State Sen. Jean Kohl-Welles started following in her friend’s footsteps more than 23 years ago. Now, she’s at it again.
After spending the last 20 years as a state legislator, Kohl-Welles announced April 8 that she would run to succeed Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, who is retiring at the end of this term as representative of District 4.
Kohl-Welles serves the 36th Legislative District, which includes Ballard, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Fremont and Greenwood. She previously served three years in the state House of Representatives, taking over for Phillips when he won his election to the County Council in 1991.
Kohl-Welles said Phillips told her “quite some time ago” that he might not run for reelection and encouraged her to run for the spot. She officially made her intentions known about a week after Phillips’ retirement announcement. Phillips — along with County Councilmembers Rod Dembowski, Joe McDermott and Dave Upthegrove and multiple legislators — quickly endorsed her for the position.
Filing for the County Council election hasn’t officially begun. People can file by mail starting on April 27 and via online or in-person starting the week of May 11. Filing closes May 15.
Kohl-Wells called Phillips a longtime ally and someone with whom she shares many of the same values and public policy priorities.
“It’s a little bit daunting thinking of replacing him or succeeding him, but I do think I bring a number of skills and knowledge,” she said. “He’s irreplaceable, but I think I can do pretty well.”
A legacy of preservation
After two terms in the state House, Phillips started with the King County Council in 1992, where he worked to implement the 1990 Growth Management Act he’d authored while in Olympia. Phillips also focused on preserving the county’s landscapes and protecting natural resources — or, as he calls it, “the fabric of communities.”
A Magnolia resident since age 13 and a former Queen Anne High School student, Phillips said he’s pleased with King County’s enhancements in the arts, parks, open space and recreation. Despite an unsuccessful run for King County executive in 2009, Phillips said the policy direction and budget are consistent with how he feels the county should run.
“I don’t have any great disappointments,” he said.
Phillips said he became interested in civics as a teenager and, after college, joined the staffs of U.S. Sen. Henry Jackson and then-King County Executive Randy Revelle.
“The issue areas were always in the blood, not necessarily being a campaigner or an elected,” he said. “But I was pleased to make the transition.”
Phillips said he had a “wonderful tenure” serving District 4, which covers areas that include Ballard, Queen Anne and Magnolia. Though he has “a lot of juice left for the job,” he decided he was ready for some new endeavors.
“It seemed to be the right time for making a transition and starting a new chapter,” he said.
That county council chapter ends Dec. 31. He said he plans to take at least six months to decompress — resting, traveling — before deciding where to devote his time and energy next. He expects that might continue to be in the areas he’s championed over the years on the County Council: protecting quality of life and a sustainable economy, conservation of natural resources and climate change.
Phillips said the next County Council leader needs “optimism and constructive intelligence, as well as tenacity and a willingness to master the details of local and regional government.”
He expects future issues to include the persistent growth, mobility and infrastructure demands, income inequality and wealth disparity, natural resource protection, enhanced fiscal resources and, above all, climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Phillips said he’s known Kohl-Welles as a friend and colleague for the better part of 30 years. He said she’s always been able to talk through public policy issues and is in tune and attentive to the concerns of her constituency.
“She’s a very stabilizing force,” he said.
A new challenge
A multitude of elements led to Kohl-Welles’ desire to swap roles, most notably that she could stay in Seattle rather than commuting to Olympia and, much like Phillips, she could implement many of the issues she’s worked on in the Senate at the local level.
“In the County Council, I’ll be right in what is going on with real people, and that is really of interest to me,” she said. “This would be a new challenge for me.”
Kohl-Welles, who holds a doctorate degree in Sociology of Education and a master’s degree in sociology from UCLA, is a ranking member of the Senate Higher Education Committee and sits on the Senate Ways & Means and Law & Justice committees.
As a legislator, she has focused on issues related to children and vulnerable adults; victims of human trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation of children and domestic violence; medical marijuana reform; and strategies addressing homelessness, affordable housing and discrimination.
“Now I can work with the organizations within the county that actually have programs and are trying to help minors who are being prostituted and persecuted,” she said.
Kohl-Wells mentioned transportation and mobility issues, among other priorities on the county level. That includes challenges with traffic congestion and getting light rail to Ballard, Queen Anne and Magnolia.
From Olympia to King County
Transitioning from having nearly 150 legislative colleagues who gather for a few months each year to eight fellow council members who meet weekly is a unique challenge.
Phillips calls the County Council a “functional legislative body,” quite unlike what is seen in Congress or even Olympia. He said the council provides more ability for hands-on work on an immense array of issues. It’s still difficult, challenging and, at times, frustrating, he said, but with more time to work through all of the issues.
He said service in Olympia provides a good foundation for county government, in part because the process is similar. The main difference, he said, is pace and requirements.
“In Olympia, it’s like getting a four-year college education in four months,” he said. “It is exhausting — totally exhausting.”
As a progressive Democrat, Kohl-Welles acknowledged that it would be a change moving from the increasingly partisan environment in Olympia to one that is nonpartisan and generally cordial. She said she’s not tired of the political posturing, per se, but she certainly won’t miss people snipping at one another in the media and the constant battle between Democrats and Republicans.
“What is particularly appealing about County Council is it is nonpartisan — it is very collegial,” she said. “I like that nonpartisan approach.”
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