After 18 years of representing Ballard and the rest of the 36th legislative district, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle) has announced her retirement. She looks back on the successes and frustrations of her legislative career.
Representative Mary Lou Dickerson retires after serving the 36th legislative district for 18 years
Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson is currently one of Washington’s longest-serving lawmakers, having represented Seattle's 36th legislative district -- which includes Ballard, Phinney Ridge, Magnolia, and Queen Anne -- since 1994.
Just days after news of her retirement was leaked to the press, Dickerson took some time to look back on the successes and frustrations of her legislative career.
While she has served on and led legislative committees dealing with most of the issues that come before the House, the one thread that’s run through her career, in and out of the Legislature, is her passion for children and families.
"Even before I became a parent, children and families was a passion of mine...I led a number of organizations as an executive director or in top management that had to do with children and families. They involved juvenile justice, child welfare," Representative Dickerson said in a Q and A session with Dan Frizzell. "I actually was the director of a Youth Service Bureau that was like a one-stop shop for human services that helped children and families. I have done a lot of things for children and families, and my work as a citizen finally inspired me to come to Olympia and try to make some systems changes, some bigger changes."
Originally from Salem, Ore, Dickerson received a journalism degree from the University of Oregon and before getting a Master's in social work from the University of Hawaii, which she used to serve in management for a variety of children and family organizations.
Dickerson said she initially went into journalism because she "was enamored with the fact that journalists could uncover stories that the country needed to hear about and that were being covered up."
"I thought that journalists were very courageous and wanted to follow in their footsteps," she said.
But even before developing an interest in journalism, it was an elected office that she dreamt of.
"When I was a little kid, I wanted to be the first woman President of the United States. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. I lost that dream after a while, thank goodness, but I have always had kind of this crusading spirit and by 1992, I had decided that I wanted to run for office," she recalled. "I have a daughter who was nine years old then and I figured she was old enough that I could go ahead and run. I had a lot of experience running these organizations for children and families, so I thought I could take that experience and bring it to Olympia and work on children and families. As it turned out, I’ve worked on many more issues than just children’s issues, but that was my goal back then."
While Dickerson did not win in 1992, she ran again two years later and won.
"I was excited to come to Olympia, and I thought I would roll up my sleeves and start making laws. And, by golly, that’s what I did," she said.
Dickerson would spent the first few years in the Democratic minority fighting the Republicans before spending a decade or so repairing the safety net. Now that the recession has set in and initiatives have crippled the ability for lawmakers to raise revenue, Dickerson said her frustration with the inability to raise revenue to pay for education and other critical needs of the people of this state influenced her decision to retire at the end of the year.
"Our hands as a legislature have really been bound, and it’s especially challenging in times of great crisis, such as the times that we’re in, when we really don’t have the needed flexibility to pay for services," she said. "I would say this, you look at the slide that our state has taken in terms of the amount of money … that our state takes in in revenue, and it has gone down and down and down... It’s just not enough money—especially considering inflation—to pay for the needs that the people of this state have."
Dickerson expressed frustration with initiatives that pass telling the state to do something without provide the funding for it.
"We’ve had several of those initiatives pass. And we’re talking about initiatives that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet there’s no revenue source to pay for them. And I guess that people think, “Well, we need to prioritize to get those high on the priority list.” But there’s not a recognition of the other things, that actually happen to be already on the priority list—like K-12 education," she said.
Dickerson said a possible solution to the problems is to start having "very candid conversations with the public about what’s happening with our revenue situation, and what happens when you have initiatives that require funding for something but don’t have funding sources to pay for them...We need to have more people to speak out and quite frankly, I’m intending to speak out."
Despite her recent frustrations, Dickerson can look back on a successful and rewarding legislative career with numerous accomplishments.
Looking back, Dickerson said she was very pleased with the passage of toxic toys bill, which congress looked at as a model for their own toxic toys bill that has made a lot of children’s products much safer.
She also named the Justice and Raiden bill, and the passage of the cannabis bill among her legislative successes.
Dickerson said that while she will not miss the really long hours spent at the Capitol, she will her colleagues.
"There are so many live wires down here, so many people who are bright and funny and committed passionately to issues. I would say that was the biggest surprise when I came here: Finding all these elected officials who were so great, and the staff down here are fabulous as well," she said.
And for the person looking to fill her shoes come November, Dickerson offered some sound advice.
"This place runs on relationships. You can know a heck of a lot, be very bright and not get your bills passed. If you’re down here to work on issues and get your bills passed, you need to work with the people on both sides of the aisle you need to develop strong working relationships, and you need to act with kindness," she said.