Remembering Jennifer Dunn

A former state GOP leader who worked closely with her recalls the late Washington congresswoman's steady hand and regards her, politically, as "our Ronald Reagan."
Crosscut archive image.

Then-U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., after a congressional trip to Iraq in 2003. (Department of Defense)

A former state GOP leader who worked closely with her recalls the late Washington congresswoman's steady hand and regards her, politically, as "our Ronald Reagan."

It happened again. A cell phone call with the news that someone I had known all of my professional life was no longer with us. First Norm Maleng; now Jennifer Dunn. One of the hardest things about middle age is the shock of impending mortality, highlighted by the deaths of those who have populated your world.

Jennifer Dunn was grace and style; poise and elegance. Jennifer Dunn was always in control, and always seemed the picture of radiant health. Her sudden death is jarringly at odds with what we expected. Happy, and newly married, she should have been with us another 30 years, gently aging as the matriarch of the state GOP.

In 1993, after 12 years as chair of the Washington State Republican Party, Dunn succeeded my old boss, Rod Chandler, as the U.S. representative of Washington's 8th District. I was a King County Council member at the time, and I remember thinking that Jennifer would not be a very good member of Congress – that she would be more interested in the capital's social life and national politics than in the hard, gritty work of lawmaking. I was wrong.

Almost from the moment she arrived in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Dunn was a significant member of the House. As the first female member of the House Republican leadership team, she worked closely with Speaker Newt Gingrich during the heady days of the new Republican majority and the "Contract With America," constantly reminding the Republican leadership that they needed to connect with suburban voters, particularly women. On the legislative side, she became a leader on cutting taxes, eliminating the estate tax, and promoting free trade. A special passion of hers was protecting vulnerable children. It was her bill that created our Amber Alert system to locate missing children. She was a partisan Republican who could work with Democrats when the issue demanded it. Jennifer Dunn, a legislative rookie when she arrived in D.C., proved to be a tough, aggressive, and effective advocate for our state.

What I will remember her most for, however, was the legacy she left the Washington State Republican Party. Jennifer Dunn got her start in the Reagan campaign, and in many ways she was our Ronald Reagan. As the first female chair, she built the modern Washington GOP. During my chairmanship, I used the same rules, procedures, and staff structure Jennifer and her outstanding staff created.

More importantly, Jennifer Dunn represented a Reaganesque brand of positive, optimistic conservatism. A conservatism that appealed to women and to suburban moderates. A conservatism that could win and could govern. Jennifer Dunn and her fellow Reaganites took control of the Washington State Republican Party in 1980, and her philosophy and style have, with a few unfortunate exceptions, defined the party ever since.

Jennifer loved politics and cared about the people who worked in politics. When I became chair, she spent hours with me, helping prepare me for what she knew was a very difficult job. I considered Jennifer Dunn a role model. I'm sure Attorney General Rob McKenna, state party Chairman Luke Esser, and Dino Rossi, would say the same. Her legacy will live on.

Jennifer Dunn was a mentor and teacher to so many. With her sudden passing, she taught us all one final lesson: Death is capricious; our time here is fleeting; take nothing for granted.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.