Wednesday, March 12, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State Rep. Helen Sommers to leave Legislature

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA — State Rep. Helen Sommers, one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington, is retiring after 36 years in office.

The Seattle Democrat had fended off retirement rumors for months, saying she would make up her mind sometime after the Legislature adjourns on Thursday.

But word got out Tuesday afternoon when the Capitol lobbyist corps began handing out invitations to a retirement party for Sommers and seven other House members who are stepping down.

Sommers, Washington's longest-serving legislator, waited to announce her retirement because she didn't want to be viewed as a lame duck.

"To say you're retiring during the session doesn't seem like the wise thing to do," said Sommers, 75. "I tried to keep it until after session but it leaked out."

Staff and colleagues "squeezed it out of me," Sommers said. "I just wanted to move away quietly without any fuss."

There's already speculation about who will succeed Sommers as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most influential positions in the Legislature.

Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said she's going for the job. "I think I have as good a shot as anybody. I'm pretty optimistic," she said.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, is vice chairman of the committee and often mentioned as a possible successor to Sommers. Dunshee said he's interested in the job but wouldn't say much else.

"We should do this in a way that gives [Sommers] the most grace and dignity," he said. "It seems unseemly to be ripping her name plate off the door already."

For 36 years, Sommers has represented Seattle's 36th Legislative District. For the past decade, as chairwoman or co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, she's played a pivotal role in writing the state budget.

She waited until after the final deals were reached on this year's budget negotiations before confirming her retirement plans.

Sommers stirred rumors about her plans last fall when she began returning some checks from campaign donors. Though she would not confirm anything publicly before Tuesday, two people are already running for her seat in the Democratic primary.

Reuven Carlyle, a former legislative aide who has spent most of his career in the wireless and software industries, and John Burbank, executive director of the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal public-policy think tank, are both running.

Sommers is planning to travel to Finland and Russia later this year but said she is not sure yet whether she will try to play any official roles for the state.

"What am I going to do? I'm going to take it easy," Sommers said.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said Sommers "deserves an enormous amount of gratitude" for her work in the Legislature.

"Helen has been an outstanding legislator for many, many years and has contributed a lot to this state particularly in the area of higher education," he said. "She's been an absolutely tremendous advocate for education opportunity."

The other House members who are stepping down this year are Reps. Bill Eickmeyer, D-Belfair, Mason County; Bill Fromhold, D-Vancouver; Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor; Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup; Jim McIntire, D-Seattle; Lynn Schindler, R-Spokane Valley; and Bob Sump, R-Republic, Ferry County.

McIntire is leaving the Legislature to run for state treasurer.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company


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