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.