Meet the Black women who made historic gains in WA politics in 2020

The number of Black women in Washington’s Legislature will triple next year, and the state just elected a Black woman to Congress for the first time.

Jamila Taylor carries campaign signs

Incoming Democratic state Rep. Jamila Taylor organizes campaign signs at her Federal Way home on Nov. 11, 2020. A record number of Black women were elected to Washington’s Legislature in this election. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

The White House isn’t the only place where Black women made historic inroads in politics this year. In Washington state, the six Black women headed to the Legislature are more than ever before. 

One of those incoming lawmakers is T’wina Nobles, who will be the first Black state senator Washington has had in a decade, and only the second Black woman to serve in the chamber. 

The state House, meanwhile, will gain three new Black women: Jamila Taylor, April Berg and Kirsten Harris-Talley. They will join two Black female incumbents, state Reps. Melanie Morgan and Debra Entenman, who were reelected this year.

Although the state House hasn’t tracked all members’ race and ethnicity over the years, House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean said he doesn’t believe there have ever been five Black women serving in the House simultaneously. 

Washington also just elected its first Black member of Congress. Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland won election to an open seat in Washington’s 10th Congressional District, which includes Thurston County and parts of Pierce and Mason counties.

In another first, G. Helen Whitener became the first Black woman to sit on the state Supreme Court. Whitener was appointed by the governor in April and this month won her bid to retain her seat. 

Alexis Turla, the co-founder of a political action committee that worked to elect Black women, said having more Black female lawmakers hailing from different parts of the state will give them much greater power when it comes to shaping state policy. 

“I can say that when just having one Black person there, or two, many times that voice was dismissed or tokenized,” said Turla, who previously served as a policy adviser to former Gov. Chris Gregoire. “But having a significant number of Black women from multiple counties, from all those various perspectives, speaking with authenticity about how this impacts Black people and people of color in various counties in the state — that is going to be harder to dismiss.”

Shasti Conrad, who co-chairs another PAC that worked to get the women elected, said after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May, “there was this outpouring of support to amplify Black Lives Matter and really start to have these much needed conversations about racial justice and racial equity.”

This election, she said, was a down payment on that work.

Democrat T'wina Nobles unseated state Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-Tacoma, in a very competitive race. She will be only the second Black woman to serve in the Washington state Senate. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

T’wina Nobles

Nobles edged out state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, to win a swing district Senate seat that Democrats have long sought to wrest from Republican control. She will represent Pierce County’s 28th Legislative District, which includes University Place, Fircrest, Steilacoom, Dupont and parts of Lakewood and Tacoma. 

As the president and CEO of the Tacoma Urban League, Nobles has overseen a range of community programs, including ones focused on mentoring Black youth, providing doula services for pregnant women of color and assisting first-time homebuyers. 

Before leading the Urban League, Nobles taught college readiness courses at Tacoma’s Lincoln and Stadium high schools and founded a program focused on building girls’ self-esteem. She now serves on the University Place School Board.

Nobles, 38, said getting an education was a huge reason she was able to go from living in homeless shelters and foster care as a child to serving in elected office as an adult. 

In the Legislature, she plans to be focused on ensuring that programs for the vulnerable remain intact, even as the state looks to solve a budget deficit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of good policy and community programs, there can be help and assistance for people like me, so they can connect to mentorship and housing,” said Nobles, a Democrat from Fircrest. “These programs and policies are not just theoretical — they are life changing.”

She said she supports increasing taxes on the wealthy and closing tax exemptions to help raise more money for education and other assistance programs, if necessary.

When she is sworn in next year, Nobles will be the Senate’s only Black member. No Black person has served in the Senate for a decade, when former state Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, retired. 

Nobles said she was grateful that Franklin had forged a path she could follow. Now, she hopes to do the same thing for others.

“To the many men and women of color and Black women and nongendered folks who decide they want to do this, I hope I, too, can be an example for them,” Nobles said.

Marilyn Strickland speaks with families about education during a campaign event in spring 2020. Strickland, a Democrat, was recently elected to represent Washington's 10th Congressional District. (Strickland campaign)

Marilyn Strickland

Growing up, Strickland had planned to be a registered nurse — not a politician. 

Years later, she ended up running for the Tacoma City Council at the urging of a mentor, former Tacoma Mayor Brian Ebersole, who had once been her middle-school guidance counselor. 

They were chatting one day, when Ebersole asked her if she had watched the previous night’s city council meeting. 

“I was like, ‘No, I don’t see anybody there that reflects me, or that looks like me,’" Strickland said recently. “And he said, ‘Well, you should probably consider doing it yourself one day.’ ” 

A couple of years later, when a council vacancy opened up, Ebersole was the first one to recruit Strickland to run. 

She recalls a conversation with her mother, a Korean immigrant, playing a role in her decision to seek elected office.

“When I was contemplating whether or not to run, my mother very distinctly and thoughtfully reminded me that a lot of people who came before me struggled so that the idea of me running for office was something that was even viable,” Strickland said.

“And so, it was really about the sense of duty and responsibility and understanding that I had to go up there, I had to go out and do what I could to make things better — and then open the door for people to come after me as well,” she said. 

After two years on the Tacoma City Council, Strickland ran for mayor and won. She served two four-year terms, the maximum allowed in the city, then took a new position as the president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The job made a certain amount of sense for Strickland, who had earned a master’s in business administration and worked as a marketing manager at Starbucks before her time in public office. 

Now, after defeating Democratic state Rep. Beth Doglio in this month’s election, the 58-year-old Strickland is headed to Washington, D.C. 

In addition to being the first Black person to represent Washington state in Congress, Strickland will be one of the first Korean American women to ever serve there, sharing that distinction with two other women elected this month from California.

The Democrat said her first priority is passing a new coronavirus relief package that extends federal unemployment benefits, drives money to state and local governments and supports struggling small businesses.

“Businesses are closing, people are still losing their jobs,” Strickland said, “And we just need to make sure that we’re able to pass some kind of a package that’s going to get cash in people’s hands.”

April Berg, who was recently elected to the state House, at her Mill Creek home on Nov. 11, 2020. Berg will represent Washington’s 44th Legislative District, which includes Mill Creek, Snohomish and Lake Stevens. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

April Berg

On top of everything else going on in 2020, Berg spent the past three months campaigning with a broken back.

On the day of the Aug. 4 primary election, Berg and her husband were hit head on by a driver who veered into their lane. The crash broke Berg’s back in four places — but she still went on to win the election.

While Berg said she is recovering well, she still walks with a cane. 

Berg, 46, said the crash got her thinking even more about the need to improve treatment of substance abuse disorder. The driver who hit her was allegedly high on opioids.

“I was the mom on the school board who literally got hit head-on by the opioid and substance abuse issues that we have in my community,” said Berg, a Democrat who lives in Mill Creek. “And that’s another reason why I’m wanting to get to Olympia to make changes, because we’ve just got to do better.”

After serving on both the Everett and Edmonds school boards, Berg also wants to make it easier for districts to construct new buildings. Right now, school districts must win the approval of 60% of voters to pass school construction bonds. She wants to change that to a simple majority, like other state tax votes.

She’s also focused on “making the state healthy and whole” following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as securing money for transportation projects in her district.

She said that to her, the most striking thing about so many Black women joining the Legislature next year is that their campaigns weren’t coordinated; each was independently motivated to address issues they saw in their community. 

That several hail from suburban areas also speaks to how the state is becoming more diverse, she said. “Our suburbs are just rich tapestries of diversity,” Berg said.

With more of that diversity represented in the Legislature, “I think we’re going to have more nuanced conversations about race,” she added.

Jamila Taylor, who was recently elected to the state House, stands outside of her Federal Way home on Nov. 11, 2020. Taylor will represent Washington’s 30th Legislative District. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Jamila Taylor

Taylor ran for the Federal Way City Council last year and didn’t win. But in a way, she said, that loss was fortuitous, because it left her available to run successfully for the Legislature this year.

Taylor, 44, is a public interest law attorney who advocates for crime victims and has years of experience working in family law.

While she is interested in pursuing many policies, such as ones to curb the effects of climate change, right now she said there’s one main issue the Legislature has to address — and that’s “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID.”  

“With 49% of our district as renters, there are many people who are suffering and don’t know whether or not they will have housing in the coming months,” said Taylor, who will represent the 30th Legislative District in south King and north Pierce counties. “And that means we’ve got to find some resources to help people stay in their homes.” 

Keeping people housed is not only good for families who need that stability, she said, but also is important for the entire community in terms of managing the current public health crisis.

One thing Taylor doesn’t talk about is a “new normal.” To her, that phrase implies that the status quo was something worth returning to, when in truth it was leaving many people behind. COVID-19 simply brought many of those existing disparities to light, she said.

“I am not interested in going to a new normal where we are returning to what we had before — I’m interested in the new possibilities,” Taylor said.

All told, there will be nine Black state lawmakers next year, including three Black men. Black people make up about 4% of Washington's population; now they will make up 6% of the Legislature.

Taylor said that having that “critical mass” of Black lawmakers next year will help ensure conversations about equity occur in a wider variety of contexts — not just when discussing topics like criminal justice reform and human services, “but even mundane things like water districts.”

Those conversations stand to benefit people of all backgrounds, Taylor said. For instance, although gig workers struggling during the current economic crisis may be disproportionately people of color, everyone working under those conditions — including delivery drivers who are white — would benefit if the state made it easier for gig workers to get employment benefits, she said.

“Essentially, when you work together to lift all voices and lift all the communities, it's not just the Black community that would be supported,” Taylor said. “It will be the whole community.”

State Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, gives a speech on the House floor. (Legislative Support Services)

Melanie Morgan

Morgan said she is “very, very proud of the state of Washington” for electing such a diverse slate of lawmakers this year. 

She said one or two Black legislators on their own couldn’t possibly represent the varied perspectives these new members will bring. 

“I'm only one Black woman. I'm only bringing my perspective,” said Morgan, a former Franklin Pierce School Board director. “There are now seven other House members that have both similar and different perspectives living their lives as a Black person.… That's a beautiful thing when we start folding in different parts of cultures.”

Morgan, D-Parkland, unseated a Democratic incumbent to win her House seat in 2018. During her first term, she sponsored legislation to make it an ethics violation when state lawmakers engage in harassing behavior, something her predecessor was accused of. 

Morgan, 53, also was the prime sponsor of a new law to ban discrimination based on hair style or texture, a problem many Black women testified they had encountered in past workplaces. 

During her next term, she plans to pursue a racial violence act, which she said would invest state resources in communities that have been hurt by discrimination and longstanding racial disparities. 

She also will renew her efforts to make Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery, a legal state holiday.

Morgan said her Juneteenth bill is just one example of legislation that might be crafted with Black people in mind, but has significance for everybody.

“Juneteenth is about the end of an atrocity that we had in this country,” Morgan said. “This is why it’s a statement for me that everybody in Washington — no matter what color you are, no matter what party you are with — that we said as a nation we will not tolerate slavery. We should all be proud of that.”

State Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, on the floor of the state House. (Legislative Support Services)

Debra Entenman

Entenman, one of two Black female incumbents in Washington’s Legislature, is looking forward to the first day of next year’s session even more than usual. 

She said she is hopeful that, despite the upcoming session being conducted mostly remotely, that all the new Black members will convene in Olympia for that first day.

That will be a powerful moment — not just for the Black women being sworn in, but for the entire state, she said.

“You will be able to see us all on the floor at the same time. I think that is going to be historic,” said Entenman, D-Kent.  

She encouraged Washington residents to watch the opening proceedings on TVW, the state’s public affairs television network, “so they can see us all there, so they can see the diversity of the Washington State Legislature, and see the diversity of Washington state represented in this body.”

Before her election to the state House in 2018, Entenman, 58, served as district director for U.S. Rep. Adam Smith. 

During her first two years in office, she sponsored legislation to ensure people wouldn’t lose food assistance benefits if they can’t work because they have to care for a small child. Entenman also played a key role in crafting a new law regulating the use of facial recognition technology.

During her second term, she wants to direct more aid to people who are struggling economically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to possibly include providing more cash assistance. Equity needs to play a central role in the state’s response, she said.

She also plans to work on police reform measures, such as guaranteeing independent investigations of police officers who use force and ensuring police have ongoing anti-bias training. 

Entenman, who chairs the House’s Black members caucus, said with nine members next year instead of five, the group will be able to pursue a greater variety of policies to address systemic racism.

At the same time, “folks need to remember that we are not magic,” she cautioned.

“I know we keep talking about Black girl magic — but we are not going to undo the institutional racism that exists in our state and our country in one legislative session,” Entenman said. “But I think we are going to do what we can to make things better for everyone.”

State Supreme Court Justice G. Helen Whitener, photographed in Gov. Jay Inslee’s office on April 13. (Office of the Governor photo)

G. Helen Whitener

Whitener, 55, is the first Black woman to serve as a justice on the Washington State Supreme Court. She previously served five years as a Pierce County Superior Court judge and spent 14 years practicing law — including as a prosecutor, a defense attorney and a managing partner of a law firm.

Whitener, who immigrated to the United States from Trinidad when she was a teenager, is also the state’s first Black LGBT judge, according to her state Supreme Court biography. In a 2015 TEDx Talk organized locally in Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, Port of Spain, Whitener spoke about how she had a falling out with her mother when she revealed she was a lesbian. She said they later reconciled after her mother “was able to overcome her intolerance and reach a place of respect.” 

In response to a woman at her mother’s church who said she would pray for Whitener “to find a man,” Whitener joked that a man could, in fact, be useful around the house. “Because, you see, my wife and I are busy professionals, and we have plenty of chores,” she said, to laughter and applause.

When it comes to the legal system, Whitener said that, historically, the courts have granted “privileges that are not earned,” reinforcing societal codes that hold Black people, women and LGBT individuals in lower esteem.

But, she said, “we have the ability and the power to crack these predetermined codes.”

“We have differences, but we are not truly different,” Whitener said.

Kirsten Harris-Talley speaks with a fellow commuter on her way to work in 2017. Harris-Talley was recently elected to represent Washington's 37th Legislative District, which includes Rainier Valley, the Central District and the Chinatown-International District in Seattle, as well as part of Renton.(Matt McKnight/Crosscut)

Kirsten Harris-Talley

Harris-Talley, a longtime progressive activist, spent 51 days on the Seattle City Council in 2017, filling an interim appointment. During that time, she said she saw that many policies Seattle might want to adopt at the city level were restricted by state law, including local rent-control and taxes on the wealthy.

In the Legislature, she’s interested in pursuing new progressive revenue options to pay for affordable housing and other programs that help advance “equity and justice,” she said.

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, “making sure we can raise enough money to take care of everyone in Washington state who needs our care is going to be a top priority,” said Harris-Talley, a Democrat who lives in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.

One of her goals is improving the juvenile justice system by investing in wraparound services to help rehabilitate children who commit crimes, as opposed to setting them up for a lifetime of incarceration. 

Until recently, Harris-Talley, 41, served as the interim executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington. Her past activism has included participating in the “Block the Bunker” campaign to stop the construction of a new North Seattle police station, which had been projected to cost $149 million. She also was part of the “No New Youth Jail” movement objecting to the construction of a new King County juvenile detention facility.

She has concerns about what could happen if the state narrows its moratorium on evictions, such as making people prove their financial hardships are related to COVID-19 to qualify. “These sorts of barriers being put in the way of folks getting the help they want is a lot of what we’re going to be talking about,” Harris-Talley said.

She called the election of this many Black women to the Legislature “a game changer” — but at the same time, she added, “We are not monolithic.” 

Harris-Talley, for instance, brings a unique perspective to the Legislature as not only a Black woman, but as one who is openly queer. 

“We have a diversity of ideas about what the problems are and what the solutions are to solve them,” she said. 

On seeing a Black women elected as vice president

More than a week after Kamala Harris was declared the vice president-elect of the United States, Morgan said she was still smiling over it.

“It’s just exciting,” said Morgan, who, like Harris, is of Jamaican descent. “Maybe we didn’t get there for president, but we are there as the vice president — and it’s just the beginning, is all I keep thinking. It is just the beginning.”

To Taylor, Harris’s election is part of “an amazing precedent and moment, showing that leaders come in all shapes and sizes and colors.” 

“We’ve been contributing to the historical fabric of America since its inception,” Taylor said of Black Americans. “What’s historic about this moment is the number of Black women in particular having a political voice.”

Berg said when she saw Harris take the stage to give her victory speech Nov. 7, she was moved to tears. 

“I love, love, love seeing a Black woman in that role because at the end of the day I’m a little girl at heart, and I always want to see that I can do anything,” Berg said. 

Entenman said she expects that whatever Harris does, “she is going to be doing with a different perspective and a different lens.”

“I think just having that perspective will create different outcomes,” Entenman said. “And I look forward to that.” 

State Rep.-elect April Berg works remotely from her Mill Creek home on Nov. 11, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

This story was updated to add information about G. Helen Whitener, who this year became the first Black woman to sit on the state Supreme Court.

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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.