Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, a child of migrant workers, served eight terms in the Washington State House of Representatives. Her parents came to America in 1919 from Mexico, and from the age of 5 Kenney worked in the fields with her seven brothers and sisters to help support her family. She went on to found the Washington Migrant Council and the Farm Workers Health Clinics. Kenney was appointed to her House seat in the 46th district in 1997 and was first elected in 1998. She continued to represent the 46th District as a Democrat through 2012, serving as chair of the Community Development and Housing Committee and sitting on the Labor and Workforce Development and Ways and Means committees.
School, Work, and Marriage
Phyllis Gutiérrez Kenney was born in Hardin, Montana, in 1936. Her parents were migrant farm workers, both born in Mexico, and came to the United States in 1919. All eight of the Gutiérrez children were born in different areas as their family followed the harvests across the country. In 1942, the Gutiérrez family moved to Washington state, and Kenney, the second youngest of the children, grew up in the Yakima Valley, in Wapato, Washington. Her parents worked in the agricultural fields of Eastern Washington to support the family, often joined by the children. Kenney recalls:
"At the age of five, I started working in the potato fields. They used to do everything by hand those days, so I was what they used to call the 'vine shaker,' to get the potatoes off the vine so my brother could pick faster" (Kershner interview).
Still, her parents made sure that the two youngest Gutiérrez children had the benefit of stable schooling. "I was lucky," Kenney says. "Because no matter what, my younger brother and I went to school. We never missed. My mother wanted to make sure, at least, we got an education" (Kershner interview).
This was no small feat, growing up in the ever-shifting world of migrant work, and the older Gutiérrez children were prevented from getting to higher grades because of the challenges of moving and providing for the family. Their rural housing didn't make it easy, either. "Usually it was pretty far from the school bus or the school," says Kenney. "You know, especially in cold places. My sister, the story goes, got frostbitten trying to walk so far to go to school. It was a pretty difficult life for them" (Kershner interview).
After the family settled in Wapato, Kenney's father became the manager of a restaurant and bar in the area. But he died when Kenney was young, most likely of causes related to his work as a younger man in the coal mines of North Dakota.
Kenney continued working after high school. Her mother -- now a single mother of eight -- had become something of an entrepreneur, and she opened the first Mexican restaurant in Wapato. Kenney worked at the restaurant and attended Columbia Basin College when time afforded. In 1955 she met her future husband, Larry Kenney. They married and moved to the Tri-Cities that same year. It was there that civic issues and political causes became an abiding interest for her.
Kenney was active in her community's Catholic church, and she later took her involvement to a political level by working with the Democratic Party in the area. She worked her way up to become a precinct committee officer. Her work with migrant affairs and social issues let to the founding of the Washington Migrant Council.
"There wasn't anything available for migrant parents, and yet that's one of our major industries. So a group of us got together and opened up some daycares" (Kershner interview).
The council grew to support migrant families by providing programs like Early Head Start, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Kenney also founded the Educational Institute for Rural Families. The daycare-type setting is for children from one month old on, with an educational program as well. "It's an early childhood education program for migrant children," Kenney explains (Kershner interview).
Along with her work with children's issues, Kenney also started the Farm Worker Health Clinics, which provide healthcare to farm workers and low-income families. "I still look at it very strongly that we are a crisis-oriented society," Kenney says of the program. "These health clinics are preventive" (Kershner interview). She points out that these clinics are not just benefiting illegal workers, but also legal workers without access to healthcare. Kenney points out
"This is an industry, like Microsoft or Boeing or other businesses that have benefits, so we saw a great need for having something to provide some service to them" (Kershner interview).
In 1976, Kenney and her family moved to the 46th district of North Seattle. She worked for the state at the Employment Security department as assistant commissioner and developed a program that gave ex-offenders scholarships for secondary education. This and similar programs are still operating throughout the country. During this time, Kenney also was a small-business owner, running "Felipa's on 45th," a consignment store near Seattle's University District.
In 1985, Kenney was appointed by Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) to the Seattle Community College District Board of Trustees. She served until 1998, including as chair.
A Political Life
In 1996 Kenney ran for secretary of state and was defeated by Republican Ralph Munro. But her campaign caught the attention of Governor Mike Lowry
(1939-2017), who in 1997 appointed her to fill Ken Jacobsen's House seat in the 46th district, left empty when Jacobsen was appointed to a vacant seat in the state Senate. The next year, Kenney was elected to her seat with 70 percent of the vote, defeating Don Arnold, a former Boeing business manager.
Kenney's record shows an intense interest in education issues and migrant workers' rights. HB 1079, sponsored by Kenney, was a 2003 bill that allowed young illegal residents of the U.S. who were graduating from high school to receive in-state college tuition if certain criteria were met. This legislation was a precursor to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM), a federal bill that would grant in-state tuition to undocumented resident students, as well as providing a path to full citizenship. The latest version of the DREAM Act is still awaiting a vote in the United States Senate.
Kenney was also instrumental in expanding the Opportunity Grant program, which cover the cost of schooling, supplies, books, transportation, child care, and some other living expenses for low-income adults who are attending school or technical training. Kenney cites an 80 percent graduation rate as evidence of the program's success.
The Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program, which was started at South Seattle Community College with the help of Kenney, allows students to learn basic skills and training while earning credit toward a certificate or degree. The I-BEST program has been cited by President Obama (b. 1961) for its effectiveness.
Kenney served as chair of the Community Development and Housing Committee and also on the Labor and Workforce Development and Ways and Means committees. In 2010, she was given the Outstanding Advocate for Equity Award by the Washington state Trustees Association of Community and Technical Colleges, which cited her "long-term commitment to access and success for students and for her work as an effective voice for the Latino community in Washington state" (Seattle Colleges website).
Kenney recognized that being one of the few Latina representatives set her apart:
"Being a minority and a woman, I think we're still always trying to work harder because we know we have to do better, and it's still -- I feel -- not an equal playing field" (Kershner interview).
Yet she believed that her work must encompass a broader goal:
"When you're a legislator, you're really representing the whole state. When you sponsor a bill and that bill passes, it affects the whole state" (Kershner interview).
Kenney continued to represent the 46th district through the 2012 legislative session. She did not seek re-election that year, retiring after eight terms. She and her husband, Larry Kenney, who died in 2013, raised 10 children.