State Senate Majority Lisa Brown is calling it quits this year after leading Senate Democrats for the last 10 years. She didn't rule out running for office in the future, including governor, but won't be on the ballot this year.
OLYMPIA — After leading her caucus through years of deep budget cuts that unraveled social-service and education programs Democrats hold dear, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown is calling it quits.
The Spokane Democrat said it wasn’t the cuts, or the fact three members of her caucus joined with Republicans this year to take control of the state budget that persuaded her to leave.
“Things like that generally motivate me to stick around and keep fighting,” she said Thursday.
Brown said it was just time to go.
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“I went to a friend’s cabin this weekend and was walking around a lake and had this epiphany that the legislative chapter was complete for me after 20 years in office, and 10 as the leader of my caucus,” she said at her office.
The 55-year-old economist and part-time instructor at Gonzaga University was upbeat and chipper during the interview, saying she’ll leave at the end of her term in January on a high note after accomplishing many of her long-term goals.
Brown said two of her top achievements include a successful effort this year to legalize gay marriage, and helping put a measure on the ballot that allowed school levies to be approved by a simple majority of voters, instead of the 60 percent supermajority formerly required. It was approved by voters in 2007.
Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, quickly announced plans to run for her seat, and Brown expressed confidence Democrats will retain control of both her seat and the Senate.
She wouldn’t rule out running for office in the future, including governor, but not this year, she said.
Brown would not speculate on who might replace her as the Senate majority leader, if Democrats retain control after the November election. “I don’t want to anoint the next one,” she said.
Brown was chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee when her caucus elected her to take over for former Senate Democratic Leader Sid Snyder when he retired in 2002.
The current Senate Ways and Means chairman, Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said it’s too early to discuss who will replace Brown.
“It’s not currently something I’m considering. It’s a conversation we’ll all have to have once the election’s over and we see who we have in our caucus,” he said.
Murray has also been talked about as a possible candidate for Seattle mayor next year.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, also wouldn’t speculate on who might lead Senate Democrats.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said he was shocked by Brown’s announcement.
“I knew she’d been looking for higher office, but when she didn’t find one I didn’t think she would leave the Legislature,” he said.
Brown in 2009 publicly contemplated running for governor when Gov. Chris Gregoire retired, and there was some speculation last year that she might run for lieutenant governor.
Many lawmakers, including Hewitt, said the past few years have been hard ones for lawmakers.
“And it’s getting tougher as we go along,” Hewitt said. “Every year is more challenging. Everything is instantaneous between the blogs and the tweets and the Facebooks. You ask a question and don’t phrase it quite correctly in committee, and everybody in the world has it in about 90 seconds.”
Hewitt said he got along fine with Brown. “From a political standpoint, I always like it when she proposed an income tax,” he said, noting it was good campaign material for Republicans.
Superlatives rolled in from Democrats.
“As the first Democratic woman to serve as Senate majority leader, Senator Brown has opened doors for many, while her dedication to helping working families and children will be missed,” state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said in a statement.
Gregoire said Brown “has been a strong voice for her constituents and region. She will have many legacies, chief among them is the new medical school, which will serve Spokane and nearby residents for generations to come.”
Murray, who played a lead role in shepherding through gay-rights legislation and the gay marriage law, gave Brown a lot of credit for getting those measures through the Senate.
He recalled that in 2005, Brown made a “gutsy” move by bringing gay-rights legislation to a Senate floor vote even though they did not know if it would pass. It failed by one vote.
But the decision exposed for the first time who was against the measure and allowed pressure to be applied on those lawmakers, Murray said,
“It was a strategy that got us to victory in 2006,” when landmark gay-rights legislation finally made it into law, he said.
Brown was first elected to the state House in 1992 during what was deemed the “year of the woman” in politics. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray was also elected that year, along with Gregoire, who ran for attorney general.
In Olympia, the class made national headlines because nearly 40 percent of the legislators being sworn in were women — at the time, the highest percentage of female lawmakers elected to any Legislature in the nation.
Three months into her first term, Brown made the national news by bringing her then 1-year-old son, Lucas, onto the House floor during a late-night vote. The chief clerk ordered the child off the floor, saying that only lawmakers were allowed. The incident sparked a debate that ended in a rules change.
Brown marked the occasion a year later by bringing her son back to the floor. No one objected.
By 1995, she was named House minority floor leader. One year later, after just two terms in the House, she defeated Republican John Moyer for a seat in the Senate.
During her first term in the Senate, Brown became chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature, later becoming Senate majority leader.
Former Republican Sen. Jeannette Hayner, of Walla Walla, was the first woman to become Senate Majority Leader in 1981.
Brown said she’s not sure yet what she’ll do after leaving office.
“I feel like there are going to be new opportunities for me, but it will be hard to know what they are if I don’t step back,” she said.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story includes material from Seattle Times archives.