The chief budget writer in the Washington State Senate, Senator Christine Rolfes, was today appointed to fill a vacancy in the three-member Kitsap County Commission and will soon be leaving the Legislature to focus on her new responsibilities at the local level, the veteran senator confirmed today.
Rolfes first joined the Legislature in 2007 after winning a term in the Washington State House in the blue wave midterm cycle of 2006, which saw huge Democratic gains in both chambers. She was reelected in 2008 and 2010. In July of 2011, she was appointed to the Washington State Senate to succeed Phil Rockefeller, who took a job with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Democrats lost their Senate majority the following year when Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon defected to the Republican caucus just a few weeks after Jay Inslee defeated Rob McKenna to become Washington State’s next governor.
It took five years for Democrats to regain a Senate majority. In November of 2017, the party won a special election in Washington’s 45th District, which resulted in caretaker State Senator Dino Rossi being replaced with Manka Dhingra, a Northwest Progressive Foundation boardmember.
The flipping of the Senate majority led to a leadership changeover in all of the chamber’s committees, including the powerful Ways & Means Committee.
Rolfes was named as the Chair of that all important fiscal committee and has held the position ever since, assisted by fellow Democratic senators like David Frockt, June Robinson, and Mark Mullet. She’s now overseen the drafting of the Senate’s version of three operating budgets (in 2019, 2021, and this year) plus three supplemental operating budgets (in 2018, 2020, and 2022).
On her watch, in 2021, the Senate took a long-awaited vote to enact a capital gains tax on the wealthy, joining the House and Governor Inslee in cementing a historic win for tax fairness and equity that survived a right wing legal challenge.
Other tax fairness victories Rolfes was involved in included the repeal of a tax loophole for big banks and the modernization of the real estate excise tax.
Ways & Means also heard bills to create a wealth tax, but did not vote on them.
Rolfes considered running for Commissioner of Public Lands in 2020, but opted against it when Governor Jay Inslee sought a third term, causing incumbent Hilary Franz to seek reelection rather than pursue the state’s top job.
(Franz is now running for governor, creating an opening for a new Commissioner of Public Lands, but Rolfes has decided she’d rather be a different kind of Commissioner — a member of Kitsap County’s legislative branch.)
The Kitsap County Commission vacancy materialized when incumbent Rob Gelder moved to Thurston County to become an assistant county manager there.
Gelder was a Democrat. Like Rolfes, he had been in office since 2011.
The Washington State Constitution says that when vacancies in partisan county or legislative office arise, the county central committee of the political party the departing officeholder was from shall draw up a list of three nominees for the county legislative authority to choose from in appointing a successor.
(In the case of a legislative district spanning multiple counties, the appointment is made jointly in a special meeting of the different legislative authorities.)
If the county legislative authority or authorities fail to do their job within sixty days, the Governor assumes the power to appoint.
The two remaining commissioners, Katie Walters and Charlotte Garrido, were presented with three names by the Kitsap County Democratic Party. Those names were Rolfes, Brynn Felix, and Greg Nance. They were selected from a group of eleven applicants who competed for a spot on the list at a special nominating caucus held by the Democratic Party. Walters and Garrido interviewed the trio of finalists and then decided to select Rolfes, a decision that surprised nobody.
Before running for the Legislature, Rolfes was a Bainbridge Island City Councilmember, serving from 2000 to 2006. So, as she noted, she’s returning to her local government roots. Assuming she remains on the Kitsap County Commission for at least a couple of years, she will have completed a quarter of century of public service at three different levels of state and local government.
She told the Kitsap Sun: “It’s an opportunity to return to my roots and continue to serve the county by working on the 2024 comprehensive plan and using my connections and all of my relationships around the county to do good things.”
“I love being in the Senate, I loved serving in the Legislature, but this is my 17th year, and I’m excited to try something new,” she explained to the Sun.
Rolfes is not barred by current law from holding a state legislative position in addition to the county one. But, wisely, she has decided to give one up to focus on the other. She’ll resign in a few weeks. The 23rd Legislative District is located entirely within Kitsap County, so one of Rolfes’ first major decisions will be working with Walters and Garrido to select her replacement, again from a list of three nominees picked by the Kitsap County Democratic Party. If that replacement is State Representative Drew Hansen or State Representative Tarra Simmons, the process will then have to be repeated to find a new state representative.
By summer’s end, as a consequence of Rolfes’ move to the Commission, the 23rd will have a new state senator and possibly a new state representative too.
And the Washington State Senate Democratic caucus will have to pick a new Ways & Means Chair for the 2024 short session that begins in January. The current vice chairs are June Robinson and Mark Mullet. Mullet is running for governor, so it’s unlikely he will want the position, or be chosen even if he did.
NPI thanks Senator Rolfes for her contributions as a state legislator. We wish her well as she assumes her new duties at the county level.