WA is about to get its first female House speaker

House Democrats will be picking a new leader for the first time in 20 years. The person chosen will take over from former Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

WA House speaker candidates Robinson, Stonier, Tarleton and Jinkins

The candidates for the next House speaker are shown in this photo montage. From left: Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett; Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver; Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle; and Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.

Editor's note: The House speaker vote took place on July 31. Read about the vote's results here.

For the first time in two decades, the top leadership post in Washington’s House of Representatives is changing hands. On Wednesday, Democrats who control the state House will meet in SeaTac to decide who will become the next House speaker — one of the most powerful jobs in state government. 

The vote will mark the first time House Democrats will have picked a new leader since 1999, when they first elected Democratic state Rep. Frank Chopp to the job. Chopp initially served as House co-speaker for three years, sharing the job with Republican Clyde Ballard because of a tie between Democrats and Republicans in the House.

Chopp, who is from Seattle, became the sole speaker in 2002 after a special election tipped the chamber back to Democratic control. The House has remained in Democratic hands ever since.

Whoever wins Wednesday’s election, the new speaker is likely to differ from Chopp in key ways.

For one, the next House speaker is going to be a woman — a first in state history. Competing for the job are four experienced female legislators: state Reps. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma, June Robinson of Everett, Monica Stonier of Vancouver and Gael Tarleton of Seattle.

“We’ve all had this experience of going to the House Rules Room and looking at all the portraits on the wall, and seeing that we have only had white male speakers before,” said state Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle. 

Fitzgibbon said electing someone different to the role “will strengthen our claim to be really representative of the whole state.”

"And that is something Frank would be the first one to say," he added.

All of the women seeking the job have taken on leadership roles in their caucus in one form or another. Right now, Jinkins chairs the House Judiciary Committee, while Tarleton chairs the House Finance Committee. In recent years, Robinson has acted as one of the House Democrats’ lead negotiators on the state budget, serving as a vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Stonier, meanwhile, is the House majority floor leader, who coordinates votes and other floor action.

State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said she expects a change in leadership is likely to bring more “transparency and openness” to the state House. 

At times, some Democrats have expressed frustration with bills that don’t make it to the House floor. Some members have criticized Chopp as being too cautious to advance bills relating to criminal justice reform, improved sex education, gun control, and other topics that could be seen as somewhat controversial. 

Some of those conversations might be handled differently with a new speaker, Wylie said.

In recent years, more women and people of color have won election as Democrats to the state House, changing the demographic makeup of the House Democratic Caucus. 

Wylie said some of the new members have come in with strong opinions, putting additional pressure on leaders to adapt.

“We’re a diverse caucus, and it’s going to be very important that everybody’s voice be heard,” Wylie said in an interview on Tuesday.  

She added: “One of the things I would like to see is more bills coming to the floor where the outcome isn’t predetermined.” In Wylie's view, more public debate and disagreement on the House floor and among Democrats aren't necessarily a bad thing, she said.

It’s unclear how long House Democrats might take to choose their new speaker-designate during the vote scheduled for Wednesday.

The caucus is meeting at a hotel in SeaTac at 10 a.m. to begin the election process.

Whichever candidate wins will still have to be confirmed by a vote of the full House in January, when the Legislature reconvenes.

But the January vote is likely to be a formality. That’s because the Democrats who are voting for the speaker-designate on Wednesday control the chamber 57-41.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.