First Women of Pierce County

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Breaking barriers with courage and vision, these Pierce County vanguards inspire today’s young women to become tomorrow’s leaders

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote and, by extension, to hold political office and become involved in branches of government at all levels. Since that time, women’s leadership has grown tremendously, albeit with continued struggles including the 21st century’s “Me Too Movement” against sexual harassment and sexual assault. Nevertheless, the momentum that began a century ago continues full steam ahead, as evidenced by individual women who choose not to “stay in their place,” but rather break out to leave their own indelible mark on the pages of history. Among those in Pierce County, three standouts are House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett and State Auditor Pat McCarthy – all firsts in their chosen fields. 

Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins

Laurie Jinkins has always been one to fight the good fight for others. Long before she made history by becoming our state’s first woman and first out lesbian Speaker of the House, she was involved in grassroots organizing on behalf of her LGBTQ community and people everywhere. 

On Jan. 13 of this year, Jinkins walked into the House chamber to begin a new chapter in her life – that of Speaker of the House for Washington State. Her peers in the House Democratic Caucus elected her Speaker-designate last July, and on the swearing in day, she was the only nominee. With wife Laura Wulf, their son Wulf Jinkins, friends, family and colleagues all around her, Jinkins took the solemn oath.

“I want to take a moment to recognize that we are all witnessing history here today,” said Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. John Lovick (D-44) as he passed the gavel to Jinkins. “Another barrier falls as the first woman in Washington State will stand on this spot and hold this gavel as Speaker of the House.”

Jinkins succeeds Rep. Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) who served as speaker of the House for two decades. Chopp resigned from the position in May and continues to serve in the House.

The day of her swearing in as Speaker of the House was a great day for Jinkins, her family and friends. 

“One of the many things I respect and admire about Laurie is her commitment to people in need,” Chopp said. “She’ll bring that same passion to the speaker’s office while dealing with the variety of challenges and opportunities facing our state.”

Core responsibilities of the Speaker include serving as the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, chair of Executive Rules (House administrative committee), and chair of the House Rules committee. The Speaker appoints other elected members to standing and statutory committees, signs all bills in open session, and oversees all employees of the House.

When asked if being elected Speaker is the pinnacle of her political career, Jinkins said that she has had many pinnacles on her journey. 

“I’ve had experiences nearly every week since getting elected to public office that are amazingly moving, or humorous, or humbling, or transformational. If I had to choose, the pinnacle of my legislative career was being elected to the House in 2010 by the people of the 27th legislative district.  Since I began my service in 2011, there are literally dozens of pieces of legislation I could cite that have made a real difference for people and families in our state. I expect being Speaker will allow me to do even more to help people and families. My strongest focus still remains on the 27th, but now I have significant responsibilities to think about and work for every Washingtonian, and I’m excited to do this work.”

Born and raised in the rural Midwest in a town with a population of approximately 500 people, Jinkins is the oldest of five siblings. As a young girl, she was active in her local 4-H Club where she showed cows and gave demonstrations on how to make homemade butter. Gifted athletically in track and field events, she later was all-American in shot put, hammer throw and discus, and for three years she was the Northwest’s women’s caber tossing champion. 

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she earned a Juris Doctor from Seattle University School of Law then completed executive studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2011, she received an honorary degree from Tacoma Community College.

She started her career litigating child abuse and neglect cases for the state Attorney General’s Office then shifted toward public health, eventually serving as an assistant secretary of health at the state Department of Health before taking the position of Director of Organizational Initiatives at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, where she continues to serve. She has also been active in advancing Washington’s anti-discrimination laws both prior to and during her time in the House. Before becoming Speaker, Jinkins served on the House Appropriations and Health Care and Wellness committees, and chaired the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee.

Jinkins began her first term as a state representative in 2011, representing the 27th Legislative District in Pierce County, which includes East, Downtown, Hilltop, North, Northeast, West, and part of South Tacoma as well as Ruston and Fife Heights.

Protecting and advancing the rights of LGBTQ people is near and dear to Jinkins’ heart, as she has been open about her sexual orientation throughout her life. 

Jinkins and wife Laura Wulf on their wedding day on July 20, 2013.
Credit: Bonnie King/BonnieKingPhotography.com

“One of the things that’s been so surprising, since I was elected, is the number of people – especially women, LGBTQ people, people of color, those with disabilities and others who’ve historically been excluded from our systems of power – who have stopped me in the grocery store or on the street to express their excitement about my election,” Jinkins told the Tacoma Weekly. “I’m obviously just a regular person, but my status as an ‘outsider’ clearly helps others envision themselves with not only a seat at the table, but taking on a leadership role. My election as Speaker may have brought down another barrier, but it won’t be the last barrier to fall.”

What is perhaps Jinkins’ greatest attribute is her ability to listen – not just to hear, but to honestly engage with people such that she takes action on what others express rather than mentally filing it away. “The title of my role may be ‘speaker,’ but as I view it, my primary job is to listen,” she said.

For example, immediate following her election as Speaker-designate, Jinkins spent the next few months on a road trip listening tour to every corner of the state to meet with House lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in their own districts. The journey, she said today, “…was worth every single minute and every single mile.”

She broke bread in members’ homes and at 51 restaurants and coffee shops across Washington. Jinkins said that while it was an ambitious undertaking and that she didn’t get to meet every single one of her peers, she wouldn’t have changed a thing. 

“These visits made me really optimistic about what we can accomplish together. Listening to them made it clear that even when we disagree on policy, we all share a deep, abiding commitment to making things better for the people of this state,” she said. “This will undoubtedly be the hardest job I’ll ever have, but also the most fulfilling. We have work to do to address affordable housing and homelessness, take action on climate change, lower the cost of health care, and make child care more accessible and affordable for all families, among other pressing issues like the impacts of Initiative 976 on our transportation system. Together with my colleagues, I’m ready to get to work.”

Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett

When Mary Robnett announced her run for Pierce County Prosecutor in 2018, it was big deal on numerous levels. First, she was seeking to unseat prosecutor Mark Lindquist, who had held the office for nearly a decade and was embroiled in allegations of retaliation and political power mongering. Secondly, if elected she would become the first woman to lead the office. In a decisive win that really no one predicted, Robnett proved that a stalwart record and high level of integrity can still win elections. 

Robnett deliberately put no real emphasis on her gender during the race. “I wanted to focus on my vision for how to improve the office and on my experience – what I would bring to the office,” she told the Tacoma Weekly. “I think people appreciate women achieving firsts, but I don’t believe that will carry you to a win in an election. I decided to campaign in a non-partisan and non-political way, and it resonated with voters. I had an authentic message that I truly believed in – to bring leadership and stability to an office that really needed it.”

A first-time candidate with no name recognition and no big campaign funds, she chose to rely on her accomplishments and knowledge of the county’s criminal justice system to convince voters that she would be the woman for the job.

“I ran for office on a pledge to be tough, honest, ethical and fair, and I plan to carry out that pledge,” Robnett said at her swearing in on Jan. 3, 2019. “I also ran on a pledge that I would put our clients – the people of Pierce County – first in every decision, every day with the help of our civil division.”

It was a full house for Robnett’s (left at podium) swearing in as Pierce County Prosecutor.

Robnett said that it didn’t really hit her until after the election that she would be the first woman county prosecutor. “I read it in a headline somewhere and it hit me when people were remaking about it. It is significant to me to be a role model for others – men and women, boys and girls alike. My holding this office gives women and girls confidence that they can do the same. I really aim to set a good example as a leader for everyone.”

Born and raised in western Montana, Robnett describes herself as “a bit of a teenage rebel” who didn’t graduate high school. “Those were my ski bum years, working odd jobs,” she said. To put herself through college at Weber State University, she worked as a 911 dispatcher for first responders in two different rural sheriff’s offices. There, she developed a fascination with the legal process and work of law enforcement.

After she and husband Bill moved to Tacoma, she attended the University of Puget Sound law school and graduated cum laude in 1991. That same year, she joined the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Working her way up through the ranks to become the Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor, Robnett handled robberies, homicides, kidnappings, sexual assault cases and more. She spent 10 years in the Special Assault Unit, which led to her longtime involvement with the Sexual Assault Center of Pierce County. 

Robnett prosecuted some of the most prominent cases in Pierce County history,obtaining convictions against all four of the 2010 Craigslist murderers who killed Jim Sanders in front of his wife and children; Frank Nordlund (a.k.a the “Parkland Rapist”); and Zina Linnik’s murderer Terapon Adhahn, who is now serving a life sentence in Walla Walla.

During her tenure at the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, the office twice awarded Robnett the Deputy Prosecuting Attorney of the Year Award (2006, 2012). She was also awarded the Tacoma Police Department Certificate of Merit in 2009.

In 2012, Robnett left the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office to join the state attorney general’s office. Hired by then-Attorney General Rob McKenna and promoted by current Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Robnett worked as an assistant attorney general in the Sexually Violent Predators unit. Based on her performance and initiative, she was awarded the Attorney General’s Excellence Award (2015) and the Attorney General’s Office STAR award (2017).

During her swearing in ceremony, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier outlined exactly what it takes to be a prosecuting attorney.

“They need to have the judgment to deal with really difficult issues like when should you charge, at what level should you charge, when is the therapeutic court or aversion program appropriate, and when do we just throw the book at this person to get them locked away from our community,” he said. 

Then the prosecuting attorney must deal with plea-bargaining and if the case goes to trial, he or she must deliver a legally excellent argument. 

“That is critically important, to have the heart and head and a tremendous amount of legal expertise. Our elected prosecutor has to have all those, model all those and be an outstanding leader on top of it because she has to lead the group of prosecutors that do that very difficult job. Mary represents all those attributes tremendously,” Dammeier said. 

State Auditor Pat McCarthy spoke as well, an historic figure in her own right as Pierce County’s first woman county executive and first woman as state auditor.

“What has Mary demonstrated in her career to date? A dedication to transparency, steadfast integrity, a fondness for hard work, a commitment to fairness and independence, and strength of character,” McCarthy said. “These are the hallmarks of her career.”

“Our job as prosecutors is to seek justice, but we must also go the extra mile and work hard to do our part in improving Pierce County and our communities,” Robnett said. “We must all – everyone who works in the prosecutor’s office – recognize and respect our own vast discretion and the powerful role we play in the criminal justice system.

“I am ready to get to work.”

Mary and her husband Bill, a military veteran and retired law enforcement officer, make their home in Tacoma. They enjoy hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities together with their Labrador retriever, Ellie.

State Auditor Pat McCarthy

Among Pierce County women of “firsts,” Pat McCarthy holds two notable places. She was the first woman county executive and is now the first woman to hold the office of Washington State Auditor. “‘A strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everyone else,’” she said during the 2019 swearing in ceremony for Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett, a quote (source unknown) that applies to both of these trailblazing women.

As Washington State’s 11th auditor, McCarthy and her team make sure that local governments and state agencies spend money wisely and in the public interest by conducting fraud investigations and financial, performance, cybersecurity, and other audits. Maintaining public trust is key, along with making government more efficient and effective. Audits look at financial information and compliance with state, federal and local laws on the part of all local governments, including schools, institutions of higher learning and all state agencies. In our state, the Auditor’s Office conducts around 2,700 audits in a given year, employing 400 people in 15 offices sprinkled across the state that work to improve government processes, accountability, and transparency.  

“As the current Washington State auditor, it’s my job to hold people in government accountable to the citizens they serve,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy has put more than 30 years into helping build a better Washington. Shebegan her career in public service upon being elected to the Tacoma School Board in 1987. McCarthy served for 12 years, including two terms as president of the board. While in this role, McCarthy led the effort to create the first public school of the arts in Washington. From 1991 to 1998, she served as administrator and advisor for the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

Speaking at the swearing in of Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett, McCarthy quoted, “A strong woman stands up for herself. A stronger woman stands up for everyone else.”

In 1999 she became deputy auditor for Pierce County then was elected county auditor in 2002 and 2006, overseeing elections, licensing and recording services until 2008. In 2006, Secretary of State Sam Reed named her County Auditor of the Year.She ran for, and was elected, Pierce County Executive in 2009, and elected again in 2013. Her role included serving as chair of Sound Transit and president of the Puget Sound Regional Council. In 2010, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) honored McCarthy with the Key award for her commitment to open, transparent, and accountable government. 

“I ran against three men who knew more than I did about county government, but I thought, ‘What the heck?’ I’m like Popeye – ‘I am what I am,’” McCarthy recalled with a chuckle.  

From there, she immediately ran for Washington State auditor and won that election, taking office on Jan. 11, 2017.  

“I stand on the shoulders of women who have blazed a trail in leadership positions for decades,” McCarthy said. “I’m very fortunate in that. When I ran for positions, I wasn’t running cause I am a woman; it was because I have the skills to bring and a passion for public service.”

As state auditor, McCarthy and her staff created a new online tool to facilitate looking up information about local government tax collections and spending from school districts, ports, counties and more. The Financial Intelligence Tool (https://portal.sao.wa.gov/FIT) includes features like an interactive map so that users can type in their address or zip code and track the tax collections and spending of their local school board, city council and more. 

McCarthy’s office is preparing to release another new program next month called Tracker. It will help local and state agencies to do a course correction rather than wait for an audit, and give the public and media a way to see if agencies have some challenges, what they are and give them a chance to reconcile them. It’s all about transparency, a hallmark of the state auditor’s office that McCarthy keeps alive and vibrant.

“What attracted me to the state auditor’s office was I wasn’t ready to retire from public service,” McCarthy said. “I started later in life in this business of being a public servant and I wasn’t ready to let go. I come from Pierce County and the city of Tacoma, so I really wanted our Pierce County image to be a positive one in the state auditor’s office. It’s a fun job because you can really focus on improving government and increasing trust in government. That’s a powerful thing to be able to do.”

With McCarthy’s re-election coming up this year, she has already filed to be on the ballot. 

“I may be the first woman sate auditor and the first woman county executive, but I can assure I wont’ be the last, and that’s good thing,” she said. “Being first may have its own cachet, but knowing that there are women to come after me is a really wonderful thing.”

Born in Fresno, McCarthy met her husband John McCarthy while she was in nursing school and he was in law school. When he passed the bar, he wanted to come home to Tacoma so Pat quit school and went with him. They have been married for 45 years. John served on the Port of Tacoma Commission (1983-1992) then went on to become a Pierce County Superior Court judge for 22 years until his retirement in 2016. 

The McCarthy’s have four children: daughter Brie has worked as a lawyer for the City of Bellevue for 16 years handling domestic violence cases; daughter Lindsey is a college advisor for University of Washington-Tacoma’s nursing program; daughter Kelsey has been a prosecuting attorney for the King County Criminal Division for 10 years; and son Conor is a practicing attorney and member of Tacoma City Council, now serving his second term.

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