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WA's first female House speaker loves a good joke

Tacoma's Laurie Jinkins got her start defending LGBT rights. Now she's one of the most powerful people in the state.

Rep. Laurie Jinkins of the Washington State House of Representatives addresses the media during a press conference at SeaTac Hilton on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, the incoming speaker of Washington's House of Representatives, was explaining to me the nuances of the state’s mental health system one day when she quickly shifted gears. “You haven’t seen my knife, have you?” the Tacoma lawmaker said as we talked inside the state Capitol building in April. “I should show you this.” 

She zipped over to her desk on the House floor and returned with a small folding knife. “Why don’t you tell me what you think this is?” She opened it with a click.

It looked like a switchblade. “Yeah, but you know what — it’s not legal to sell a switchblade in Washington state,” Jinkins said. “But this is totally legal, to sell this knife.” She then launched into a story about how state law classifies this knife differently because of how its spring release mechanism works. “That’s a stupid difference,” she said of the law.

Jinkins, who is serving her fifth term in Washington’s Legislature, is known to speak her mind and not mince words. She is also never one to pass up a joke. Holding her knife in her hand, she briefly launched into a rendition of “The Jet Song” from West Side Story, waving the blade back and forth as she rocked from side to side.

 “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet ’til the end,” Jinkins half spoke, half sang during the fleeting performance. She then resumed talking in detail about bills in the Legislature.

I told Jinkins that, if she ended up becoming Washington’s next House speaker, this episode would go straight into the story I’d write about her.

“Yeah, I’m not too worried,” Jinkins said, implying she thought she had only a longshot chance at the job.

Yet on Wednesday, that longshot chance became reality. After a two-hour meeting at a hotel conference room in SeaTac, House Democrats chose Jinkins to be the next speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in state government.

While Jinkins’ selection as speaker must be confirmed in January by a vote of the full House, that’s most likely only a formality. That’s because the same Democrats who picked her for the job on Wednesday dominate the chamber 57-41.

In the race to become speaker, Jinkins beat state Reps. Monica Stonier of Vancouver, Gael Tarleton of Seattle and June Robinson of Everett.

Jinkins, 54, will be the first woman to hold the position in Washington state history — a change many of her Democratic colleagues say is long overdue. Women currently make up a majority of the House Democratic Caucus, which has 31 female members.

“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. He said having a woman in the role “will strengthen our claim to be really representative of the whole state.”

At the same time, Jinkins faces the potentially daunting task of following the longest serving House speaker in state history. Wednesday’s vote marked the first time House Democrats 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 when the chamber was locked in a tie.

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.

Jinkins said part of her reason for seeking the job was to make sure Democrats retain that power.

Some of her reasons are personal, she said. “Everything my family has in the world is because Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives for the last 20 years,” said Jinkins, a lesbian who married her partner in 2013, the year after Washington legalized gay marriage. Jinkins and her wife, Laura Wulf, have an 18-year-old son, and have been together since 1989. 

“Over the whole course of my life, everything from Washington adopting a hate crime statute, to passing antidiscrimination laws, to domestic partnership laws … all of those things made a huge difference for my family,” she said. “And that is true for so many millions of people in this state.”

“That’s why I want to be speaker — because I want that to be the case forever.”

On Wednesday, Jinkins said she was proud to become the first openly gay person to be elected as House speaker in Washington.

As speaker, she'll play a key role in setting the policy agenda for the state, having tremendous influence over which bills advance and which wither and die.

Jinkins, who worked as an assistant state attorney general early in her career, has spent the past five years chairing the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee. The panel hears legislation related to criminal justice matters, gun control and antidiscrimination laws.

Her background in civil rights issues runs deep. Some of her earliest political experiences involved serving on the board of the group Hands Off Washington, which fought against anti-LGBT ballot measures in the 1990s. In 2009, Jinkins co-chaired the successful statewide campaign to approve Referendum 71, the state law that legalized domestic partnerships between same-sex couples. While the Legislature approved the law earlier in the year, it went to a public vote after opponents gathered enough signatures to challenge it.

Laurie Jinkins
Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Tacoma lawmaker who Democrats elected to become speaker of the state House, hugs her wife, Laura Wulf, during a press conference at SeaTac Hilton, July 31, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

After her election to the House in 2010, Jinkins also worked to defend the state’s gay marriage law when it was subject to a 2012 referendum effort. In recent years, she has become heavily involved in political action committees that focus on electing more women and people of color to the Legislature.

All of that work on campaigns has made her “an incredible organizer,” said state Rep. Noel Frame, D-Seattle. Those skills will be an asset for Jinkins as she takes on the role of speaker, she said.

“I think so much of what you do on campaigns is strategy, and balancing the desire to go forward fast with the reality of what you can accomplish given political circumstances,” Frame said. “And I think [Jinkins] is excellent at really evaluating situation by situation what is possible, what is it going to take to get there, and who needs to be involved in that decision — and who needs to be brought along.”

Yet Jinkins’ sense of humor remains one of the things that endears her to her colleagues the most, Frame said. During recent legislative sessions, Jinkins has routinely tweeted photos of the most colorful and zany socks lawmakers and staffers wear under their office attire (using the hashtag #walegsox).

To make light of people occasionally mixing her up with state Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, the two women wore twin outfits on the day the Legislature adjourned this spring, a day officially known as “sine die.” When questioned, the women opened their identical jackets to reveal matching T-shirts with an irreverent slogan: “Life’s a bitch, and then you Sine Die.”

Jinkins is also known for bringing in homemade gingersnaps to the Capitol  — her grandma’s recipe. She said she bakes mainly to feel more productive while watching TV.

“Baking is my stress reliever and lets me accomplish something while watching Law & Order reruns,” she said.

But Jinkins also knows how to pass bills, her colleagues say. Frame said Jinkins’ political acumen was on full display earlier this year when she successfully pushed the Legislature to pass the Long-Term Care Trust Act, a program designed to help provide care for the elderly or infirm. The new law will provide up to $36,500 per person to pay for nursing care or other services for people who can no longer take care of themselves.

“That was not a small project,” Frame said.

This past session, Jinkins was similarly instrumental in getting the Legislature to pass Initiative 1000, a citizen initiative that, if it survives a referendum effort, will repeal the state’s 20-year ban on affirmative action in state employment, contracting and college admissions.

“She hustles hard,” said state Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-Seattle, a key proponent of the initiative.

At the same time, Nguyen said, he marveled at Jinkins’ patience when conducting hearings on I-1000, even as people testifying said things that struck him as racist or difficult to stomach.

“She is definitely a uniter,” he said. “She has a reputation for being fair.”

That’s also been the experience for some Republicans who have worked closely with Jinkins.

State Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, said Jinkins won’t hesitate to say what she thinks. That’s a quality he appreciates, he said.

“You rarely question where you’re at with Laurie. You pretty much know,” Irwin said.

“She’s tough, but she never lied to me; she never tried to set me up. It was always straight up, and I appreciate and respect that.”

Jinkins’ candor also means she  wears her politics on her sleeve without apology, said Irwin. He called her a “hyper progressive.”

“I would fully anticipate a basal shift by that corner of the chamber to the left, because that is who she is,” Irwin said. “Not that Frank Chopp is exactly a moderate, but I would say she is more progressive than Frank on a lot of things.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said it remains to be seen how voters will respond to more liberal policies, particularly if Democrats move leftward on topics such as taxes and universal healthcare. Jinkins, for her part, has sponsored legislation to enact a tax on capital gains, such as income from selling stocks and bonds. It's a concept many Republicans have derided as an illegal income tax.

“There is a lot of polling right now that says American people, American voters in particular, are not ready to trade the free market system for a system that is closer to socialism,” Wilcox said. “I think we are going to see that play out in the debate on the House floor and in votes.”

For some House Democrats, such a change might be welcome under Jinkins' leadership. “I think she has just enough strength and bravado and courage to push us a little bit further,” said state Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, one of the newer members elected last fall. 

In recent years, some Democrats have expressed frustration with bills that don’t make it to the House floor. At times, Chopp has been criticized 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, said state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver. In Wylie's view, more public debate and disagreement on the House floor and among Democrats aren't necessarily a bad thing, she said.

“One of the things I would like to see is more bills coming to the floor where the outcome isn’t predetermined," Wylie said.

Lately, some new House members have come in with strong opinions, putting additional pressure on leaders to adapt, Wylie added.

Since 2016, more women and people of color have won election as Democrats to the state House, changing the demographic makeup of the House Democratic Caucus. All told, Democrats gained seven House seats in the 2018 election, giving them their strongest majority in the chamber in years.

“We’re a diverse caucus, and it’s going to be very important that everybody’s voice be heard," Wylie said.

For her part, Jinkins hasn’t shied away from confrontation and controversy. In fall 2017, she spearheaded an open letter signed by more than 200 women that decried the treatment of women at the Capitol.

Over the next year, she became a vocal critic of how long it was taking the House to develop new policies and procedures for handling complaints of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct.

“She was outspoken about some stuff internally that wasn’t getting dealt with soon enough,” said state Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, who is Jinkins’ seatmate. He said he was referring to harassment-related issues, as well as other things.

“Those things that are member-related that are problematic, I believe she will deal with them in a more direct, timely fashion,” Fey said. He declined to give specifics, saying some of those internal matters hadn’t been made public.

Jinkins said her plan is to be more transparent with decision-making than Chopp was. That may include expanding leadership opportunities for others in the caucus or allowing committee chairs to have more decision-making power, she said.

“I think leadership is going to have to be really diffused. It’s just going to have to be required,” she said. “Part of our strength is our diversity.”

That doesn’t mean she wants to change everything all at once, however. She said she, like Chopp, understands the need to “balance change and risk” — which means always keeping an eye toward staying in the majority.

“I feel good about having a history of being able to turn big ships if we have to,” said Jinkins, who has held leadership roles in the state Department of Health, as well as in the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

One thing, at least, is likely to change, though. “I won’t be able to bake cookies as much,” Jinkins said shortly after her election Wednesday. Her colleagues, half-jokingly, booed and sighed at the announcement.

She quickly reassured them.

“But I won’t give it up.”

 

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WA's first female House speaker loves a good joke

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