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Why are these 23 WA state lawmakers choosing not to seek re-election?

caption: An elections worker removes ballots from a ballot sorting machine on Wednesday, October 28, 2020, at King County Elections in Renton.
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An elections worker removes ballots from a ballot sorting machine on Wednesday, October 28, 2020, at King County Elections in Renton.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

There are 23 Washington state lawmakers who have decided not to run for re-election this year.

And sure, it happens. Lawmakers retire. They move on to new or existing obligations. But it's hard not to take note of the exodus in Olympia, especially given the current overall political climate.

So, what's the deal?

KUOW's Angela King discussed the issue with Olympia Correspondent Austin Jenkins and Shauna Sowersby, the state government reporter for McClatchy.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Angela King: Shauna, let me start with you. Without going through the entire list of the 23 names, give us an idea of who is in the group. Is one party losing more incumbents than the other?

Shauna Sowersby: Yeah, actually, it does seem that more Democrats are leaving the Legislature all together. Many of the Republicans are seeking higher offices. So, we've got Rep. Jesse Young, a Republican from Gig Harbor who's going for Senate. And then we've got Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Republican from Vancouver who is seeking a congressional position.

Austin, have you noticed any trends among this group? What seems to be behind these lawmakers leaving the Legislature?

Austin Jenkins: Well, I would note that this is about 16% of the Legislature. So it's not an avalanche of people leaving. It seems like these lawmakers fit into one of three buckets.

There's those who've been in the Legislature for a long time and are simply ready to retire. And to some extent, when people leave, that does open up doors and opportunities for newcomers, and perhaps opportunities to further diversify this Legislature. I will also say that when people leave, you lose a lot of institutional memory. For instance, state Rep. Eileen Cody, a Democrat from Seattle, has been the lead in the House on healthcare and healthcare reform for decades. She's a nurse by training. She's an institution in the state Legislature, and those are big shoes to fill just in terms of her expertise.

Then there's the group that Shana mentioned that aspires to higher or a different office.

And then there are some newer, younger lawmakers who seem to be signaling that they're, frankly, not willing to put up with the sacrifice involved in running for and serving in the Legislature. You know, it's a job that doesn't pay well and takes a ton of time. I would put Democratic Rep. Jesse Johnson of Federal Way in this group. He is a young African American legislator at the forefront of police reform efforts, a rising star in Democratic politics. But he's stepping down. He's got a partner who's in medical school and a young child at home. Here's part of what he said when he announced he would not be running for re-election:

I truly believe that it should not always be women taking a back seat in their careers and I have a talented partner in medical school soon to become a doctor. Supporting her while being more present in her and my child’s life is what is needed for our family. Washington state Rep. Jesse Johnson (D-Federal Way)

Shauna, do you think incumbents bowing out of their races this year will lead to any interesting contests?

Sowersby: Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from Potlatch, is leaving his position. He's been in there a long time. He was elected as a Democrat, but he started caucusing almost a decade ago with the Republicans. So, I think that that will be an interesting race to see if his district will vote to replace him with a Democrat or a Republican.

Jenkins: I would definitely watch the race for outgoing Sen. Mona Das' seat in the 47th District. This was previously held by a Republican, and from what I've heard, redistricting did not make that seat any more friendly to Democrats; it already looked like Das was going to face a tough re-election contest if she did run. So, this one is now going to be an open race. I'd definitely put that in the toss-up category.

Interestingly, in that very same district, longtime House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, also a Democrat, is retiring. So, his seat will be open, leaving two open seats in that very purple district.

Also, Shauna mentioned Republican Rep. Jesse Young who is running for state Senate in the 26th District on the Kitsap Peninsula; that's another swing district. He will be challenging first-term incumbent Sen. Emily Randall, a Democrat. That will be a very hotly contested race.

Now that the 2022 legislative session is over, Gov. Jay Inslee has been signing a lot of bills that have arrived on his desk. Austin, can you catch us up on what has been recently signed?

Jenkins: So this week, three pretty significant gun-related bills were signed into law. One was a limit on gun-magazine capacity. So under the new rule, there will be a ban on the sale and manufacture of gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Inslee also signed an expansion of a previous law banning untraceable, homemade "ghost guns," which are often made using a 3D printer, as well as new limits on guns in the public square. That includes city council and school board meetings.

The governor also signed a bill designed to strengthen and expand diversity within the Washington State Patrol, which is still very largely white and male.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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