State Sen. Sharon Nelson made big news last week on the island and beyond when she announced that she would not seek re-election for another term in Olympia.
Nelson, who has served as the leader of the Senate Democrats since 2014, made her announcement via email last week, thanking her colleagues for the accomplishments of the last session and telling them it was time for her to spend more time with her family.
“Five years ago, when I became leader, my goals were to build a strong caucus and to retake the majority and to show what that majority meant to the State of Washington. Because of each of you, my goals have been achieved,” she wrote. “Thus, it is time for me to return next year to being a wife, mother, grandmother and daughter.”
She reiterated that sentiment in a conversation last week — having come straight from a shopping trip at JC Penny with her 89-year-old mom.
“I have decided after missing my daughter’s bridal shower and not being with my sister when she died, it was time to devote more time to family,” she said.
Nelson, 66, has been well known on the island for years. Initially she was frequently in the spotlight as she
led the fight against Glacier Northwest and its efforts to expand its sand and gravel mine on Vashon. Later, she became the chief of staff for Dow Constantine, who was then a King County councilman. In 2008, she was appointed to the state House of Representatives, filling the spot vacated by then Rep. Joe McDermott. In 2010, she was elected to the Senate.
Last week, asked about her most memorable accomplishments, she first cited being elected leader by her colleagues and the large amount of legislation they passed this session with the Democrats in the majority. It ranged from children’s breakfast in school “after the bell” to voting rights to reproductive health care to ensuring equal pay for equal work.
“We had set an agenda during the last interim, and pretty much everything we had committed to, we did,” she said.
Some of her largest accomplishments she mentioned occurred earlier on in her political career, including defeating Glacier Northwest’s mining efforts in 2010. After more than a decade of struggle, King County purchased the 250-acre Maury Island parcel that had been destined for mining and is now preserved as a park. The sale was accomplished primarily through county and state funds, which Nelson helped procure.
“I still believe they would have damaged the aquifer if we did not take the action that we did,” she said.
On Vashon, Tom Dean, who heads the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, spoke about Nelson’s involvement with conservation on the island. Her work against Glacier Northwest was critical, he said, but her efforts went farther than that.
With her help, the Land Trust was able to purchase Raab’s Lagoon and land at Piner Point and Neil Point to create protected natural areas, as well as add land to Dockton Forest, Judd Creek and Island Center Forest. Additionally, the Maury Island Natural Area — the former Glacier Northwest site — has expanded from 250 acres to 470 acres, with Nelson’s assistance.
“Her conservation legacy on the island is $50 million worth of conservation work. It’s huge,” Dean said last week.
Before those environmental successes was one of a much different type: payday loan reform in 2009.
“It was predatory lending on steroids,” she said, calling passing the reforms “an ugly, ugly battle.”
Another success she cited: same-sex marriage, which became legal in this state in 2012. Ed Murray, then a state senator, led the effort, and after an 18-year fight, Nelson said the Senate had 25 votes and could finally bring it to the floor.
“That was monumental,” she recalled.
Closer to home, she said she is also proud of helping to establish Neighborcare Health on the island after CHI Franciscan left two years ago. Nelson was instrumental in bringing Neighborcare to the conversations that were occurring to bring a provider to the island after other providers had declined to come. She also secured $100,000 in state funds to assist Neighborcare in establishing the island clinic.
This year, as has previously been reported, Nelson arranged for $100,000 to improve ferry service, including extending the hours of police officer presence to direct traffic at the Fauntleroy dock and arranging for an independent study there by the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy and Governance.
Notably, Nelson also secured $2 million for Vashon Center for the Arts in 2013. Last week, former Vashon Center for the Arts Executive Director Molly Reed, who is assisting the organization again, said Nelson’s help in building the new arts center was critical to the completion of the project. Reed noted Nelson helped many other non-profits on the island.
“She has represented all of us with integrity and dignity in a difficult time of governing. We are very grateful for her leadership and will miss her,” Reed said.
Last week, in response to Nelson’s news, King County Council Chair Joe McDermott — whose House seat she filled when she first went to Olympia, recalled her “Herculean” efforts against Glacier Northwest and payday lending.
“Sen. Nelson has been a progressive champion for her island, her district, her county and her state,” he said in an email last week.
The chair of the 34th District Democrats, David Ginsberg, also weighed in about her leadership over the years, including the flurry of legislation passed in the recent session.
“Sharon leaves having secured a Democratic majority in the Senate, and the 34th District will be in good hands with Eileen Cody and Joe Fitzgibbon. The 34th District Democrats are so grateful for all of her hard work, determination, friendship, humor and grit, and we look forward to welcoming her back home. We also look forward to the lively race her departure will open up, and hope to see candidates step up from Vashon-Maury and across the 34th District.”
While many are quick to praise Nelson, she drew considerable criticism early this year when she co-sponsored a bill that would have exempted the Legislature from portions of Washington’s public disclosure laws. The public outcry was extensive, and Gov. Inslee ended up vetoing the legislation.
Nelson said that criticism did not affect her decision to leave the Legislature now — a move that she began considering about a year ago.
As for her successes, she said she had help along the way and singled out Dow Constantine, calling him “a major factor” in her political journey.
“He is in politics for the right reason. When you see that, you just follow it,” she said.
Their history had an unlikely beginning, now decades ago. Nelson, her husband and their two young daughters — now in their 30s — moved to Maury Island from the city.
“We moved here for a rural, peaceful life. That is all we ever wanted,” she said.
When their home was less than a year old, the septic system failed, and, as she tells the story, “The front yard was soaked in effluent.”
There were no consumer protection laws at the time that covered the situation, and she wrote an angry letter to Constantine, then a state representative.
“He put me on a task force, and we passed legislation a year and a half later,” she said.
She notes her political career took her from a failing septic system to serving as the senate majority leader. Now, with that work behind her, she is looking ahead to vacations, and time with her husband, daughters and grandkids — and riding her ebike up and down the hills of Vashon and Maury Islands.
“It has been a real privilege, a real honor and not anything I planned at all,” she said.