Washington State Representative
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
When she was first recruited to run for the Washington state legislature, Sharon Wylie thought it wasn’t her time.
She had just started a restaurant and catering business—that was 36 years ago.
A few years later, she was recruited by her state senator to run for the office of representative. Again, she was ready to decline.
“I kept looking for somebody else and, pretty soon, that somebody else was me,” she said.
She ran, but not in Washington. Wylie and her husband had moved to the Gresham area of Oregon, just east of Portland. She represented that area for two terms in the Oregon House of Representatives.
Her husband’s job took him back across the Columbia River and the family again moved—this time to Vancouver, Wash.
Wylie thought she was out of politics. She went back to management consulting and then became a lobbyist for the county association in Washington. After about eight years, she went back to consulting, remodeling houses and painting portraits.
She was drafted to run for the Washington legislature again in 2011. This time, she accepted the challenge.
“I’m loving it,” she said. “I’m really glad to be back.”
While the Oregon legislature gave her a good foundation for service, Wylie notes the two Western states have many differences.
Both have an eastern/western, rural/urban split with mountains in the middle. Neither one has an abundance of large cities and their tax systems are mirror opposites. Oregon has an income tax but no sales tax; Washington has a sales tax but no income tax nor capital gains tax.
“Both the tax systems are two-legged stools, but different with initiative-driven limitations on property taxes and government spending,” she said.
“I thought there’d be real similarities because of the Northwest culture, the outdoor culture, the environmental culture and the general democratic in the cities and conservative in the rural areas,” Wylie said.
The politics also are different. Oregon, Wylie said, operates much like a New England town meeting. People register by party and often illustrate their prime beliefs through the names.
“They might be independent, and independent can cover anything,” she said, “but they also might say Earth party, Pacific party, environment party. …”
Washington is much different; it’s a caucus system, she said. “It’s all about herding your cats and finding out who your cats are.”
The Evergreen State recently moved to a blanket primary, creating a different relationship between the parties. That means the top two contenders from the primary running in the general election might both be from the same party.
“That’s created changes that we’re just figuring out,” she said.
Wylie said many of the districts are safe Republican or Democratic districts, which means there’s less chance people will consider a candidate from the minority party.
“There are times when somebody who is a really good fit for a district happens to be of the minority party,” she said.
Her district is considered to be a very safe Democratic district, but a moderate Republican previously represented it for years.
“It was good for the political good of the order to not have every seat be a safe seat,” she said.
Because of her experience, Wylie often is asked to talk with women who are running for local government or the legislature. She said it’s often difficult to figure out what makes one person electable and another person not.
“There’s all kinds of styles of personal engagement that can be successful,” she said. “There are introverts in politics.”
Regardless, Wylie believes elected representatives should note when the campaign ends and the governing begins.
“The important thing to remember is that campaigning is a competitive sport and governing is a collaborative endeavor,” she said.
She said she’s lucky enough to have both skill sets. But the most important thing she’s learned with campaigning and governing is that you must be personally transparent and authentic to be trusted in public service.
“That’s more important than ever because people are so skeptical,” she said. “I don’t think most intelligent people will believe in you if you don’t say something other than what they want to hear. They respect people who will engage with them.”
It’s also important to respect and engage with colleagues in the legislature.
“You have to remember that everybody you’re dealing with wants to do the right thing,” she said. “The differences are how you define what problems are priority and what causes those problems.”
Wylie likes to engage with people with different viewpoints than her own.
“I think that most of us, without realizing it, hang out with people who … have more in common with us than the people we have to solve the biggest problems in the world with in the legislature,” she said.
That’s what she likes most about serving. Plus, she said, she gets to learn about issues that she never would have otherwise.
She believes in compromise, but that can lead to one of the things she likes the least about serving.
“What I like the least is being beat up by my base over a bill that has changed and is no long what they thought it was,” she said.
That makes it difficult to compromise.
“The solutions to the biggest problems, whether it’s energy or water in the West or economic development, require compromises that most of us cannot sell to our base,” she said.
But that’s part of the process, which Wylie knows well. She ended up majoring in political science at the University of California Riverside where she got involved in community organizing and political campaigns. She worked as a city administrator, and her husband, Ted, had served as a city attorney.
Both stay active in their community, and Wylie is getting back into painting portraits. She is part of a studio art tour in November, her first art show in a number of years.