SEATAC — Washington House Democrats opened a fresh chapter in state politics Wednesday, selecting Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma to succeed Frank Chopp as speaker of the House.
When she’s formally voted in at the start of the new legislative session in January, Jinkins, 54, will be the first woman to ever hold that position in Olympia.
She’s currently one of only three openly LGBTQ lawmakers in the nation serving as the leader of a state legislative chamber, according to the Victory Institute, an advocacy organization that seeks to increase LGBTQ people in elected office.
And the selection of Jinkins provides a bookend to the two-decade-long reign of Chopp, D-Seattle and the longest-serving speaker in Washington history.
The change comes amid a broader shift in the House Democratic caucus, as it has become younger and more diverse. A woman had been widely expected to win the speakership.
Now all eyes will be on Jinkins to see whether she steers House Democrats further to the left — or whether, like Chopp, she keeps the caucus in the middle on certain issues.
After her selection Wednesday during a meeting of all 57 House Democrats — who voted in a couple rounds to winnow from four contenders — Jinkins said she was “honored to have the confidence of my caucus.”
She vowed to continue what she and other House Democrats see as the achievements reaped from nearly 20 years of control.
“And I want that to last until the end of time,” said Jinkins, adding later: “I think we are focused on the people’s work, and doing things on behalf of the people of this state above all else.”
Jinkins also said Democrats can accomplish their goals by working alongside others and finding ways to collaborate.
Some Democrats on Wednesday said protecting their 57-41 majority has been part of recent discussions — and believe Jinkins will be successful.
“I think Laurie knows how far we can go on policy, without jeopardizing our majority,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland and chair of the House Public Safety Committee.
As for the party’s future direction, the change may not much affect the short-term, said Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle.
Tarleton said Democratic lawmakers have been focused on what they consider bigger coming moments: the 2020 elections and the U.S. Census, which will lead to the once-a-decade redistricting of political seats.
“What are swing districts today, might not be after re-redistricting,” she said. “And what are red or blue districts today might turn into more swingy.”
Tarleton, who was one of four women in the speaker’s race, praised Jinkins and called the leadership campaign a “terrific election” where lawmakers all “participated and shared ideas, concerns.”
First elected in 2010, Jinkins, has served as chair of the powerful House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, which handles bills related to the courts.
Perhaps her biggest recent accomplishment was this year’s passage of her bill to create an employee-paid insurance benefit to help offset the costs of long-term care.
Jinkins currently works as a director of organizational development at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, after having previously served as its deputy director. It was unclear Wednesday whether she intended to keep her current job.
She has previously served as an assistant secretary at the Washington State Department of Health, and litigated child neglect and abuse for the state Attorney General’s Office, according to her legislative biography.
In a statement Wednesday, GOP House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm congratulated Jinkins.
“While we will have vigorous policy debates, I look forward to working closely with Representative Jinkins to find ways to be more transparent in our process and more open in debate,” Wilcox said.
The Washington State Republican Party took a dimmer view, saying in a statement that “Her track record of supporting far-left policies makes Frank Chopp look like a moderate” and equating Jinkins with “the rest of the Democrats’ steadfast movement towards socialism.”
Chopp rose to co-speaker in 1999, sharing that role for three years with Republican Clyde Ballard in an evenly-split House, and assumed the sole speakership in 2002.
Until he stepped down in May, Chopp had been the second-longest speaker currently serving in the nation.
Chopp, 66, announced last November his intention to step aside, but has said he’ll run again for his House seat.
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, has been serving as acting speaker, the first African American in state history to fill that role. He’ll continue until the speaker vote in January.
The other candidates for speaker included June Robinson of Everett and Monica Stonier of Vancouver.
Last year saw what was likely the most women to run for the state Legislature. Women now make up 41.5% of the state Senate and House, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the third-highest in the nation.
Meanwhile, Democrats have the most diverse caucus in their history.
The speakership is one of Washington’s most powerful political jobs. From the large corner office just outside the House chambers, the speaker can shape the party’s priorities and steer that bills come to the floor, and, outside the Legislature, recruit candidates.
The speaker chairs both the Rules Committee, which determines what bills come to the floor, and the Executive Rules Committee, which handles some personnel matters.
In an email, House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean wrote that his office is planning to hold a series of meetings with the new speaker to review those and other responsibilities.
Nearly every sitting lawmaker has known only Chopp as speaker, and Dean predicted “an adjustment period” for both legislators and Jinkins.
“The role is multifaceted and each Speaker has done the job in a different way,” Dean wrote. “My guess is that it will take some time for the new Speaker to develop their style and put their mark on the institution.”