Gael Tarleton, the Woman with 27 (at Least) Careers


Gael Tarleton is retiring from an eclectic career: time as a Defense Department military analyst, work in Russia on dismantling nuclear weapons, two terms as a Port of Seattle commissioner, eight years as a state legislator, a losing campaign for statewide office and, most recently, two years working for Seattle’s mayor.

Retiring, that is, at least for now.

She stepped down from the city job in March, as she turned 65.

In a Forrest Gump-like career of 44 years, Tarleton carved out a unique niche in Seattle. A social progressive advocating for women’s rights, environmental protection and health care, the longtime Ballard resident also was a fierce defender of the waterfront economy and maritime labor.

After the deaths of some friends and family, she decided it was time to spend more time writing and traveling with her husband, Bob.

“You look at the time you have left in a different way,” she said. 

The path has not always been smooth. Running for the Legislature, she came under attack from the Teamsters, and from some of her own Port commission colleagues, for rejecting ideas she thought were outside the Port’s authority or too disruptive to industry.

She won a 36th district House seat handily, however, and some of those critics later became supporters. She went on to become a champion for health care, career and technical training, environmental protection and renter protections. A bid for Washington Secretary of State during the pandemic fell short.

Tarleton grew up in an Irish Catholic home near Boston with her parents and six siblings. Her mother was a longtime Democrat and homemaker; her father was a sales and marketing executive and an Eisenhower Republican who disdained all politicians. Boston’s politics were never far away, but they were deeply corrupt.

The experience fostered independence of mind, nurtured an interest in serving the community, and honed her debate skills.

“We grew up at a table where issues were discussed all the time,’’ recalls her sister, Karen Donelan. “We both learned to talk across party lines.”

Gael Tarleton became a star high-school debater and tennis player. Her sister recalls Gael practicing tennis for hours. “Gael always had a competitive streak. She was always prepared and always disciplined. I think she prepared for her career in much the same way.”

She enrolled at Georgetown University where she focused on Russian language and history, despite her grandfather’s warnings about Washington, D.C.: “No girl should be in that city.”

Her sister is unsurprised by Gael’s rise in the political world. “She loved the legislative work. She takes pride in people bringing issues for her to solve.”

Her Russian studies became more than academic in1981, when she was graduating with no job prospects amid a recession. Her boyfriend and later husband, Bob, was working at the Defense Intelligence Agency and told her of opportunities at the secretive organization. With her background in Russian studies and top-secret clearance from another post at the Treasury Department, she decided to apply.

She was hired for a newly created position as an analyst of Soviet Naval Command, Control and Communications. Her four years as a high-school debater was a plus, she said: “This job required a lot of briefings to senior defense and intelligence officials.”

Like so many women of her era, she had to fight to prove herself in the male-dominated field.

“They didn’t believe a woman could think like a national-security analyst,” she recalls.

She went on to write and co-author many papers on Russian military strategy and capabilities.

She and her husband resigned from the DIA in 1990 so he could pursue a doctorate in Soviet military history at the University of Washington, considered a leader in Russian scholarship.

After the couple moved to Seattle, Tarleton went to work for Science Applications International Corporation, a global technology and intelligence firm with interests in defense, space, civilian and military applications, and strategy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, she ran the company’s scientific and technical cooperation program with Russia. A critical focus was safeguarding the country’s formidable military assets.

“Thus was a defining period of my life. I got a play a role in dismantling Russia’s chemical, biological and nuclear armaments,’’ she said. She later testified before the Russian parliament on economic reforms.

But the demands of cross-country travel finally became too much for her and her husband. She resigned in 2001 to take a position at the UW raising money to create an endowed research center in honor of Professor Herb Ellison, “a giant in our field,’’ she said. The center was created in 2004 with a $3-million endowment.

She and her husband fell in love with Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Today they are frequent visitors to property on the Olympic Peninsula.

While at the UW, she became involved in several progressive organizations, such as the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund. It was through such contacts that Tarleton met Dean Nielsen, then head of the Progressive Majority, a campaign organization focused on electing Democrats to down-ballot positions, “to build the bench on the left,’’ Nielsen said. Nielsen and fellow campaign consultant Jason Bennett have advised Tarleton and managed all her campaigns.

“We work with them to learn the ropes, make a mark and move up,” Nielsen said. Tarleton impressed him with her authenticity and tactical smarts. “She was always five steps ahead of everyone else.”

In fall 2006, Nielsen proposed to her the idea of running for the Port of Seattle commission the following year.  Tarleton had not contemplated elected office, but Nielsen thought she would be a good fit at the Port, given her international business and national-security experience, including the installation of radiation scanners at ports after 9/11.

At the time, the Port was battered by controversies surrounding its long-time CEO and its contracting practices in connection with construction of the third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Port CEO Mic Dinsmore announced in June 2006 he would retire the following year, but he and the Port commission soon came under fire over his fat severance package.  A 2007 report by State Auditor Brian Sonntag accused the Port of wasting $100 million during construction of the third runway and improperly steering contracts to favored companies.

The Port would later hire a former U.S. Attorney for its own investigation, which led to widespread changes in Port contracting practices. No criminal charges were ever filed.

The time was ripe, Nielsen said, for a challenger with a reform platform. “The Port was a government in need of a shake-up,” he said, and he thought Tarleton fit the bill. “She’s Irish and from the East Coast. It’s in her blood.”

At the time, Tarleton did not know Seattle Port commissioners were elected. She was attracted by the powers of the Port to build infrastructure, promote economic development, and protect communities against natural and man-made disasters, reflecting her years of defense and strategic studies. Her interest was intensified by the Bush Administration’s failures in the Iraq War and by government’s clumsy response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“It was really the last straw for me. I thought to myself during that horrendous week—we are truly on our own where we live,’’ she said. “It was time for me to help our communities deal with the threats from climate change and terrorist attacks because the federal government doesn’t care where we live and didn’t have a stake in supporting communities over the long haul.’’

In her 2007 race, she challenged two-term incumbent Bob Edwards, a former Renton councilmember and stockbroker. Tarleton, a novice with no name recognition, barnstormed around King County and among its 17 local Democratic organizations to win their endorsement.  “I had to learn the Port, and I had to learn politicking,’’ she said.

That meant understanding the complex web of labor, business, environmental and community stakeholders around the port, while constantly calling for campaign cash. She began to assemble lasting ties with the city’s shipping and fishing industries.

She and fellow challenger Bill Bryant, who took on incumbent Alec Fisken, both won election after playing up their outsider status and promises to clean house at the Port.

Tarleton joined the commission when it was still reeling from the third runway investigations, calling that time “nine months of hell.”

Port CEO Tay Yoshitani had been on the job only since March 2007, and the nation’s economy was sinking into recession with the housing-market collapse.

The pressure was on the Port to step up its investments in infrastructure to support the construction industry, hit hard by the financial crisis.

Tarleton’s Port highlights: Agreeing to join Washington State, Seattle, and King County in funding the Alaskan Way tunnel to replace the aging viaduct; keeping the airport rental car facility project moving forward after bond markets collapsed; and launching an initiative to reduce diesel pollution from trucks hauling cargo in the harbor.

The latter challenge was how to reduce air emissions from hundreds of older-model trucks without driving their owners, mostly immigrants, out of business.

The Seattle and Tacoma ports sought to raise emission standards incrementally by requiring truck owners to upgrade their engines or buy newer-model trucks.  With assistance from the state, the ports offered grants and loans to owners to buy trucks meeting higher standards.

Complicating the issue was a Teamsters effort to organize the drivers, even though, as independent contractors working for cargo owners, they could not legally be unionized. The Teamsters, along with church leaders and allies in the community, pressured the Port to put the burden for newer, cleaner trucks on shippers.

The Port commission majority, including Tarleton, argued that shifting costs to shippers would leave the Puget Sound gateway noncompetitive compared to other West Coast ports. Yet, making truck owners pay the full cost of new trucks would likely put many of them out of business.

“The goal for the port was sustaining our working waterfront and preserving jobs, while also recognizing the damage of pollution to the communities,’’ she said. “I couldn’t solve the driver-company situation, but I could affect air quality. I was absolutely certain we could get to cleaner air, but I realized it could be politically fatal.”

In 2012, an unexpected opportunity arose when 36th district Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson announced she would step down. Tarleton, by then in her second Port term, jumped into the race along with several others.

In the general election, Tarleton faced off against activist Noel Frame. The Teamsters poured money into Frame’s campaign, attacking Tarleton over her actions on clean trucks.

In what she calls her “biggest disappointment’’ from her port years, fellow commissioners John Creighton and Rob Holland were quoted in The Stranger attacking Tarleton for allegedly switching her positions on truck legislation and other issues. She called it “one of the most egregious displays of unprofessional conduct I’d witnessed in my 30-year career, and I’d witnessed a lot.”

Tarleton went on to win by 13 percentage points. The steam went out of the Teamster campaign. Trucks are no longer a divisive political issue, but they remain a big environmental challenge as the ports try to achieve zero air emissions by 2050.

Creighton, who was defeated for re-election, declined comment on the 2012 election, but praised Tarleton for her later work in the Legislature.

The Stranger endorsed Tarleton’s re-election, citing her “dope resume.”

In her eight years in the House, she rose to become chair of the Finance Committee and a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. She joined the new Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee and became a House floor leader.

Tarleton reveled in tackling a wide range of issues: renter protections, funding for career and technical education, environmental protection, housing funding, expanding medical care, and much else. She was particularly proud of her effort with Sen. Reuven Carlyle and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon to pass the 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act, which required negotiations with dozens of stakeholders over two years. It took her, along with three Democratic and three Republican women lawmakers, four years to get $400 million for career and technical education in the budget.

She brought to the Legislature strong business connections and expertise about ports and international trade, an uncommon skillset in the Seattle delegation. “It was my secret weapon’’ to gain backing for her initiatives from Eastern Washington Republicans.

Eric ffitch (yes, that’s his name), now executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association and formerly a lobbyist for the Port of Seattle, said Tarleton was key to legislative efforts to clear the way for the formation of the Northwest Seaport Alliance in 2015.  Bringing the Seattle and Tacoma ports together ended costly competition between the ports.

But Tarleton always stayed close to her Ballard constituents, according to ffitch.

“One measure of a legislator is how well they serve their district,” he said. “She was an unqualified success. She was committed to elevating issues to support the working waterfront.”

In 2020, Tarleton tried to step up to statewide office by challenging incumbent Kim Wyman, a Republican, for Secretary of State, the office that oversees elections. She had been thinking since 2017 about the threat of Donald Trump to election security.

“This was the one race I was compelled to run. It was because of Trump. I just realized elections were on the brink,” she said. “It would all come down to control of data by the Secretary of State.”

It was an uphill fight, however, since Washington voters had favored Republicans in that role since 1964, and Wyman’s moderate politics did not fit the MAGA mold. Tarleton’s campaigning also was constrained by COVID pandemic restrictions. “I ran my first race for statewide office from the second floor of my home via Zoom,” she said.

Falling short, Tarleton was crushed; it was her first electoral defeat in 13 years since winning the Port seat.

Surprisingly, Tarleton returned to a staff role in 2021 when she took a post as director of intergovernmental relations under Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell. The job manages relations with state, local, and federal governments, and with tribes.

She was recruited by Monisha Harrell, a senior deputy mayor and niece of Mayor Harrell. She had known Tarleton through work in the Legislature on LGBTQ issues.

“She leads from the heart,” Monisha Harrell said. “She doesn’t assign blame because of a difference of opinion. I brought her into the office because she understood government at all levels, knew how to be a leader and would help us get grants. I knew she would use the balance to rebuild relationships in Olympia.”

After two years in the job, Tarleton stepped down. As she turned age 65, following the loss of family members and friends, she is returning her focus to family.

She is developing a writing project about women working on security issues in the Cold War, and she is planning trips to Alaska and the East Coast. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said, keeping open the possibility of some future elected or appointed post. “I’ve never planned any of the jobs I took.”

Those close to her are not convinced her public life is over.

“Every good politician is always looking for an opportunity,” said Nielsen, her long-time political advisor. “I don’t know if she’ll pull that trigger.”

Monisha Harrell, who recently left her city post for a new job at King County, thinks Tarleton may well be drawn back to politics.

“I don’t see her sitting still too long,” she said. “She loves the relationships and being part of a team too much.”

Tarleton is reluctant to rate her own successes and failures over the years. She still follows the lesson of her mother: Do the best you can for the community you live in.

“I think my folks would be proud that I always ran on making promises about what I would do for my community,” she said. “And I did what I promised to do.”

Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt is a former writer and editor for local newspapers. He recently retired as senior executive policy advisor for the Port of Seattle.


  1. Great profile of a Seattle leader and fellow Ballard resident. Would love to connect personally, Gael if you are so inclined. I have also written for Post Alley and have a Linked in profile. If you are interested in coffee, a walk, etc. contact me at

  2. Thanks so much for this wonderfully profile of Gael, a true public servant. I was privileged to be running for a second term on the Seattle City Council in 2007 when Gael took on Bob Edwards in her first elective race. We often found ourselves seated side by side as we campaigned for backing in Seattle’s Democratic Districts. Gael was a novice at campaigning, but displayed an in-born ability. I came away convinced she was the only one for the job. I went on to admire her work at the Port and later the State Legislature. She will be missed at city, but I hope after catching up on leisure and travels, she’ll be back in some capacity to steer us in the right direction.

  3. Such people were born to try to make the world better. Gael worked on the global issues with all the power that one brain can muster. Then she came home to where all politics, and solutions, are often found. Good story, well told, Mike.

  4. A couple of notes: Gael left the defense and security company SAIC in 2002, not 2001. Also, my Port friends remind me that the the Port’s Olympia representatives manage government relations and are not defined as lobbyists, and they don’t file as such.


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