Debra Lekanoff gathered members of native tribes for drums and song Monday, while My-Linh Thai wore a traditional Vietnamese dress to her swearing-in ceremony.
Both incoming House Democrats represented historic firsts for the Washington Legislature: Lekanoff, a 40th District Democrat from Bow, is the first Native American woman elected to the chamber, and Thai, who was born in Vietnam, is the first refugee to be sworn in.
They are two in a group of lawmakers giving the Legislature, which began its 2019 session Monday, a closer resemblance to the people of Washington state.
“We do have a democracy that’s supposed to represent each and every one of us,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who was elected to the Senate in 2017. “What we have seen in the last two years especially, are that people from all walks of lives are getting involved in our legislative process.”
Democratic Party leaders say their House and Senate ranks are the most diverse ever. This year, Senate Democrats installed two women of color — Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle and Dhingra — as deputy leaders.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans in recent years have promoted more women to top positions. Now, six of their eight leadership slots are held by women.
Their arrival comes at a moment of upheaval, with the nation convulsing over debates about the meaning of borders and the identities and status of the people contained within. At the same time, the #MeToo movement has opened uncomfortable conversations in Olympia about instances of harassment and inappropriate behavior, primarily toward women.
As they fold into the fabric of legislative life, these new lawmakers will discuss many hundreds of bills. And they’ll join the debate over the new two-year state operating budget _ a document that will touch every community across the state in multiple ways.
Lekanoff, Thai and others say they hope they can expand how the state thinks about issues and serves people.
“I like to consider that our ability as Native Americans is to bring the generational way of decision-making to Washington state; we make decisions that have economic prosperity with environmental integrity,” said Lekanoff.
Lekanoff is part Tlingit and Aleut, and has worked for the Swinomish Tribe for more than 15 years.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Melanie Morgan of Parkland said the lack of diversity in Olympia has affected how lawmakers address housing issues.
“We need resources to come to us,” said Morgan, who is African American and represents Pierce County’s 29th District, which includes South Tacoma and parts of Lakewood and Parkland.
The Legislature is “not very accessible to people of color,” Morgan said. She added later: “If you don’t have any representation here that looks yourself, then how is that accessibility? I’m really glad to be the bridge here, to fill that gap.”
Last year’s elections spurred what is likely a record number of women to run for office in Washington.
And that surge has boosted their numbers.
Now, roughly 40 percent of Washington legislators are women, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s the fourth-highest in the nation, according to the nonprofit organization’s data, behind Colorado, Oregon and Nevada. Only Nevada has more women than men serving in a statehouse.
But lawmakers here aren’t breaking any records on that front. Two decades ago, the state boasted a Legislature of 41 percent women — a national record at that time.
In recent years, the Senate Republicans have increased the number of women in leadership roles. But Republican Deputy Senate Leader Sharon Brown of Kennewick said her caucus concentrates on individuals, rather than thinking in terms of race or gender.
Still, Brown described her years as an attorney in a male-dominated sector and wanting that to change for her daughters.
“I’ve always walked into a room as the only woman, and I really had hoped that for my daughters it would be a totally different world today,” said Brown. “And in some ways I’m really excited for them, but in some ways I’m very frustrated because we continue to have to fight the fight sometimes to get representation in certain areas, and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Incoming Rep. Kelly Chambers, R-Puyallup, said she hasn’t given her gender much thought in the scheme of politics, saying “it’s not the reason I’m here.”
“It’s just another attribute about me,” said Chambers, who wants to work on transportation issues. “Something else I’m bringing to the table.”
Saldaña, who along with Dhingra will serve as a deputy leader in the Senate, said everyone must work to ensure the recent gains don’t slip.
“Really, it’s about making sure that people see that this is a democracy that’s not in a past, it’s a democracy that’s supposed to reflect people today,” she said.