If elected to a 49th District Vancouver-area House seat, Kaitlyn Beck would be the youngest and likely the first transgender member of the Washington Legislature.
OLYMPIA — If Vancouver-area voters elect her, Kaitlyn Beck would be the youngest member to ever serve in the Washington Legislature — and likely the first transgender woman to hold office there.
Beck, 20, faces long odds in her quest to unseat a fellow Democrat — incumbent Rep. Sharon Wylie of Vancouver. But Beck’s challenge highlights a slew of issues, including the rarity of transgender candidates and lingering tensions within the Democratic Party over this year’s presidential candidates.
Beck comes to politics as an outsider and acolyte of Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator and former Democratic-socialist presidential candidate.
Wylie, 67, casts herself as progressive but with a pragmatic bent, and a longtime admirer of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“I’m not somebody who’s been in office for a long time,” said Beck, who lives in Vancouver and works in Portland at a medical staffing company. “I would be a truly progressive voice for the state.”
Beck’s candidacy comes at a time when conservatives in Washington and across the nation have attempted — and sometimes succeeded — in passing laws restricting transgender people’s access to public bathrooms and locker rooms.
A bill to do that in Washington died in the state Senate this year, after a trio of moderate Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing it. A similar proposal put forth as a ballot initiative failed to draw enough signatures to qualify for the November elections.
Having an openly transgender representative “would have a pretty profound impact on the conversation that happens in the state Legislature,” said Danni Askini, executive director of the Seattle-based Gender Justice League. Askini briefly ran for a legislative seat, dropping out before the August primary.
Askini said she has never met Beck, but has spoken briefly to her through Facebook.
There are no openly transgender men or women elected to any state legislatures in the nation, according to Elliot Imse, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
Meanwhile, the contest in the 49th District is one of two House races there pitting Democrats against each other in the general election — a first for the district.
That distinction is one that Richard Rogers, chairman of the Clark County Democrats, describes as “new ground, new territory for us all.”
Beck grew up in Paonia, Colo., a town of about 1,450 people a few hours’ drive southwest of Denver. It was there in 2012 when she first became politically active, knocking on doors and making phone calls to help re-elect President Obama.
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She moved to Washington in 2014 — Beck said she’d always dreamed of living in the Northwest — and later became drawn to the Sanders campaign.
“She’s very progressive both socially and economically,” said Vaughn Henderson, who said he met Beck earlier this year and now works on her campaign.
Henderson, 19, ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate, losing in the primary but earning an endorsement from The Columbian newspaper, which also backed incumbent Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.
In her campaign, Beck has proposed a statewide 5-cent tax on plastic bags to raise money for education and said she’d like the state to have more ambitious clean-energy goals.
Beck called Clinton “corrupt” and “a little too conservative for my taste” and said she liked Sanders because he was “really a candidate for the people.”
Citing the Clinton-Sanders divide between her and the incumbent, Beck said she decided to run when it seemed Wylie, a consultant, wasn’t going to draw a challenge. Beck indeed was the only candidate to file against Wylie.
“It took me entirely by surprise,” said Wylie, adding later: “Southwest Washington is one of those areas that feels very neglected by the people power of the Puget Sound region, so I don’t think it makes sense for us to be split and not work together.”
A former nonprofit worker and lobbyist, Wylie was appointed to the seat in 2011 and fended off challenges from Republicans in 2012 and 2014. She describes herself as a progressive who tries to be pragmatic.
Wylie touts legislation she sponsored to save the state money through its contracting process and to strengthen laws against so-called revenge porn.
“The best practice for being in office is having a lot of life experience,” said Wylie, who sits on the House Finance Committee, which could play a large role in budget and education-funding policy next year. “That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have more young people.”
While Henderson touts the fact that Beck’s campaign Facebook page has more likes than Wylie’s, Beck nonetheless faces a tough challenge.
Wylie collected nearly three out of four votes in the August primary — her best primary performance so far — and raised over $51,000, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Beck is likely to only raise a few thousand dollars — and said she’d prefer not to raise much money.
Meanwhile, the Young Democrats of Clark County and the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have endorsed Wylie.
Beck hasn’t yet applied to get an endorsement from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, though there’s still time to do so, according to Imse.