Word is Rep. Helen Sommers might retire, and she's not commenting

One of Washington's most powerful politicians has been returning campaign contributions. That might not mean much at this early stage, but the Seattle Democrat, who chairs the powerful House budget committee, won't say she's definitely running again, either.
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Washington Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle.

One of Washington's most powerful politicians has been returning campaign contributions. That might not mean much at this early stage, but the Seattle Democrat, who chairs the powerful House budget committee, won't say she's definitely running again, either.

Is state Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, the powerful and longtime chair of the House budget committee, on the verge of retiring?

Rumors are swirling in political circles - fueled by the fact Sommers has recently returned-to-sender some hefty campaign contributions.

"It doesn't take much to start a rumor in Olympia, and returning checks is one way to get a rumor started," says Christian Sinderman, a campaign consultant who works for the House Democratic caucus.

For her part, Sommers, who would be up for re-election next year, claims she sent the checks back - some written for the maximum $700 allowed per election - because she doesn't currently have a campaign treasurer. With all the complicated reporting requirements, she explains, "it's a hassle" to process the checks.

Strange as that might sound - a politician giving back untainted campaign cash?! - Sommers often goes unchallenged in her safe Democratic seat, which includes Seattle's Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods. No competition takes the pressure off having to have a year-round, robust campaign operation.

"I've been in this situation before. I've had times when I didn't really have a race at all," explains Sommers. If and when she finds out she does have a challenger, "you just get moving and gear up."

Sinderman says if anyone can afford to refuse campaign cash, it's Helen Sommers, who's served in the legislature since 1973. "I think Rep. Sommers is at a point in her career where she could send back a check in December and ask for it again in May and get it."

Sommers, 75, insists she still enjoys her job and is in good health. But she acknowledges that at her age retirement is something she's going to have consider "in the not too distant future." Still she refuses - despite my many attempts - to hint about her plans.

All she will say at this point is: "I'll make a decision after the [legislative] session," which begins in January and is scheduled to last 60 days. Asked which way she's leaning, you get this Sommers-esque clipped response: "Not talking about leaning."

To say more now, says Sommers, would be an unwise move - politically and psychologically. The fact Sommers won't commit to running again might seem an important clue. But Sommers says she was also undecided the last time she was up for re-election, two years ago.

One way to ensure she runs again? If a group like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) runs a Democratic candidate against her in the primary, as it did in 2004. "Anytime somebody tries to push you aside, you push back," asserts Sommers, who clearly wants to leave the legislature on her own terms.

But SEIU spokesman Adam Glickman says he'd be "shocked" if a credible opponent emerged to run against Sommers next year.

"I have not heard anything ... my guess is that nobody would run against her," says Glickman. He adds: "We sort of took a shot, we didn't win. I don't think we're looking to spend another quarter of a million dollars."

Even Sommers' right-hand man on the budget committee, Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, says he has no idea what her plans are. "Reading her facial expressions is like trying to read a brick," jokes Dunshee.

For now, he's assuming Sommers plans to stay. But if she doesn't, Dunshee predicts Sommers' retirement would trigger a mad scramble in the Democratic caucus for the coveted budget chair job. "It would be a big fight ... a big flurry of people trying to line-up votes for it." In the Legislature, "the coffin lid doesn't close before people are calling saying ... I want that job."

Sommers' legislative career has spanned 34 years, which makes her the second-longest serving lawmaker in Washington history and likely the longest serving budget chair. The late, former Speaker of the House John L. O'Brien spent more than 50 years in the Legislature.

Sommers is one of the most powerful politicians in Washington whom most people have never heard of. During the legislative session, she is largely out of sight, meeting with stakeholders and writing the House budget with her staff.

In the hallways of the Capitol, Sommers has perfected the art of walking briskly, eyes straight ahead – as if she has somewhere to go, something on her mind, and no time to stop and chat. "She's 5-2, but she reflects about 6-10," observes Sinderman, the caucus political consultant.

But get Sommers on the phone, off-session, and she's a different person - happy to chat, happy to share her life story. And it's an interesting one.

The daughter of a car salesman, Sommers grew up in rural Southern New Jersey, with an older brother and a younger sister. When her father died of cancer, her mother went to work for the local Girl Scouts office. In her early 20s, Sommers landed an opportunity to move to Caracas, Venezuela, to work as an administrative assistant for Mobil Oil.

There she met and married a Cuban-Panamanian man. "We were probably married for the proverbial seven years," she quips. This tidbit about Sommers' personal life may come as a surprise to those who know her politically and assume she never married.

While in Venezuela, Sommers started working toward her bachelor's degree by correspondence through the University of Washington. After 14 years in South America, she moved to Seattle to finish her studies. She went on to get a master's in economics at UW.

Later, while working for the King County Council and heading the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, Sommers was approached about running for the Legislature. "And so not knowing anything about it, I said OK," laughs Sommers. She had the support and mentorship of King County Council member Bernice Stern.

Asked to explain her staying power in Olympia, Sommers is customarily understated: "It's really an engaging and stimulating experience, there's always more to learn, there's always challenges - great people, outstanding staff."

Chatter about Sommers' retirement plans might amount to "palace intrigue," in the words of Rep. Dunshee. But then again, she is one of Washington's most powerful, influential, and longest serving lawmakers.


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