Former Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn, one of the state's most prominent Republican figures for more than two decades, died unexpectedly Tuesday...

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Former Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn, one of the state’s most prominent Republican figures for more than two decades, died unexpectedly Tuesday night. She was 66.

Ms. Dunn suffered a pulmonary embolism and collapsed in her Alexandria, Va., apartment and never regained consciousness, her family said in a statement. She died later at the hospital, where she was surrounded by family members.

“We’re just trying to pull ourselves together,” said her son, Reagan Dunn, a King County councilman. “It was a total shock.

“She gave her whole life giving to other people. She touched a lot of lives and did a lot for her country.”

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Ms. Dunn served six terms in the U.S. House, from 1993 to 2005, representing Washington’s Eighth District, which includes Bellevue, much of east King County and part of Pierce County. She became the first woman to serve on the House Republican leadership team.

She retired from politics in 2005 and went to work for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.

Before serving in Congress, Ms. Dunn became the first woman elected as chair of a state Republican Party — a position she held from 1981 to 1992.

News of Ms. Dunn’s death shocked Republicans and Democrats alike.

“I’m just stunned,” said Brett Bader, a Republican consultant from Bellevue. “It’s like a whole generation of Republicans have lost their mom. She was that giant of a figure.”

“I feel terrible for her family,” said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who has known Ms. Dunn since they were teenagers. “They should be very proud of all she accomplished and the way she did it.”

Dicks, D-Bremerton, described Ms. Dunn as a fiercely loyal Republican but said she was always willing to work together when the state’s interests were at stake. He cited their efforts at reducing international trade barriers and support for Boeing.

“Her passing is a loss for all Washingtonians,” Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire said in a written statement. “She was a devoted wife and mother and always kept her family as her top priority. My thoughts and prayers are with her family at this difficult time.”

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said that besides breaking the glass ceiling for Republican women in the House, Dunn had a great personality — “outgoing and friendly and concerned.”

“She was a major part of my life as she was a major part of the political life of the state of Washington,” he told KOMO Radio in Seattle.

In Congress, Ms. Dunn served as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, vice chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Republican caucus campaign team.

She was known for her work to cut the inheritance tax, for promoting small and women-owned businesses, and for sponsoring the Amber Alert bill to locate missing children.

She was a frequent spokeswoman for the House, once giving the Republican response to a State of the Union address by then-President Bill Clinton. She helped run three Republican national conventions.

She was elected to the U.S. House in 1992, the year Clinton was elected president, and easily beat back a series of Democratic challengers for her seat.

In 1998, at the height of her power and having never suffered a significant political defeat, she decided to challenge House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, becoming the first woman to run for the post.

She came in third, finishing behind Armey, who was re-elected, and former Seattle Seahawk Steve Largent, then a congressman from Oklahoma.

While Dunn received less support from GOP colleagues than she had expected, she was philosophical.

“I’m not really disappointed,” she said at the time. “I was cracking that glass ceiling. No woman has ever run for a leadership position like this. I felt it was worth it just for that.”

Information from The Associated Press and The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com