor and corporations/business owners, very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats, as is needed in issues before LCCP!" (Municipal League).