No-nonsense manner served legislator well for 36 years
Helen Sommers isn't much for idle conversation. Pass her in a hallway and there's a good chance she won't acknowledge your existence. Stop her to chat...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Helen Sommers isn't much for idle conversation.
Pass her in a hallway and there's a good chance she won't acknowledge your existence. Stop her to chat, you'll be lucky to exchange a dozen words.
It's a personality trait that's served Sommers well during a long career as chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. Her all-business demeanor and clipped speech have intimidated both lobbyists and politicians on the prowl for state money.
They quickly learned Sommers' favorite word when it came to spending requests: no. She'd often put it more diplomatically, however, said Appropriations Vice Chairman Hans Dunshee. "She'd say, 'Well, we'll consider it.' That meant you were dead."
After 36 years in the state Legislature, Sommers said goodbye March 13, at the end of the legislative session. Asked why she was leaving, Sommers simply said, "I think the time I've been there. Age. My memory."
She turns 76 this week.
The Seattle Democrat's departure has made some people anxious about who might replace her. Conservatives viewed Sommers as firewall against more free-spending members of her party. Democrats control the House, Senate and Governor's Office.
While it's true that state spending has increased by billions of dollars during her tenure, including more than $4 billion in the current two-year budget she helped write, some argue that Sommers prevented even larger increases.
"I think spending would have increased dramatically more without her at the helm," said Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, perhaps the most conservative think tank in the state.
"It makes me nervous that she's leaving," Williams said.
Higher-education advocates are also worried, but for a different reason. Sommers, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Washington, protected spending for colleges and universities during good times and bad.
"It is a passing of the baton, and we're not sure who the baton is getting passed to," said Randy Hodgins, a UW lobbyist.
Sommers views her departure with the same pragmatism she applied to state spending.
"I recognize my memory is not as good," said Sommers, who is admired for her intricate knowledge of the state budget and pension system. "I'd just rather retire sooner than I should, rather than stick around longer than I should."
Sommers entered politics at age 40 in 1972, the same year the Watergate scandal broke.
It wasn't an obvious move. She'd lived in Seattle only few years, after having lived in Caracas, Venezuela, for more than a decade working for Mobil Oil.
Sommers had gotten married and divorced in Venezuela. Her connection to Seattle grew out of correspondence courses she took through the University of Washington. She moved to Seattle in 1968 to finish her degrees.
Sommers said she knew nothing about politics when she took on a Republican incumbent in District 36, which includes the Magnolia, Queen Anne and Phinney Ridge neighborhoods. But she was a member of the National Organization for Women at the time and friends urged her to give it a try. There were very few women in the state Legislature then.
She won the election with 53 percent of the vote and was the first Democrat elected from the district since the end of World War II.
"I did it by doorbelling a precinct a day, seven days a week," Sommers said. "I doorbelled 109 precincts."
After her election, Sommers quickly gravitated to the budget and finance committees. Over the decades she's chaired the revenue and capital-budget committees. In 1999, she became co-chairwoman of Appropriations when Democrats and Republicans were tied for control in the House. She became chairwoman when her party gained control in 2002.
In addition to her efforts to help higher education and limit state spending, budget experts say she played a leading role in revamping and stabilizing the state pension system in the late 1970s.
She's been widely respected since she was first elected. State party officials recruited her to run for the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s, but Sommers declined.
The idea of running for higher office just didn't interest her, she said. "I was OK where I am."
Sommers is probably best known for standing up to people she disagreed with.
Friends, critics, political leaders. It didn't matter. They all got the same treatment.
"I can think of times when I was called on by teachers or public-employee groups to try to get her to soften her stand on issues," said Paul Berendt, who chaired the state Democratic Party from 1995 to 2005. He didn't succeed. "I found she was willing to stand up to the chair of the state party."
Her ability to say no "has gotten her into quite a bit of trouble," noted Berendt, who has been friends with Sommers for years.
In 2004 the Service Employees International Union, normally a big Democratic supporter, tried to unseat Sommers in the primary.
Sommers supports abortion rights, is a former president of the state chapter of NOW, and is generally considered pro-labor. Still, the union portrayed her as too conservative and blamed Sommers for not aggressively supporting raises for its members.
The SEIU, and the primary candidate it backed, spent more than $275,000 trying to defeat her — and lost.
At the time, there was speculation that House Speaker Frank Chopp played a role in trying to defeat Sommers. Chopp, who's clashed with Sommers over the years, has said it wasn't true.
Sommers still thinks Chopp "had some influence" in what happened. But she has only positive things to say about the speaker now. "He's a very strong leader. And he's very smart," she said.
Sommers, in fact, is not the curmudgeon she might seem on first impression.
Victor Moore, the governor's budget director, spent years working for her on the House Appropriations staff. Sommers was always protective of her staff members, and took great interest in the work they did, he said.
People should not take offense if they walk by Sommers and she ignores them, Moore said. She just has things on her mind.
"When she had her game face on, she'd walk by me in the hallway and not even know I was there," he said. "People would say, 'Well she's not very friendly.' I'd say, 'She didn't even know you were there.' "
Sommers is well aware of her reputation. It's not a persona adopted to keep lobbyists and legislators looking for money at bay, she said.
"I've been like that all my life. It comes naturally."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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