Washington’s Disappearing Lawmakers


Unusually high numbers of Washington lawmakers are turning their backs on the state legislature — deciding to retire or seek a post somewhere else. While turnover is not uncommon, the record number of departures (pegged at nearly two dozen) will shake up this year’s elections, create races for open seats, and affect the makeup of the 2023 Legislature.

Losses include a number of veterans whose experience and expertise will be much missed. That includes 36th District Sen. Reuven Carlyle, 46th District Sen. David Frockt , 18th District Sen. Ann Rivers, and 34th District Rep. Eileen Cody. Rep. Cody has served since 1995 and has long been known as a champion of health care issues.

Equally confounding is the exodus of newer lawmakers of color, including 37th District Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, 30th District Rep. Jesse Johnson, and 47th Sen. Mona Das. After once being hailed as stars of diversity, they’ve opted not to seek reelection.

Why are they quitting after the legislature’s productive 60-day session? Rep. Johnson cited burnout and family reasons for his departure – he’s a brand new dad and his wife is working on a medical residency. A former Federal Way city councilmember, Rep. Johnson has been outspoken on issues related to police advocacy, education, and economic development. During his brief tenure (appointed in January, 2020 and elected in November of that same year) he has had to deal with death threats and many nasty emails. 

In deciding not to seek another term, Rep. Das singled out family and financial considerations, as did Rep. Harris-Talley. More than others who are departing, Harris-Talley was critical of the legislature’s “toxic work environment.” She told the South Seattle Emerald that, as a Black queer woman, she initially had high hopes, serving in a legislature with increased minority and LGBTQ members. Instead she felt “betrayed, othered, dismissed, and ignored.” She criticized House leadership, asserting that those in charge were “looking for a place to put you to shut you up.” 

Along with other state legislators, these soon-to-depart legislators expressed dissatisfaction and frustration with the need to work remotely during the pandemic. Even in normal times, the job taxes patience with its slow, grind-it-out process. Rep. Johnson, for one, favors moving to a full-time legislative body like California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. For Olympia, that would require a constitutional amendment, since Washington’s constitution specifies a 105-day session in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even years.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins responded to the criticisms pointing out that turnover isn’t unusual, noting that “people experience things differently.” Her dismissal of concern contrasts with that of former Speaker Frank Chopp, who ran a tight ship and worked hard to recruit, coach, and retain the House Democratic majority.

The departures have spurred discussions about reforms. Lt. Governor Denny Heck recently highlighted the need for a “material” boost in legislative salaries. While the job is nominally “part-time,” there are almost full-time responsibilities. Heck pointed out that the 147 members serve the state as a “board of directors of a $60-billion corporation responsible for roads, education and social service.”

In this state, legislative salaries are set by a citizens’ group, the Washington Commission on Salaries for Elective Office.  Annual pay currently is $56,881 with a $120 per diem expense; in July that will increase to $57,876. (The House speaker and majority and minority leaders receive several thousand more.) Washington salaries rank around 10th highest compared to other legislative bodies. Nationally, legislators’ pay ranges from $0 for New Mexico to California’s $114,000.

At one time, this state’s salaries may have been ample, particularly when firms like Boeing supplemented take-home pay for company employees elected to public office. Retirees and professionals can afford to take on the job, as can those who hold down flexible, well-paid outside jobs. But the pay scale is problematic for legislators who must devote nearly-full-time hours and struggle to maintain family and child care responsibilities. Rep. Liz Berry (D-36), co-chair of the House Democratic Mom’s Caucus, said, “It’s not easy to serve and be a mom.” Perhaps it’s time to consider some way to improve conditions for lawmakers with young families.                                                                                                                                            

One other reform that ought to be under consideration is staff pay and working conditions at the Legislature. Washington legislators often have only one full-time staffer in their offices. Those staffers contend with long hours, sub-optimal working conditions, and minimal benefits. In February, some 80 staffers — 50 from the house and 30 from the Senate — called in sick for the day to protest their lack of civil service coverage. The legislative bill that would give staffers the right to unionize, first introduced in 2012, failed once again to make it out of committee.

State legislators have enormous power to decide the future of all the state’s citizens. Yet, due to relatively low legislative salaries and a failure to address the concerns of lawmakers and their assistants, the very people most impacted by legislative policies are the ones who are being shut out of the opportunity to serve. 

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.


  1. This is so discouraging. I was so sorry to learn that my district is losing Kirsten Harris-Talley. She is a brilliant and committed public servant who has been slogging uphill through the partisan sludge that is clogging state legislatures all over the country these days. The practice of stifling people in order to further the culture wars instead of welcoming their expertise, knowledge, and enthusiasm into the process will be the end of good government.
    And yes, pay them a living wage for taking on a job that is much more than a part-time gig.

  2. Thank you Jean!
    I hate to admit that we’ve just poured a ton of money into worthy but causes at this cost.

  3. I’m not sure why this post tries to turn a positive into a negative. Elected officials getting out of government is a good thing. It gives other citizens a chance to serve. We don’t need a bunch of stale old octogenarians clogging up the Washing legislature like the other Washington.

    Kirsten Harris-Talley is a really smart and capable women. She’s going to be a shining star no matter what she’s doing. I wish her well. Thank her for her service and welcome the next rising star.

    And I’d love $56,000 for working 60 days. Really. I’ll pick of trash along the State highways for 105 days for that kind of money. Public service means service… it’s not capitalism.

  4. The young legislators are leaving because they realized it was not public service, it was serving lobbyists’ demands. The old ones are leaving because they understand their years of serving that slate of lobbyists created state and local governments’ fiscal, development, etc. policies that unduly harm the most vulnerable and exacerbate inequities.

  5. Former Speaker Frank Chopp was intent on protecting his slim majority in the House by staying an ally for his incumbents. This meant avoiding the kind of tough votes that would get Democrats in trouble in swing districts, particularly by avoiding any votes on raising taxes, restricting guns, and tampering with abortion laws. And he saw that the candidates he recruited were given committees where they could shine and serve their districts. I wonder if the new Speaker is as attentive to the needs of junior members of the House delegation. I also think the new regime, helped by a larger majority, is accomplishing more than the cautious Chopp years.

    • Accomplishing more? Not much chance of the Democratic-Socialists doing that!

      Look at this way. The Republicans own the State Government in Idaho. The Democrats own the State Government in Washington. Working class folks can’t afford a house in either State, both States have the same environmental disasters lurking in the near future and addiction issues have torn apart the social fabric. So what are the political parties going to do? Idaho is going to outlaw abortion (unsuccessfully) and Washington State is going outlaw guns (unsuccessfully).

      Nothing is going to change.

  6. There are so many errors and omissions in this post that it is depressing.

    Senator Ann Rivers is in the 18th LD, not the 30th. A bigger error? The bill, HB 2124, that allows legislative staff to unionize passed the House 56-41 and the Senate 28-20b it was signed by Governor Inslee on March 31.

    While losing three first-term legislators, especially BIPOC ones, may raise eyebrows, the backstory deserves observation and is illustrative for future members. Mona Das was being investigated for numerous ethical violations. Kirsten Harris-Talley, she of ginormous ego (constantly reminding her colleagues that she served on the Seattle City Council – all of a few weeks – which could be viewed as kiss of death when other legislators look at the SCC as how-not-to-legislate) “othered” herself by making demands of leadership few freshman would even consider. Jesse Johnson, (poorly) wrote police reform legislation widely criticized as going too-far, some of which was repealed. Rep. Johnson did have the most plausible excuse for “retiring”, needing to co-parent a toddler while his wife is in medical residency.

    Yes, legislative pay is pathetic, for legislators and staff alike. Despite what some believe (looking at you, “tacomee”), this is no 60 day/105 day job. Meetings are held year-round, especially for legislators on Joint Committees like Transportation and JLARC. Constituents contact legislators all year long, and organizations invite these legislators to participate in any number of policy, political, and outreach events.

    We can, and should, grieve the loss of true leaders like Senators Reuven Carlyle and David Frockt, and even Ann Rivers (a relatively moderate Republican who had often publicly sparred with wingnut and Trump-appointee Don Benton). Those currently running to fill their shoes lack the intellectual rigor, courage, and independence of their predecessors.

    Today opens “Filing Week”. It is not too late to seek out better candidates, and then to spend the next 78 days supporting them through the Primary.

    • 60K is an awful amount of money for a “side gig”. The reality is that serving in State government is very profitable for a law practice or real estate developer. I’m not giving my tax dollars to successful business people who are already rich.

      I doubt Ann Rivers ever really cared much about the money…… there’s a woman who knows what public service is….

      And Yes!!! Yes!!! Yes!!! to better candidates. I hate how the Democratic machine picks pols starting out on school boards and they daisy chain from office to office. We deserve better.

      • School Board Directors rarely advance to the legislature. There are a couple, but very few run for higher office after serving in the worst elected public service role in the state. You often spout off such declarations as “the Democratic Party does ____”, entirely devoid of actual practice.

  7. Thanks to a correction by the commentator, we can be aware that the bill giving legislative staff ability to organize did pass this year and the governor signed it into law. Good for them. Now it is up to the staff to organize and bargain a good contract. A Legislature with better compensated staff could be a great benefit.

  8. I love this site.

    I wonder if Chopp would have (could have?) prevented HB 1692, reducing penalties for drive by shooting. As an example of something that may have seemed like a good and enlightened idea to the sponsors, but had little chance of doing anything but deepening popular distrust of the party. Sometimes there are good practical reasons to effectively shut people up, though of course ideally with some mutual understanding of those reasons.


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