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Wave of turnover hits Washington state legislature

A man with white hair and a beard loads a folded table into the back of a red car, with help from a young woman with curly dark hair. He's wearing a trench coat; she's wearing a puffy jacket.
Scott Greenstone
/
KNKX News
Rep. Steve Kirby (D-Tacoma) loads the last of his furniture from his state capitol office into his car on Friday, Dec. 2, with the help of Rep. Sharlett Mena. Mena ran against Kirby in 2020 and nearly beat him; this year, he decided to retire and endorsed Mena.

As he left the state capitol building for probably the last time on Friday, people called out to Representative Steve Kirby.

"The legendary Steve Kirby," someone said as he passed by.

"We get that a lot," he chuckled. "I do things differently."

Kirby is one of the more senior Democrats in the House of Representatives. He has a reputation for working with Republicans, and being kind and friendly to young lawmakers. Upon hearing of his retirement, the Republican house minority leader, Rep. J.T. Wilcox, said he was saddened.

But Kirby is hardly alone. There's been an unusual amount of turnover in the legislature this year: Eleven Washington House members decided not to run again, and 12 more ran for other positions or lost reelection. Seven senators are departing as well.

Once-in-a-decade redistricting pushed some lawmakers out of their current districts. On his way out, Kirby ran into Rep. Jeremie DuFault, a Republican who was redistricted out of his district in Yakima and decided not to run or move.

"He's a legend in a good way," DuFault said. "He was a good mentor for me and for all the people coming in, regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans."

Kirby said he didn't want to get to know new parts of his district if he was only going to represent them for one or two more terms. In 2020, he'd gotten a tough challenge from a young progressive named Sharlett Mena, so this year, he endorsed her. She helped him move out of his office on Friday.

"The district was good for our party, but better for someone, you know, younger, than it was for me. I mean, everything was just there. The stars lined up and said, what are you still doing here?" Kirby said.

Kirby was elected to Tacoma City Council in 1979, and he’s represented Tacoma and parts of Pierce County in the state House for 22 years.

"You know, I can't even imagine who wouldn't like to have the life I've had. It's been great. It really has," Kirby said. "So, hey, let's relax now."

The 2023 legislative session starts on January 9.

Scott Greenstone started off working at his community college newspaper before interning at NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and covering homelessness for The Seattle Times. He co-produced the “Outsiders” podcast with KNKX, which was named one of TIME’s top 10 podcasts of 2020.
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