Former Sen. Spanel remembered as effective, 'authentic' leader

Harriet Spanel, who served Whatcom County for more than two decades as a state legislator, died Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. She was 77.
Harriet Spanel, who served Whatcom County for more than two decades as a state legislator, died Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. She was 77. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Harriet Spanel, who served Whatcom County for more than two decades as a state legislator, died Tuesday, Feb. 2. She was 77.

“She was so responsive, so ethical, so vibrant, so interested in everything that concerned the district,” said Mary Kay Becker, a former Whatcom County Council member and state lawmaker and now a judge with the State Court of Appeals. “The phrase is, good citizen.”

Service arrangements are pending.

Spanel, a Democrat from Bellingham, served the 40th District from 1987 to 2009, serving three terms in the House and four terms in the Senate. The district covers portions of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties.

She also served on numerous state and local committees and boards, and was a member of the YWCA Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame. She even served on the board of directors of the Museum of Danish America in Elk Horn, Iowa, near her hometown.

“I know me,” Spanel told The Bellingham Herald in a 2009 interview. “When I get involved, I give my whole self.”

One measure of her long-lasting popularity, along with her many electoral victories, was constituents’ practice of referring to her as “Harriet” rather than “representative.”

Early civic involvement

Born Harriet Albertsen in Audubon, Iowa, she had three siblings and attended Iowa State University, majoring in mathematics. Spanel and her family came to Western Washington when her husband, Les, got a job in Seattle with Boeing. The family moved to Bellingham in 1968 when Les took a position as a physics professor at Western Washington University.

The Spanel Planetarium at Western is named after her husband, who died in 2002. Harriet Spanel donated money for planetarium upgrades and an endowment to run the planetarium.

Early on, Spanel was active in Sehome Hill neighborhood issues and the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. She campaigned in the early 1980s for a freeze on nuclear weapons, and volunteered to collect residents’ household recyclables.

“She rode on a big truck picking up recyclables in the Sehome neighborhood,” recalled Louise Bjornson, another early recycling advocate and a longtime Bellingham City Council member.

Spanel served on Bellingham’s planning commission, an appointed position. Deborra Garrett, now a Whatcom County Superior Court judge, first saw Spanel in action on the planning commission.

“She had a quiet approach that masked a really alert mind asking lots of questions,” Garrett said. “Her questions were good ones. They were rarely confrontative, but she got the information she needed.”

Spanel didn’t run for public office until 1986, when she challenged incumbent Republican Homer Lundquist of Burlington for the 40th District House seat.

She jumped into electoral politics after taking a class on women’s psychology offered by professor Dana Jack at Fairhaven College. As a student, Spanel wrote a paper about the themes of her life and a challenge she would like to take on.

“She stated very firmly that she had decided to run for political office,” recalled Jack, who is now retired. “That class was a turning point for her.”

Jack had no doubt that Spanel would do well if elected, because she was intelligent and a good listener willing to talk to anyone about their ideas.

“I thought she would be extremely effective because she was direct and authentic,” Jack said.

Democratic leaders weren’t optimistic about Spanel’s chances against an incumbent legislator, but her ties to the community and to Western Washington University helped her beat Lundquist by less than 1 percentage point, the closest race of her political career.

Passion for her community

Spanel became a legislative champion of state ferries and fishermen, and was successful in helping to protect land throughout her district, from the San Juan Islands to the Lake Whatcom watershed to the Chuckanut mountains and Clayton Beach.

She was elected to the Senate in 1992 and soon became an integral part of Democratic leadership. When she retired in 2009, she was the Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman.

“She was the glue that held the caucus together,” said Bob Partlow, a now-retired Bellingham Herald reporter who covered the Legislature from 1983 to 2000. “She could pull people together.”

Garrett recalled having a long telephone discussion with Spanel who wanted to learn the ins and outs of “joint and several liability,” the subject of a seemingly minor bill in the Legislature that had major implications in the legal world. Garrett, then an attorney in private practice, was impressed that Spanel was doing independent homework on the bill.

“That is a very typical example of Harriet at work,” Garrett said.

Terry Bornemann, a City Council member and a Sehome Hill neighbor, said Spanel stayed current on city and neighborhood issues even when she was busy with the Legislature.

“It was always a big part of her, that love of Bellingham, that love of community,” he said.

John Stark, a retired Herald reporter who also lives in the neighborhood, said Spanel and her husband hosted annual summer potluck gatherings for neighborhood residents, whether or not the neighbors were politically active.

“They had a house and yard full of people,” Stark said. “Harriet was not an exclusionary person. She was that old-school, reach-across-the-aisle kind of person. She didn’t see the world as ‘them’ and ‘us.’”

Quiet and intelligent, principled yet collaborative, Spanel left a legacy of admirable public service, say those who knew and worked with her.

“She had strong opinions but she was not showy about it,” Bjornson said. “She was someone we can all look up to.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

More comments

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.: “She touched so many lives through her work and her strong, yet quiet, advocacy for local families, communities, and the environment. Harriet was an ever-present voice who fought for what she believed in and she will not soon be forgotten.”

Rep Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes: “As a representative and then a senator, Harriet’s leadership left a challenging example for those of us who followed in her footsteps. Harriet was a great role model, exemplifying what it means to be a citizen legislator.”

Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon: “Many people who visited Harriet and Les Spanel in their Sehome Hill home often left with a basket full of vegetables from their garden, whether she agreed with their point of view or not.”

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island: “She was a champion for the protection of Puget Sound and oil spill protection laws and was a strong advocate for protecting habitat and ensuring that our fisheries were well-managed and that our fishing industry remained a healthy one. ... We have lost an incredible leader and a dear friend.”

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville: “Sen. Harriet Spanel was one of the most direct, straightforward women I ever met as an elected official. It might have been her Iowa farm upbringing. When she was committed to a project or a policy, she was a bulldog. I always wanted her on my side.”

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