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WA Legislature departures continue: Sen. Karen Keiser to retire

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(The Center Square) – Departures from the Washington State Legislature continued Tuesday with Sen. Karen Keiser announcing that she will retire later this year.

The 76-year-old Democrat from Des Moines is the Senate’s most-senior member and current president pro tempore.

“It has been my privilege to serve the people of the 33rd Legislative District and the people of the State of Washington for the last 29 years,” Keiser told her colleagues while speaking from the Senate floor in Olympia. “I am in awe at the amazing progress we have made together in this institution over the last few decades.”

Keiser’s pending departure is one of several announced in recent days. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said he did not plan to seek re-election later this year.

Two other longtime state lawmakers also recently said they will not run this fall for new terms in office. State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who represents the 7th Legislative District in northeast Washington, was first elected in 2005. Fellow Republican Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm initially joined the House in 2010 representing the 2nd Legislative District in western Washington.

Keiser was appointed to fill an open House seat in 1995 and won her first election the next year. She served as a representative until 2001 when she was appointed to the Senate and has since been elected six times. Keiser has also served as president pro tempore since 2018, presiding over the Senate when the lieutenant governor has been unavailable.

“Senator Karen Keiser has been nothing less than a generational leader on behalf of working people. Leaders like Karen do not come around often. She will be deeply missed in the Senate,” said Lt. Gov. Denny Heck in a news release. “I wish her well in her retirement.”

Senate Majority Leader Billig agreed.

“She has been a leader in so many areas. Because of her unceasing persistence over many years, working families in Washington are so much better off today than when she joined the Legislature,” Billig said Tuesday. “And her generous mentorship of new members ensures that her expertise will live on in this institution.”

Keiser grew up in Iowa until her senior year in high school when she moved to California. There, she attended the University of California, Berkeley, receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in journalism. Keiser worked as a broadcast journalist in Portland, Denver and Seattle before becoming communications director for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. She has three children – two sons and a daughter.

Currently, Keiser chairs the Senate Labor and Commerce committee and is former chair and longtime member of the Senate Health and Long Term Care committee. She is regarded as a champion for health care access, worker protections, and woman’s rights. Supporters say she played a pivotal role in implementing the federal Affordable Care Act in this state and sponsored legislation to establish the Washington Health Benefit Exchange that has provided coverage to more than 1.9 million residents.

Other noted legislative efforts included Keiser’s decade-long push for the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, which was established in 2017 and began paying benefits in 2020. She has also led on other measures: expanding Washington’s apprenticeship program, requiring businesses to provide accommodations to pregnant employees, prohibiting non-disclosure agreements that cover up sexual harassment, passing the Employee Free Choice Act that prevents employers from imposing religious and political opinions on workers, and implementing first-in-the-nation full overtime provisions for agricultural workers.

Keiser’s district includes the cities of SeaTac, Kent, Des Moines, and Burien, along with Sea-Tac International Airport. One of her first bills in 1996 funded a study of airport noise. One of her final bills sets up a grant program with the Port of Seattle to repair soundproofing for homeowners in airport communities.

Keiser is also noted for writing “Getting Elected is the Easy Part,” published in 2023 by Washington State University Press. She does not personally benefit from sales of the book, which is intended to help newly elected lawmakers navigate “the often-daunting culture of legislative bodies.”

In her farewell remarks Tuesday, Keiser quoted labor leader Elise Bryant, saying, “We did not come this far to give up now,” then adding, “And you can damn well bet that I’m not giving up either.”

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