State Rep. Laurie Jinkins’ election as speaker of the House of Representatives represents a double first: The Tacoma legislator is the first woman and first openly gay representative to lead the chamber, one of only three LGBTQ lawmakers nationwide in such a position.
But as we celebrate the milestone for parity in political leadership and representation, we look forward to another milestone when all such “firsts” have come and gone.
Washington has long been a leader in electing a diverse group of office holders, particularly women. In fact, it has been more than a century since that demographic’s first statehouse “first” in Olympia. Bellingham’s Frances C. Axtell and Tacoma’s Nena J. Croake were elected to the Legislature in 1912, only two years after Washington women received the vote. And the Senate has had women in charge repeatedly, starting with Republican Jeannette Hayner’s elevation to majority leader in 1981.
Washington voters have repeatedly elected women to statewide office. The first was Secretary of State Belle Reeves in 1940. They sent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray to D.C. in 1992 — famously declared “the Year of the Woman” because the nation’s voters elected an unprecedented four female senators in that election. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, rejected that moniker, saying, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”
Murray was joined in the Senate by fellow Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell in 2000. The 2005 election of Gov. Christine Gregoire completed the trifecta.
There is much yet to do to ensure institutions of power are true reflections of our communities. The arc of history does not bend toward justice without a nudge.
But all around, there are signs of a greater understanding that diversity is not a box to be checked, but rather an ongoing commitment to proportional representation required for healthy democracy and political engagement. Consider that just four years after the first major party nomination of a female candidate for president, a half-dozen female candidates are among the field of viable candidates, as is an openly gay man.
Speaker-designate Jinkins’ list of legislative priorities is already extensive, with pressing debates across the policy map to navigate in the coming session. Her pioneer status is a powerful platform to forge stronger connections between Washington citizens and state government.
She should place high importance on making this a lasting bond to foster healthy civic engagement across the state’s population. One way to do this is by building on the commitment to open government demonstrated by her predecessor, longtime Speaker Frank Chopp.
The capitol can only be as inclusive as it is transparent. Jinkins’ elevation is powerful evidence that the corridors of power can be open to every Washingtonian. The work that is done there must remain just as accessible.