Remembering well-respected former state lawmaker Helen Sommers

Helen Sommers. Photo via Washington Legislature.

Former Representative Helen Sommers served in the Washington Legislature for 36 years and retired in 2008. She died Tuesday at 84, according to a Seattle Times report. Jim Boldt recalls her as a sharp, strong leader in this column.

I was in the House of Representatives Democrat caucus room in 1975 the day Representative Bob Charette told a group of freshman legislators who had groused about this fiery little woman from Seattle that, “She is Helen Sommers and Hell in winters too, so get ready.”

I loved Helen. You had to work with her, or fight her to really appreciate her intellect and stamina. Preferably the former.

People will learn more about her and her contribution to Washington State and legislative process as they attend her memorial and we all reflect. I would suggest you all read her oral history volume, well written by Dan Monahan, long time publicist to many electeds. If you just look a little, you will find a woman who blazed trails decades before others, including her work in Venezuela for Mobil oil. An early evening with her was the story of living and working in Caracas for more than a decade, and her marriage. I asked, she shared little. She was obviously fluent in Spanish. She and I sponsored what was probably the state’s first K-12 English-as-a-second language bill. I had to run to keep up and I was 25.

Besides her intellect she attracted me and others with her unbending desire to serve people and see to it public policy was actually about the public. She was with us in the very early stages of a historic and unprecedented move by any Washington caucus to unseat its Speaker of the House. It was just another opportunity for all of us to witness the intensity of her commitment.

Helen was missed in Olympia when she retired. She is now missed state-wide. I knew her as a colleague, a friend and a stateswoman. But, I write this to share what for me was a trademark action of Helen’s driven curiosity and risk level. On a warm summer day we were having lunch at one of her favorite restaurants in her district. I had ridden my motorcycle and earlier had warned her that I was bringing a helmet for her. She laughed. I was lobbying at the time where she gave me her normal level of commitment about my projects, “I’ll look at it.”

After our lunch and meeting I asked her:

“So, Helen you said you have never ridden on a Harley, are you ready?”

Her answer was something like, “Why not,” and outside we went.

At near-70-years old, she strapped on the helmet, threw her leg over the back of the bike and off we went. I can still see that half-smile of hers and the nod she gave at the end. The same she gave us when a big bill passed the House, the same look we all got when she successfully argued with leadership about some esoteric bill about the University of Washington, or winning some disagreement with the Office of Financial Management on budget matters.

Helen was a contribution to our state, a model for people willing to work and fight for what they believe, and yes; “She is Helen Sommers…” and I can tell you there were numerous times during those cold raining days in Olympia that she was “Hell in winter,” too.

You can reach Jim Boldt at info@washingtonstatewire.com.

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