King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles on Wednesday announced in a letter to constituents that, after more than 30 years in elected office, she will not seek re-election and will retire at the end of this year.
Kohl-Welles has represented District 4, which includes most of northwest Seattle — Queen Anne, Magnolia, Interbay, Belltown, South Lake Union, Ballard, Fremont, Phinney, Greenwood and much of Green Lake — on the council since 2016.
“I’ve loved serving on the Council. I’ve absolutely loved it,” Kohl-Welles said in her announcement. “But at some point, it’s time to pass the torch for others to get involved. My entire time in public office has been immensely gratifying; however, there’s a time for everything and I feel really good about this being the time to move on to something new.”
Kohl-Welles’ career record includes wins on harassment and discrimination, gender and domestic violence, human trafficking, educational equity, tenants’ rights, homelessness, arts, culture and science funding, the environment and transit. She shepherded round upon round of emergency funding as the budget committee chair for the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, including eight COVID budgets as well as the 2021-22 biennial budget and four omnibus supplemental budgets.
Kohl-Welles earned a bachelors and master’s degree at Cal State Northridge, following in her mother’s footsteps to become a public-school teacher, and later a master’s in sociology and a Ph.D. in the sociology of education, both at UCLA. Later, she participated in the Kennedy School of Government’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program at Harvard University.
TITLE IX CHAMPION
A major focus of her career has been Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges. She cofounded a consulting firm to assist schools in the new law’s implementation and then went on to work as assistant dean of students and coordinator of women’s programs at the University of California, Irvine, as well as a desegregation and educational equity specialist in a contract with the U.S. Department of Education and later as a consultant with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights. It was these experiences that set her on a course toward politics and public policymaking.
When she moved to Seattle with husband, Alex Welles, in 1985, she became an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington but was primed for becoming more directly engaged in affecting social change.
Settling down on Queen Anne Hill, Kohl-Welles soon became involved with the 36th District Democrats and then the Queen Anne Community Council. After playing a key role with the council on issues on hate crimes, hardly recognized in those years, and homelessness, she was asked to run for the state House of Representatives. Though the timing wasn’t quite right then, she was ready.
“My work in teaching and research was not that different than my policy work in the legislature and even in the council, but I always felt like I didn’t have an immediate impact (in teaching),” Kohl-Welles said.
Then in 1992, with Larry Phillips’ election to the King County Council the prior year, a seat opened up, and the council appointed Kohl-Welles to replace him in the state House. After winning election to the seat that fall, she served two more years, including as majority whip, before being elected to the state Senate, where she would have one of the safest seats in the Legislature over the course of her career, often winning more than 80 percent of the vote.
During her tenure in the House and the Senate, Kohl-Welles tackled social justice issues, including gender equity; early childhood, K-12 and higher education; income inequality and workers’ protections; health care, housing and human rights; and environmental protection.
She led the legislative effort to legalize medical marijuana in Washington and cosponsored legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. She spearheaded the first laws in Washington requiring public schools, colleges and universities to have sexual harassment policies. She also led on human trafficking and child sexual abuse legislation beginning in 2002 and became an expert witness in lawsuits on trafficking, Title IX and sexual harassment. She championed the highly controversial legislation to construct the new Seahawks stadium, now known as Lumen Field, which was approved by voters in 1998, and secured funding for the Galer Street Pedestrian Overpass across Aurora Avenue North.
Related to her legislative work, Kohl-Welles served on the Executive Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures and on NCSL’s Foundation Board for several years and as President of NCSL’s Women’s Legislative Network for two separate terms. She also represented Washington state and served as chair of the Western Commission for Higher Education, and has long been a national and international speaker on sexual harassment, Title IX and women and politics, including speaking at a Vital Voices Conference in Kiev, Ukraine.
SENATE TO COUNCIL
In 2015, after two decades in the Senate, she got another call from Phillips, this time telling her that he was retiring from the King County Council, and he wanted her to run for his seat.
“What really finally sold me on it was having something new but something that I understood, and the thought that I could be more engaged with implementation, to really be able to effect change at the local level,” she said.
Kohl-Welles took her District 4 seat on the council and continued her reputation of being popularly elected by a wide margin. She won her latest, highly contested election with 74 percent of the vote.
Her work has earned her recognition over the years: She was named Most Effective Democratic Senator in the Washington State Senate by The Washington Post (2014) and Citizen of the Decade by The Queen Anne & Magnolia News (2002). Among many other awards, she earned Lifetime Achievement awards from the Low Income Housing Alliance (2015) and Metropolitan Democratic Caucus (2013) and Legislator of the Year awards from The Humane Society of the United States (2010), Progressive States Network (2007), SEIU 775 (2006), AFT-WA (2006) and the Washington Student Lobby (1999).
For years, she has had a reputation as a hard-working yet congenial and accessible lawmaker. She has often worked hand-in-hand with her constituents on legislation. A standout for her was in 2009 when she worked with two middle-schoolers on legislation to regulate puppy mills. That kind of work has always brought her joy.
“I loved introducing legislation where ideas came from constituents,” she said.
And she always focused on being accessible to her constituents, maintaining a district office throughout her time as a legislator and attending and speaking at community meetings, striving always to be “accessible, responsive and effective.”
While she has taken on challenging issues that often met with stiff opposition, she mostly has been able to strike a happy medium of pushing back but also finding a path forward.
“I think I’m persistent, I don’t give up easily,” Kohl-Welles said. “But I know that it’s important that if you’re going to be effective, you can’t just repeat things that don’t work. You’ve got to find a way to reach agreement with people, find those shared values.”
As she contemplates retirement, Kohl-Welles is looking forward to spending more time with family, traveling and perhaps writing another book. She also plans to continue working with Win with Women, a PAC she cofounded to help progressive women get elected to the Washington state Legislature.
Settling down to a quiet retired life just isn’t in the cards for Kohl-Welles. As she would tell it, her work is hardly finished, and she loves it.
“Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that this was my calling in life and it has been the greatest privilege to serve the many resilient, thoughtful and engaged communities in District Four and the 36th Legislative District,” she said. “I cannot thank my constituents enough for their faith in me.”
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