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End of an era: Kohl-Welles announces plan to retire from Council


End of an era: Kohl-Welles announces plan to retire from Council


King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles announced Wednesday that she plans to retire from office after her term ends in 2023.


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 -- Belltown, Interbay, South Lake Union, Queen Anne, Ballard, Fremont, Magnolia, 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. “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 leaves a record that includes big 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 Budget Chair for the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, including eight COVID budgets as well as the 2021-2022 Biennial Budget and four omnibus supplemental budgets.

Kohl-Welles earned her B.A. and M.A. at California State University at Northridge, following in her mother’s footsteps to become a public-school teacher, and later an M.A. 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.

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,” Kohl-Welles said. “But I always felt like I didn’t have an immediate impact (in teaching).”

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 there, often winning more than 80% 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 chaired the Senate Higher Education and Labor & Commerce Committees for many years, leading on major changes in workers’ comp, collective bargaining, stem cell research, and film incentives. She also chaired the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee and the Joint Legislative Systems Committee and co-chaired the Washington State Institute for Public Policy Board.

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 N.

Related to her legislative work, Kohl-Welles served on the Executive Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) 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.

In 2015, after two decades in the Senate, she got another call from Larry 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,” she said. “And the thought that I could be more engaged with implementation, to really be able to effect change at the local level.”

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% 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.”

But she also has a tough side. Seattle P-I columnist Joel Connelly has described her as being like “a steel fist in a velvet glove.” 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,” she said, “and it has been the greatest privilege to serve the many resilient, thoughtful, and engaged communities in District Four and the 36th Legislative District. I cannot thank my constituents enough for their faith in me.”

Kohl-Welles currently serves as Vice Chair of the Council and Chair of the Committee of the Whole. She sits on several other committees and represents the Council as an ex officio member of the Woodland Park Zoo Board.


Quotes from colleagues:

Executive Dow Constantine

"I want to congratulate Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles for more than 30 years of service representing her community in the state House, Senate, and the King County Council. Since our time together in the Senate, I’ve enjoyed working alongside Jeanne. She has been a tireless advocate for working families, vulnerable people, arts and culture, workplace safety, and the people of King County. I am especially grateful for Jeanne’s leadership as Budget Chair in 2020 and 2021 as we worked to address the economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. I wish her and her family all the best in this next chapter of their lives."

Former KC Councilmember Larry Phillips, District 4

“We have been blessed to have Jeanne Kohl-Welles represent us in the Legislature and on the County Council for so many years, providing us with effective leadership on so many progressive issues our citizens expect to see resolved.  From her earliest days and throughout her stellar career, she has led fearlessly and passionately to improve our lives while ensuring every voice is heard and represented in her decisions.  And above all, she’s done it with kindness, open consideration and compassion not common to our politics.  Jeanne will be missed from the fray going forward, but more should emulate her leadership.  We will be better for it.”

Councilmember Rod Dembowski, District 1

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve alongside, partner with, and learn from my dear friend and mentor, Jeanne Kohl-Welles. She leads with heartfelt, inclusive and progressive values, and is never outworked in the service of our community. I am going to greatly miss working with our very own Badass Feminist icon.”

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, District 2

“Councilmember Kohl-Welles has been such an important champion for our region. Her productivity on the council is unmatched, passing critical legislation on tenant rights, gender-based violence, facial recognition technology and so much more. But above all else, I will miss having Jeanne my friend next to me on those difficult days on the council. She is delightful, kind, funny, courageous, and smart as hell.”

Councilmember Sarah Perry, District 3

"As the newest member of King County Council it has been a pleasure and an honor to work with and learn from Councilmember Kohl-Welles! Jeanne has built a legacy of compassion, creative thinking and inspirational leadership over these past 30+ years in public service to the residents of King County and across Washington State as well. I am grateful for her friendship, her sense of humor and the enthusiasm she brings to the work. I wish her all the very best in this next chapter!"

Council Chair Dave Upthegrove, District 5

"Jeanne Kohl-Wells has been a force in Washington State politics in the Legislature and the King County Council.  She has always championed issues of justice before they were popular, whether LGBT equality, women's rights, or environmental protection. I've had the joy of serving alongside her and seeing her huge heart and strong work ethic result in real improvements to people's lives."

Councilmember Claudia Balducci, District 6

“As a County Councilmember, Jeanne brought tremendous experience, knowledge and initiative. We dreamed up our first successful project together at our Council onboarding training and never looked back. Jeanne has since spearheaded numerous important initiatives, partnering effectively with all of her colleagues at various times.  Jeanne led the council through 13 budgets in 2 years as our COVID budget chair - a record that may never be broken. Her work has benefitted too many people to count. We are all better off for her service.”

Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, District 7

“As a King County Councilmember and as a Washington State Senator, Jeanne Kohl-Welles has always been the voice for the voiceless, and advocated for common sense policy that puts people first. Councilmembers representing urban, suburban, AND rural areas will miss her collegial style.”

Councilmember Joe McDermott, District 8

“For more than 30 years, Jeanne Kohl-Welles and I have enjoyed a great friendship and for more than 20 years worked in the same realms.  Even as we will no longer be Council colleagues, I relish knowing our friendship will continue.   Jeanne’s advocacy for women, the arts, and the people she represents remains a force to be reckoned with.”

Councilmember Reagan Dunn, District 9

“Throughout her many years on the Council as well as at the State Legislature, Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles has been a thoughtful and committed voice for the people she represents. Her willingness to work across the aisle and put people before politics has earned her the trust and respect of all her colleagues. I appreciate every opportunity I’ve had to work in partnership with her and wish her the best in her next chapter."

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