Marked by short days and — at least for some of us — time off from school or work, the year end holiday period lends itself especially well to deep thinking.
At NPI, we are constantly looking ahead. There are many profound lessons from this year we can carry into the next. We’d like to see our region become better prepared: for the pandemic recovery, for an almost entirely remote legislative session, for once-in-a-decade redistricting, and so much more.
The end of the year is also an opportune time to be grateful for our blessings. There is one remarkable person in particular who we’d like to recognize, celebrate, and congratulate for a remarkable career in public service.
Next month, after five years on the Seattle Port Commission and eight years in the State House, Representative Gael Tarleton will retire from public service.
Gael, who is also a senior boardmember for NPI, will be sorely missed in the Legislature. She was a leader in the House Democratic caucus, serving as Majority Floor Leader for three years, then wielding the House Finance gavel for two.
We resolved not to let 2020 end without saying thank you to Gael and reflecting on the progressive change she has helped bring to our region.
Putting together this retrospective was very fulfilling. We hope you enjoy it.
Gael Donelan grew up north of Boston and earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees at Georgetown University in the other Washington. Proficient in Russian, she began working at the Pentagon as the Soviet era drew to a close in the 80s.
Dee Ritchie, a publisher who now lives in Hansville, first met Gael while working together at the Department of Defense as research analysts.
“[In those days,] there were precious few women in technical and policy positions. The characteristic I admire most about Gael is that when she tackles an idea, never intimidated by its size, scope, or complexity, she reminds me of an American eagle, which once it locks its talons on its target it cannot let go.”
“This is how Gael operates.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Gael moved to the private sector, working as an international business director for a technology company.
There, she “worked hard to help Russian scientists find ways to use their expertise following the collapse of the Soviet Union,” according to Carol Vipperman. “Gael and I both worked very hard to help bring the new Russia into the world community, to make it a better place for its citizens, and to find constructive use of their technology and expertise.”
Years later, they would both be saddened when Vladimir Putin came to power, dashing hopes that Russia might soon become more free and democratic.
Neither Carol nor Gael were surprised, however, when it became clear that Russia had interfered in the 2016 United States presidential election.
“They had been doing that long before in Europe, and we were next,” Carol told NPI. “Gael’s focus on using digital technology to combat the influence is the right strategy and something that we still need to strengthen.”
Gael would later run for Secretary of State emphasizing that exact need to modernize our election systems to combat the digital threats of the 21st century.
The convictions underpinning her most recent candidacy were reinforced over the course of four decades of work in the public and private sectors.
Gael’s first bid for office came in 2007, when she ran for one of the seats on the five-member elected commission that governs the Port of Seattle.
The Port had acquired a reputation for dysfunction and cronyism, symbolized by a seemingly unending series of disastrous headlines (back when the P‑I was still a daily newspaper!). King County voters were in the mood for change.
A desperate two-term incumbent Republican Commissioner Bob Edwards went negative in October after trailing Gael by five points in the primary election.
Yet Gael emerged victorious as the returns came in on November 6th, and so began a remarkable career in public office in Washington State.
Jason Bennett, a consultant on her first campaign, remembers fondly Gael’s meticulousness when exploring this first run for office.
“[She was] thorough and diligent in her data collection and analysis, seeking input from various political leaders and interviewing a selection of campaign consultants to help guide her first run for public office,” Bennett told NPI.
NPI founder Andrew Villeneuve met Gael early on during that campaign, and interviewed her for an episode of NPI’s 2006–2008 podcast series.
“Meeting Gael was one of the high points of the 2000s for me,” said Villeneuve.
“I kept thinking to myself, what a great candidate. What an exceptional person. This is someone worth knowing and building a relationship with.”
“I could immediately see Gael had a strategic mind and really understood the power of long term thinking and investing. I was so happy to be able to vote for Gael in one of my first general elections as a young voter.”
“Not long after, I started working to put together NPI’s inaugural Board of Directors, and I asked Gael to be on it. I felt instinctively that the board would benefit from her experience and wisdom. And it has. Tremendously.”
“Working with Gael is a joy and a privilege. She’s smart. She’s compassionate. She’s both a good listener and a powerful speaker. She brings this incredible mix of serenity, energy, and practical focus to any conversation that she’s part of. Her leadership has been essential to NPI’s growth and success these past ten years.”
Gael has served continuously on NPI’s board from its founding to the present.
The Port of Seattle naturally also benefited from Gael’s experience and wisdom.
In her five years on the Commission, Gael helped lead the Port out of scandal. She brought unglamorous but needed reforms to King County’s economic engine.
Brady Walkinshaw, a former state representative who served in the Legislature alongside Gael, told us how these experiences shaped her as a legislator.
“I’ve always felt that her work and her wisdom are deeply rooted in values of fairness and justice, and she brings a passion and know-how about economic development that’s rooted in the hands-on expertise of her career.”
“Gael’s work before she came to politics and elected office, on intelligence and international development, always makes her perspectives all the richer and nuanced. With Gael’s background in the ports, her expertise on maritime issues made her a sought after source of counsel among legislative colleagues.”
Reducing emissions, ending cronyism, protecting fisheries, and building better relationships with other ports and local governments were among Gael’s goals as a Port Commissioner. She was easily reelected to a second term in 2011.
When Mary Lou Dickerson announced her retirement from the Legislature at the end of the 2011-12 session, Gael decided to run for her seat in the 36th LD.
The 36th, a district that currently encompasses Ballard, Phinney Ridge, Fremont, and Belltown, is synonymous with progressive values and leadership.
Gael’s fellow boardmembers and the NPI staff were very excited about her candidacy. By that point, Gael had become NPI’s President.
While NPI refrains from making endorsements or engaging in electioneering on behalf of any candidate, staff were proud to see Gael come first in the August Top Two election and go on to earn 55% of the vote in November.
We knew well that in Gael, an effective legislator was headed to Olympia.
Washington’s statehouse was something of a mess when the 63rd State Legislature was sworn in on January 14th, 2013.
Two traitorous Democrats in the Senate had gifted Republicans control of the chamber despite voters sending a Democratic trifecta to Olympia.
The House and Senate had to write legislation to meet the Supreme Court’s McCleary orders while also agreeing on a series of budgets to keep the state’s public services functioning during a period of sluggish economic activity.
And to top it all off, there was a new chief executive, Jay Inslee, who had just prevailed over Rob McKenna in a hotly contested gubernatorial race.
Amidst these new dynamics, Representative Tarleton was careful with what she got involved with that session, only sponsoring three bills. Instead, she spent her time developing relationships with Democrats and Republicans alike.
“As a person, she’s so genuine and has a gift for working across the aisle and developing relationships,” said Michelle Nance, Gael’s legislative assistant during the 2013 session. “One of her roommates was a Republican during that first session. It clearly showed because her bills would pass unanimously.”
“It’s just not the partisan politics you see in Congress.”
Gael’s first bill sponsorship was legislation that amended the Landlord-Tenant Act to require landlords to safeguard duplicate keys.
Nance recalled the story behind the bill.
“There was this horrible situation where a maintenance worker got a hold of the keys to a rental unit and brutally raped the tenant. She and her attorney brought this to Gael, and Gael made this her first sponsorship. It spoke to her heart.”
“She was passionate for helping other women. It appealed to her sense of justice. We were told it would be very difficult to get it passed because the landlord lobby was very opposed to more regulations.”
So Gael got to work, using her new relationships to build up bipartisan support for the bill. To borrow Dee’s earlier analogy, she was like an eagle with locked talons.
Not surprisingly, House Bill 1647 passed the House 98–0, the Senate 42–5, and was signed into law that summer by Governor Jay Inslee.
First sworn in as part of the 63th Legislature in January 2013, Gael quickly found herself rising up the ranks within House Democratic Leadership. She became Majority Floor Leader in 2016, midway through her second term.
A precise and nuanced thinker, she was keenly in touch with what was going on in the world and shared her expertise with her colleagues.
“Some of my favorite moments with Gael were our debriefs at the end of the day — as the early spring sky grew dark, we would unpack the news of the day and Gael would share her insights (she and I worked together in 2016, so there was always news to discuss),” said Elka Peterson Horner, another former legislative assistant who worked with Gael midway through her House years.
“What is remarkable about Gael is that she was always interested in hearing how I saw things, or how I approached a problem. I know that I am not alone in this experience, and that she has generously shared her time and feedback with many others.”
During her third term in the Legislature, there was increased interest in improving cybersecurity in Olympia from all four corners.
Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections and the Trump regime’s hostility to net neutrality provided an opening. When the opportunity came to take action, Gael’s past work experience and relationships with other legislators really counted.
In 2017, Substitute House Bill 2200, which reaffirmed consumer privacy protections from broadband companies, passed the House 87–10.
In 2018, House Bill 2678, which sought to strengthen cybercrime laws, drew support from 97 out of 98 representatives.
“She was really gifted at connecting people with underlying ideals,” said Michelle Nance, remembering Gael’s ability to marshal large coalitions of lawmakers to vote for sensible (and often, surprisingly simple) progressive ideas.
Gael was also a strong supporter of good paying maritime jobs and higher education during her time in the Legislature.
She worked as a research adviser at the University of Washington while serving as a Commissioner for the Port of Seattle. The shipyards of Interbay and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks also anchor the 36th LD.
Elka Peterson Horner recalled Gael’s expert advocacy for this worthy cause.
“In 2017, she introduced a remarkable piece of legislation (HB 1154) which supported the maritime and fishing industry through tax incentives. The bill passed out of the House in 2018 with near unanimous support.”
“This passion also took the form of supporting community and technical colleges across the state. She was consistently able to demonstrate how a strong maritime industry has benefit statewide. And by leveraging the nexus between higher education systems and economic growth, Gael was able to affect a great deal of change and build strong coalitions across party lines.”
Gael was also chosen to represent Washington on the governing body of PNWER, the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region. PNWER is “a statutory public/private non-profit created in 1991 by the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories.”
Gael currently serves as PNWER’s Vice President.
At the beginning of the 66th Legislature in 2019, Gael took the gavel of the influential House Finance Committee (which has jurisdiction over revenue bills) for what turned out to be her last term in the House. From that influential perch, Gael shepherded through the Legislature one of its most significant recent achievements: the comprehensive climate action package of 2019.
The bills contained a lot of significant provisions. The state committed itself to fully abandoning dirty fossil fuels, electrifying our transportation infrastructure, and making buildings and appliances much more energy efficient.
“What made Gael so effective in Olympia is her ability to create a long-term legislative plan and do the political work to see it enacted,” said Jacob Thorpe, who served as Gael’s legislative assistant from August 2017 until December 2019.
“When I first started working for Gael, one of my first tasks was to schedule stakeholder meetings for that landmark bill to transition Washington’s electrical grid to 100% clean energy,” Thorpe recalled.
“Gael spent dozens of hours that session crafting and refining that sorely needed legislation. By the end of session, even though it was unlikely to pass, I’d see Gael sitting alone on the House floor working on that bill before I left for the day.”
“It did not receive a floor vote during that biennium, but Gael patiently laid the groundwork for it to become a priority bill for the caucus. Many legislators moved on, but Gael kept the momentum going with a new bill in the next cycle and got legislation passed that is considered a model for a green future.”
Getting so many bills through many different committees quickly was tricky but necessary. House Finance was involved with many of the bills in the package, and Gael personally sponsored one of the companion Senate bills in the House.
When the package was finally signed into law in May 2019, Gael herself authored a post on the Cascadia Advocate to celebrate and commemorate the occasion.
“Building momentum takes more than a session. It takes patience and persistence to build a broad base of support,” she observed.
Gael’s seatmates cited the 2019 climate action package and her advocacy for good paying maritime jobs as her top accomplishments in office.
“It has been a privilege to serve alongside Gael Tarleton on behalf of the 36th District for five of her eight years representing our district,” said fellow State Representative Noel Frame, who has been chosen by their colleagues to succeed Gael as Chair of the House Finance Committee next year.
“Gael is one of hardest working people I know, with the sunniest disposition a person could have. Gael has served as an elected official these last ten plus years, but her career of public service stretches over decades.”
“Whether as a Port Commissioner or State Representative, Gael’s dedication to economic and workforce development, particularly within the maritime industry that is so critical to our legislative district, has been admirable.”
“Representative-elect Liz Berry and I have big shoes to fill when it comes to advocating for this critical industry and for advocating for diverse pathways in higher education! Most importantly, Gael has gone out of her way to mentor and empower other women in public office, including me.”
“Gael and I have run against each other several times and she has won every time — ha! But in victory, Gael has not only been gracious, she has used her position to advocate for good public policy and provide a pathway for me and others to step into leadership roles. For that, I will forever be grateful.”
“The insight and perspective that I would share about Gael is driven by her profound respect for the institution of representative democracy,” said Senator Reuven Carlyle, who was Gael’s seatmate in the House before moving over to the Senate after Jeanne Kohl-Welles’ election to the King County Council. (Frame was chosen as Carlyle’s successor by the Council, on the advice of Democratic Party.)
“She simply treasures the goodness of our constitutional republic, the role of public service, the dignity of policies that help people and the sense of decency that comes from hard work. In my experience, she brings the same work ethic of digging deep into an issue that she and her family brought to generations of hard-working folks on the shores of New England.”
“I had the great honor of working closely with Gael on a wide range of issues in our service together. She has the ability and desire to listen deeply to the real issues that surface in a battle, and to hear voices from diverse interests, and walk through the complexity with great care and resolve.”
“Together we tackled so many issues on behalf of the good people of the 36th District and statewide, and I am so grateful for her partnership.”
“In 2019, our work together on the state’s 100% clean energy bill was historic in scope. Together every step of the way, we crafted a win-win bill that is now widely seen as the strongest 100% clean energy bill in the nation.”
“Importantly to me, it’s also the one major bill that utilities were able to support since they have to implement the policy. So it’s a genuine win-win for the environment and for ratepayers,” Carlyle explained.
“Gael is a deeply caring person. She values diverse thinking, ideas and people’s lived experiences. Gael has served the people of Washington with extraordinary dignity that represents the best of servant leadership.”
“It’s been an honor to be her partner in service.”
In 2019, Gael also put her hat in the ring to succeed Frank Chopp as Speaker of the House as one of four female candidates for the caucus’ top job. Though she campaigned vigorously, the caucus chose another candidate, Laurie Jinkins (D‑27th District), who subsequently became Washington’s first woman Speaker, one hundred years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
In 2020, Gael again shepherded two bills on election security through both chambers of the Legislature with very little opposition.
These bills reflect her decades of experience working in the national security industry defending her country. They are emblematic of the same ideals that spurned her to run for Secretary of State in 2020.
Gael ran a spirited campaign, challenging incumbent Republican Kim Wyman to aggressively respond to Donald Trump’s dangerous attacks on the integrity of our vote-at-home system — which Wyman mostly refused to do.
Gael brought her experience to the table as part of her campaign. Too little national security expertise is currently tapped when election security decisions are made, resulting in systems prone to malfunction and vulnerable to attack.
While Gael was unable to break the Republican stranglehold on the Secretary of State’s office that has lasted since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, her campaign laid down a new high water mark for Democrats.
Out of the eleven attempts to unseat incumbent Republican secretaries of state since 1968, Gael’s campaign won the highest share of the vote for any Democratic challenger. (We checked.) In the middle of a pandemic. Against an incumbent receiving boatloads of mostly-positive media coverage, both national and local.
That performance is a testament to her outstanding qualifications, powerful campaign work ethic, strategic focus, and commitment to public service.
While putting together this appreciation, many of Gael’s friends and former colleagues sent us reflections honoring Gael’s remarkable career, some of which we have already quoted from above. Here are a few more reflections.
“I adore Gael. She has embodied public service and led on progressive public policymaking. I look forward to seeing what comes next for her in her outstanding career.”
– King County Councilmember Kohl-Welles (4th District)
“Gael told me many years ago that she had always wanted to work in public service and to run for office. She believed strongly in public service and the importance of a strong democracy. It was years later that she actually decided to run for the Port Commission followed by her run for the WA State legislature. I think her intelligence, compassion for others, hard work and knowledge of the issues, and her commitment to doing what’s best for the community made it easy to connect to voters.”
– Carol Vipperman
“Much to my delight, in 2013, Gael succeeded me in representing the 36th District in the Legislature. She was a thoughtful, strategic, and effective leader whose policy work benefited not only the 36th District, but the entire state. Her legislation on issues affecting climate change and her efforts to create a more progressive tax base have been significant.”
– Gael’s predecessor Mary Lou Dickerson, D‑36th District
“My friend and political colleague (Gael) and I have been close since we ran our first campaigns in 2007 — over thirteen years ago — and political friendships can be rare indeed. Gael is that rare individual who possesses the ability to be an excellent retail politician and down-to-earth at the same time.”
– Mo Judge, longtime friend and candidate for State Senate, 41st LD (Mercer Island, Newcastle, Sammamish) in 2012
“I was working as a campaign manager and my candidate and Gael were good friends, so our paths would often cross and we would visit. I loved getting to know Gael and was an instant super-fan. She was smart, measured, fun to be around and purposefully driven to serve her community and our state. In other words, she knew why she was running for office.”
– Gael’s successor Liz Berry, Representative-elect, D‑36th District
“I remember many eleventh hour budget provisos where she was a passionate advocate for the planet and environmental priorities. We’ll miss Gael in elected office, but I’m sure she’ll either be back again soon or discover new ways to move mountains toward a better, more just future!”
– Brady Walkinshaw
“I feel lucky to call Gael a good friend, but in many ways, a soul sister. Together we have fought hard to make the world a little better. Along the way, she has taught me that it’s possible to be a brave and kind warrior even when faced with complete betrayal. Gael has always taken the higher road and always treated her staff and volunteers with integrity and respect. Her ability to make you personally feel like a superhero in the cause, is her super power. She will always be my shero.”
– Sue Evans, friend and consultant
“If Congress was comprised of Gael Tarletons, it would be a much better system.”
– Michelle Nance
“G is for Gratitude. Gael approaches her work with humility and a the desire to serve. She respects all points of view. She is kind and fair. A is for Astounding. The work that Gael in tax reform has done has made our state able to withstand COVID and her commitment to clean energy will serve generations. E is for Exceptional. Gael works hard. She is an honest broker and stays positive in the most challenging of situations. She sets an example for others. L is for Love. Gael is deeply loved by her community, her colleagues and the people of Washington State. Thank you for the love that you have shown to us, Gael!”
– State Representative Amy Walen, Gael’s vice chair (D‑48th District)
Gael, on behalf of the staff at NPI, congratulations on concluding an incredible career in public service. We are honored and thankful to have you as our most senior boardmember, and glad to have the opportunity to continue to benefit from your wisdom and guidance as our country moves out of the Trump error.