An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Washington lawmakers of color announce departures, one calls the work environment ‘toxic’

Courtesy of Washington State House of Representatives
State Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, a south Seattle Democrat, is one of three lawmakers of color who are not running for reelection after just one full term in office. In an op-ed, Harris-Talley described the legislative work environment as toxic and said she had been betrayed by House Democratic leadership.

In recent years, Washington’s Legislature has grown more diverse. And majority Democrats have emphasized diversity and equity as core values. But now three members of color, out of nearly 30, are stepping down from the Legislature after serving just one full term. One of them describes the legislative work environment as toxic.

In 2021, the Washington state Legislature welcomed a record number of lawmakers of color, including a record number of Black lawmakers who were all Democrats. Among them was state Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley of south Seattle who described it as an exciting time.

“I came in as one of four Black women coming in simultaneously to join two Black women who were already here. So, I saw a lot of folks who look like me, which is always welcoming,” Harris-Talley recalled recently.

And that wasn’t all. In 2021 — in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — Washington Democrats saw a rare opening to make big changes fast. They seized the moment and passed a dozen or so police accountability laws along with a number of other racial equity measures. Washington’s Black Lives Matter Alliance called it a “stunning session.” Harris-Talley offered her own superlative: “historic.”

But flash forward to this year and Harris-Talley said it seemed like the door to change that had been opened in 2021 was closed in 2022. More than that, she felt Democrats were turning on their heels and undoing some of the work they’d done on police accountability the prior year.

“That is not progress. That is not what my calling is,” Harris-Talley said.

Following the 2022 legislative session, Harris-Talley penned an op-ed in the South Seattle Emerald that amounted to a nearly 25-hundred-word resignation letter. In it, Harris-Talley said she wouldn’t be seeking reelection and described the Legislature as a "toxic work environment."

“I know the signs when leadership is propping you up or looking for a place to put you to shut you up,” she wrote. “Those sorts of things started pretty early on.”

A rash of retirements

Harris-Talley isn’t the only Black member stepping down after just one full term in office. So is Democratic state Rep. Jesse Johnson of Federal Way, one of the architects of the police reform agenda. He cited family reasons, including a new baby at home and a wife in medical school. Johnson also said that while his experience was different than Harris-Talley’s, his brief time in the Legislature hasn’t been easy.

“If you’re working on bold, progressive issues, it takes a support system around you to really uplift you, keep your spirit high because you’re going through a lot,” Johnson said in an interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program. “With the police reform, I received death threats. I received a lot of nasty emails.”

Also retiring from the Legislature after just one full term is Democratic state Sen. Mona Dasof Kent who’s Indian American. In a Facebook post, Das said she was proud of her work on issues related to the environment and equity. But she said family and financial considerations prevent her from running for reelection.

"I simply am not spending the time with my family that I must. I also find it hard to meet my financial obligations on my State Senator salary," Das wrote.

Washington lawmakers currently make $56,881 a year plus per diem when the Legislature is in session. While the job is considered part time and the Legislature only meets for a few months a year, many lawmakers say the job is all-consuming.

Harris-Talley, Johnson and Das are among roughly two dozen state lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — who have announced they aren't running for reelection this year, or who are seeking another office, according to reporting by McClatchy.

All House members and about half of the state senators are up for reelection in 2022.

The number of departures, while not necessarily unprecedented, have caught the attention of legislative leaders like House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox who said his caucus is "losing an unusual number of members" this year.

One possible contributing factor to the retirements is the challenge of legislating mostly remotely for the past two years during the COVID pandemic. Some newer lawmakers have never experienced a non-pandemic session.

Johnson, who was first appointed to the Legislature in 2020, described legislating via Zoom from his condo as a lonely experience.

Currently, about 20 percent of Washington’s 147 state lawmakers are members of color — a high water mark in the state’s history. The departure of three relatively new members of color from the statehouse doesn’t necessarily constitute a trend, but Johnson said it’s something to pay attention to.

“I wouldn’t say alarm bells, but I do think that there’s something here that’s happening,” Johnson said. “You have members that want to get into a system and make change and see things happen, and what we’re learning is politics is slow, it’s a grind-it-out process.”

Johnson said he thinks the Legislature must do more to support legislators — including members of color — who see urgent needs in their communities, but must navigate a system designed to slow change down.

A tearful speech

For Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, who’s served in the Legislature for a dozen years, there’s a cyclical nature to lawmaking. She said some years big things are possible, but then the more incremental nature of legislating returns.

“With police accountability, this is exactly where we're at: big things done, then you spend a number of years … tweaking and balancing,” Jinkins said.

But Harris-Talley, who describes herself as a Black, queer woman and activist, said some of that tweaking and balancing this year felt like capitulation to pressures from law enforcement and others opposed to elements of the 2021 police reforms. While Harris-Talley said she could support some of the changes, like clarifying which less-than-lethal munitions police can use and ensuring that officers show up to community caretaking calls, other proposals were non-starters.

She gave the example of a new police use of force bill that she felt amounted to creating "a new stop and frisk standard" in Washington. When the bill came up for a vote in February, Harris-Talley gave a tearful speech on the House floor predicting the change would result in more deadly encounters between civilians and police.

“This law gets too close to the moment where use of force by an officer becomes excessive use of force and a loved one does not come home,” Harris-Talley said during her speech.

Families of those killed by police also opposed the bill.

Rep. Johnson, by contrast, supported it after hearing from police that changes made in 2021 took away their ability to use reasonable force to detain people suspected of a crime, before probable cause had been established.

“[Police] were saying there were folks that had reasonable suspicion for a crime that were just literally walking away or running away and they could not continue their investigation, and that was for me unintentional,” Johnson said in the TVW interview.

A sense of betrayal

In her op-ed, Harris-Talley also said House Democratic leadership pressured her to withdraw two proposed amendments to the use of force bill in exchange for a promise that another police-related bill dealing with high-speed pursuits wouldn’t come up for a vote. While she agreed to withdraw her amendments, Harris-Talley said House Democratic leadership reneged on the deal and brought up the pursuit bill for a vote anyway.

“That was the day I learned that integrity was not part of the culture of this caucus,” Harris-Talley wrote.

She described feeling betrayed, othered, dismissed and ignored.

“I've been in a lot of workplaces where my own colleagues sabotage me. And I left those places too,” she said in an interview.

Asked to respond, Speaker Jinkins didn't directly address Harris-Talley's allegations of betrayal and sabotage. However, Jinkins did say it's a lesson in "how people experience things differently."

“What I have to do, I think, is take that commentary and that critique in, and then figure out how to help us do better,” Jinkins said.

Jinkins, who’s the state’s first out lesbian Speaker of the House, added that her caucus is committed to working on diversity and equity issues. She also said majority Democrats continued to pass racial justice and equity bills this year and wrote a supplemental budget that relied on an “equity tool” to guide state spending.

At the start of the 2022 session, the Legislative Black Caucus (LBC), which Harris-Talley vice chairs, identified 15 priority bills and resolutions. In the end, seven of those passed and eight failed.

With two of the LBC's 10 members now leaving the Legislature, the chair of the caucus, Rep. Jamila Taylor, issued statements praising both lawmakers.

“I’m honored to have had the opportunity to help lead the LBC alongside Rep. Harris-Talley as we work towards ensuring the experience, needs and solutions of Black people throughout our state are represented, prioritized and made real in our legislative process and policies,” Taylor said.

In a separate statement, Taylor lauded Johnson — her seatmate in the 30th Legislative District — as having “worked diligently to not only pass historic police accountability legislation, but then to center victims of police violence in discussions to ensure laws matched the goal of rebuilding trust between communities and law enforcement.”

Johnson hasn’t ruled out a future run for public office, or even a return to the state Legislature. Ultimately — given the size of the state and the complexity of issues — he’d like to see Washington adopt a full-time Legislature like California and Michigan. But that could be a tough sell with voters and would require a constitutional amendment.

“If not that, I think we really need to just set designated time and money and resources for more support systems,” Johnson said.

Boosting legislative pay

Meanwhile, Democratic Lt. Gov. Denny Heck recently said he plans to push for a “material” increase in legislator salaries to compensate for the time commitment and responsibility that state lawmakers have.

“It’s just the fair thing to do,” Heck said on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program. “These 147 people sit on the board of directors of a $60 billion plus corporation that serves our interests in everything from roads to education to social services for those in need.”

Heck added that a higher salary would likely result in a more diverse group of candidates being able to afford to serve in the Legislature.

Washington legislator pay is set by a citizen salary commission.

But Wilcox, the House Republican leader, noted that Washington already pays lawmakers more than most states and said his caucus is wary of salary increases.

“When you talk to House Republicans about pay generally, what you will hear is, yes it can be a sacrifice to have this job, but it feels very insensitive to be complaining about our pay when so many people we represent are struggling,” Wilcox said.

A call for transformation

Despit her criticisms of the legislative work environment, Harris-Talley, in her op-ed, said she felt "blessed to have served during the most progressive moment in state politics I can remember" and offered praise for several of her legislative colleagues of color.

"Many individual members are pushing for changes to the culture in the Legislature, and let me be clear — the people leading on that work are doing the thing and are women and People of Color who have one's back," she wrote.

Harris-Talley urged the House Democratic Caucus to invest in staff and support for the LBC and to replace retiring, longtime House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan with a leader of color to bring "long-overdue transformation."

"This is a moment that Democrats will see huge changes that should be embraced as opportunities," she wrote. "And with that, leadership has some decisions to make to meet this moment and move forward."