Wojahn, R. Lorraine Kendall (1920-2012)

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 12/20/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10694

Describing herself as a moderate Democrat, a social liberal, and a practical feminist, R. Lorraine Wojahn of Tacoma was a powerful Washington state legislator for 32 years. She served in the House of Representatives for four terms, from 1969 to 1976, and in the Senate for six terms, from 1977 through 2000, including three stints as Senate president pro tem. A mother of two sons, Wojahn was a Washington State Labor Council lobbyist before she was elected to office, and she worked passionately for the betterment of women, children, families, and the underprivileged. Her key accomplishments included passage of the state's Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), creation of the Department of Health, various consumer protection bills, and workers' rights legislation. Wojahn was a strong supporter of a state income tax, and helped create the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. A colleague once branded her "The Norse Goddess of Terror" -- a label she fully embraced -- for her forceful style, tenacity, influence in the legislature, and for what some called her regal bearing. She could be intimidating, yet was considered loyal, supportive, and fair. Wojahn was a popular legislator and often won her races with 70 percent or more of the vote, save for a Tacoma mayoral race that she lost in 1977, a loss some felt was due to the fact that voters wanted to keep her in the Senate. When Wojahn was first elected to office, she was one of only seven women in the House. She served under six governors and retired after completing the 2000 session.

Early Years

Ruth Lorraine Kendall was born in Easton, Kittitas County, on September 17, 1920, and was adopted by Frederick Charles Kendall and Edna Ogilbee Kendall, who also had adopted a son, Donald, two and a half years earlier. Frederick Kendall began working for the railroad at the age of 16 and eventually rose to a position as a minor executive for the Northern Pacific Railway. Edna's family, the Ogilbees, had moved to Portland from Iowa. It is likely that the couple met in Portland, as Frederick's railroading often took him there. Frederick's work provided a solid income for the family, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and Lorraine and Donald had happy childhoods. As Lorraine would later describe their early years, "We had every opportunity ever offered any child" (Wojahn Oral History, 3).

Although politics was seldom talked about in the family, Lorraine's maternal grandmother was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and supported voting rights for women. Lorraine's own political views would grow from personal experience, and while she did not declare herself a Democrat until an adult, she knew early on that she was not a Republican.

Frederick's railroad work required the Kendalls to make several moves -- the family lived in Easton, Auburn, Seattle, and Missoula -- but Lorraine grew up mostly in Seattle. Her first school years were at University Heights grade school when the family lived in Seattle's University District in a rented home owned by University of Washington basketball coach Hec Edmundson (1886-1964). When Lorraine was about 10 years old, the Kendalls moved to Missoula, Montana, for what the family expected would be a one-year stay. But this was at the beginning of the Great Depression; Frederick had work in Missoula that he would not have had elsewhere, and the stay turned out to be four years. The Depression years were not hard for the Kendalls, but Lorraine witnessed the poverty of the times. The family lived near a rail line and was frequently visited by travelers hoping to find food and work. In about 1935 the family returned to Seattle, and Lorraine graduated from Roosevelt High.

University, Pearl Harbor, and Marriage

Lorraine's mother had a chronic heart condition, and Lorraine cared for her. Although her illness was persistent, Edna lived into her 80s, outliving her husband. For a time, Lorraine considered going into the medical profession; her choice would have been lab work. But she was an avid reader and chose instead to major in communications and journalism at the University of Washington. She lived at home while attending classes, then took a job modeling for I. Magnin department store. She also played field hockey, basketball, and volleyball, and enjoyed fly fishing and horseback riding with her father and brother.

Lorraine completed one year at the university and there met her future husband, Gilbert Wojahn (1915-1990). After he proposed, the couple went to a jewelry store in his home town of Tacoma to buy an engagement ring. It was December 7, 1941, and what started as a happy day for them ended in confusion as they listened to news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

Gil signed up for the draft and while awaiting the call went to work for the Corps of Engineers, stationed at the government locks in Ballard. An architect, he worked there in ship design for the coast guard. The couple married in 1942. Wanting to help with the war effort, Lorraine took a job with the Seattle district office of the Army Corps of Engineers. Gil was called for active duty just a few days before World War II ended, so he did not see action. After discharge from the military, he joined the architectural firm Bliss Moore and Associates of Seattle, and the couple soon moved to Tacoma.

In many ways, Lorraine was a typical mom and housewife of the 1950s. The couple had two sons, Toby and Mark. Toby (Gilbert Jr.) would die in 1969 from Hodgkin's Disease. Like other women who eventually became politicians, many of Lorraine's first lessons came from her personal life: PTA, Cub Scouts, the Boys and Girls Club, YWCA, and co-op school teaching. Helping with these groups, she refined her natural skills and began to connect with people who would be helpful to her throughout her life.

Getting Politicized

In January 1964, Wojahn was hired by the Washington State Labor Council as an officer for the Retail Store Employees Union. She was not a particularly strong supporter of organized labor, but what she did like about unions was their drive toward fairness in the workplace. The disparity of opportunities and pay between men and women spurred her to work for change.

In her first year with the labor council, Wojahn was a field agent, helping to set up programs for political education, coordinating offices in 26 locations, and commuting to Seattle every day. She began fighting for fairness in the workplace for women and minorities. She also took courses at Tacoma Community College in labor history and served on the state Commission on the Status of Women during the 1960s, working on policy issues. Wojahn then became a labor-council lobbyist, a position that gave her the chance to meet legislators and to learn state legislative procedures.

Wojahn worked in the 1964 campaign for Democrat Floyd Verne Hicks (1915-1992), who was running for Congress from the 6th District (which included the Olympic Peninsula, most of Tacoma, and much of the Kitsap Peninsula) against incumbent Republican Representative Thor Tollefson (1901-1982). Lorraine handled voter registration, and her strategy was to set up registration trailers in places where the most people assembled, including shopping malls and even city dumps. In her words, "Go to the city dumps on weekends. You can't beat it. Just stand there" (Wojahn Oral History, 38). In a short time, she and her assistants had enrolled more than 35,000 new voters. It was a close election, with Hicks winning by a few hundred votes. He would go on to serve six terms in Congress, from 1964 to 1976, when he was succeeded by Norm Dicks (b. 1940).

The House of Representatives

In 1968, George Sheridan (1914-2004), Democratic state representative from Washington's 27th District, retired after two terms to run for Pierce County commissioner. Wojahn was asked to file for his vacant position. She counted on her solid labor connections and experience in the legislature as a lobbyist, but the race was difficult. Pierce County labor groups supported her but the state labor council did not. Nevertheless, she won by 307 votes.

Wojahn began her legislative career under Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925). Despite the fact that she was one of only seven women in the House in 1969, she felt comfortable there and found most of the men to be helpful. She already had a beginning knowledge of legislative procedures and knew many of the legislators from her work as a lobbyist. On the negative side, she regretted the loss of her labor council salary and realized that, to be most effective, she would need to move to Olympia. For a time she rented a room in Olympia's Tyee Hotel and later shared rentals with female colleagues. Eventually, as her career progressed, she would buy a home in Olympia. The other women in the House during her first years there were Margaret Hurley (b. 1909), Geraldine McCormack, Gladys Kirk (1903-1974), Marjorie Lynch, Mary Ellen McCaffree, and Lois North.

Wojahn felt she had been double-crossed by the state labor council when she ran for office and backed away from taking a lead on labor issues, although she said that she would always support workers' rights and legislation to help injured workers. She was appointed chair of the commerce committee, a group often antagonistic toward labor, although Wojahn did not believe it needed to be. She was also assigned to the judiciary committee (the first non-lawyer in this position), the revenue and taxation committee, and the appropriations committee. She would be a strong supporter of Governor Evans's attempts to establish a state income tax, an effort that would be defeated twice by public vote.

Issues during her first terms included a bank fight against credit unions, redistricting, and, high on the list, the state's economy. Due to the Boeing Bust in 1971, it was obvious to legislators that the state needed to encourage new industry. In Wojahn's words: "When Boeing went under, everything went under. So that was the beginning of growing for us, as far as the Legislature was concerned" (Wojahn Oral History, 128).

Women's Issues, the ERA, and Pantsuits

One of Lorraine Wojahn's signature accomplishments came following the 1972 congressional passage of the national Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). That year she sponsored two measures, one to ratify the national amendment and one to pass a state version. Wojahn had served on Governor Evans's Women's Council and the state amendment was already in process.

Passing a state ERA proved difficult, with several outspoken conservative legislators in opposition. The process was accompanied by a bit of hilarity when female legislators were forbidden to wear pantsuits in the legislature (no longer the rule by 1977). House Joint Resolution 61, the state's equal rights amendment, passed narrowly by public vote in November 1972. Washington's ratification of the national amendment came easily, but it failed to achieve ratification by the necessary 38 states. Washington is presently (2013) one of 35 states to have ratified the national ERA amendment and one of 22 states to provide either inclusive or partial guarantees of equal rights on the basis of sex in their own constitutions. Passage of the state ERA opened a floodgate of legislation in the years that followed.

Senate or City Hall?

Wojahn first ran for a state Senate seat in 1976 and won, beginning her term in 1977. But she found the Senate boring and stuffy in comparison to the House. Still, she was comfortable in Olympia. In 1978, she was asked to run for mayor of Tacoma, since two-term Mayor Gordon Johnson (d. 2005) could not run again.

The economy was a challenge. Like many cities, Tacoma's downtown had deteriorated, with new development being built away from its inner core. The city faced major growth issues, as well as a rising drug problem and a resulting high crime rate. Wojahn reluctantly agreed to run, but she campaigned only half-heartedly, giving speeches with little focus. She lost to Mike Parker (b. 1948) who became Tacoma mayor at the age of 30. Some said Wojahn lost because voters wanted to keep her in the Senate, and she would continue to tackle Pierce County's problems from her seat in the legislature.

Protecting Workers, Families, and Consumers

Wojahn worked on parks and recreation issues and served on the State Employees Insurance Board. She sponsored the Displaced Homemakers bill (passed), the Domestic Violence bill (failed), and a pension bill, and supported a successful bill to lower the state's voting age to 18, making Washington one of the first states to do so. She also backed a bill requiring packaging for bacon to have windows front and back, so the amount of fat could be seen from both sides.

Tying in with a UNICEF program, the legislature declared 1984 to be the Year of the Child, an attempt to draw many programs together under one category. Wojahn worked for daycare in industry, house construction designed with children in mind, and on paternity, custody, and child support issues. She became the point person on this legislation, mostly, as she said, "because I cared" (Wojahn Oral History, 305).

Department of Health

In October 1985, Wojahn was named chair of the Senate's Committee on Human Services and Corrections. As chair, in 1986 she produced the first comprehensive state legislative policy to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS. Then she tackled another big issue -- the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) clearly was handling too much for one agency, and attempts were being made to break it up.

In Wojahn's view, there needed to be a division between the government's efforts in handling social problems and its efforts in handling medical care. Separating them was a complex issue. Wojahn supported a bill to develop a separate Department of Health (DOH). Passed by both the House and the Senate, the bill was signed into law by Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) on May 31, 1989.

Health Care, Guns, and Tim Eyman

In April 1993 the Senate passed a state health care bill, sponsored by Democratic Senator Phil Talmadge and strongly supported by Wojahn. Its goal was to provide insurance coverage to the state's residents and, it was hoped, control rising health-care costs. The plan required all businesses to provide insurance for their workers by 1997. The Senate vote was 28-21 in favor, with two Republicans endorsing the bill, but even Democrats had been edgy about passing the measure. To pay for the subsidized care, taxes were to be increased on cigarettes, alcohol, beer, insurance premiums, and hospitals. It did not succeed, and the act was repealed in 1995.

Mukilteo businessman Tim Eyman's (b. 1965) first appearance on the state's political scene was a failed effort to end affirmative action. He then moved on to the issue of government spending and taxes, with attempts to pass initiatives to lower car-tab rates. Twice he was unable to gather enough signatures, but he succeeded with Initiative 695, which equalized car tabs at a low rate, regardless of vehicle size or value. Although much of the law was later ruled unconstitutional, when voters passed the initiative in November 1999, legislators were left to scramble for necessary funding for transportation and for road projects needed to relieve traffic congestion. Nonetheless, Wojahn found time during this period to support two major pieces of legislation -- an assault weapons ban and a bill to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination -- although both failed to pass.

Tacoma Revitalization and Historic Preservation

Wojahn worked closely with Tacoma's state representatives and city officials to revitalize the city's deteriorating downtown district. Like many cities, Tacoma first tried a pedestrian-mall downtown, but it failed. New plans centered on the renovation of Union Station Tacoma, once a vital part of the city. Completed in 1910 and opened the following year, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, and in 1980 a seven-block area surrounding it was designated as a National Register Historic District. The building was abandoned in 1984 and purchased for a dollar by the city. Three years later, the U.S. General Services Administration, with Congressional authorization, arranged a 35-year lease of the building from the city, and from 1990 to 1992 it was rehabilitated, expanded, and converted for use as a federal courthouse.

Wojahn, a member of the Washington State Historical Society's board of trustees, considered using the station for a much-needed state museum of history, and for a time there was talk of sharing the space with the federal court. But for reasons of security, a museum and federal court did not make a good match. State legislator Dan Grimm (b. 1941) wanted to see a new state museum building constructed and considered Tacoma to be a good location. Tacoma-area legislators, including Wojahn, helped gain approval for $34 million in general obligation bonds, and with the help of Councilman Tom Stegner the City of Tacoma donated two and a half acres of land on Pacific Avenue for the purpose.

Museum director David Nicandri built a statewide constituency for the project and raised $6 million from government agencies, trusts, and local businesses. The new Washington State History Museum opened on August 10, 1996, in a $42 million building. It was an important part of Tacoma's downtown renaissance, which was planned to include a University of Washington campus, the renovated Union Station, a convention center, art museums, and a trolley line to connect to a revitalized theater district.

Last Years

Throughout her career, Lorraine Wojahn practiced the politics of the possible, but by the 1990s the legislature was highly polarized. In 1997 Democrats were not in control, and Wojahn felt that a new breed of conservative Republicans made it difficult -- even impossible -- for moderates of either party to function. Yet she continued to take a leadership role. That year she worked for final passage of a trauma-treatment bill that established a new tax on motor-vehicle registration to set up an emergency medical-trauma response system. Former Senate staffer Don Sloma remembered it this way:

"The Senator had concocted a scheme under which car dealers would get a small share of the processing fee for collecting the tax. This, and Senator Wojahn's not so gentle admonitions to help on the bill, had enticed them to favor its passage. Still, the bill had caused a Republican House member sitting on the bill's conference committee to object to the tax. The words uttered on the Senate floor by Republican Senator Alex Deccio, who had also participated in the conference were, 'We had some trouble with the House about this tax. We put Senator Wojahn on the conference committee. All I did was duck. I suggest you all do the same.' The Senate quickly, easily, and with some degree of knowing affection by the many Senators who'd been in Deccio's position on other issues, passed a significant tax increase to support a clear public health improvement purpose, ram-rodded by a Democratic Senator in a Republican-controlled chamber" (Wojahn Oral History, foreword).

At 80 years of age, Lorraine Wojahn decided to make the 2000 legislative session her last. She was honored with a retirement party at the Capitol Building, with colleagues young and old lauding her accomplishments and thanking her for her years of service.

A resolution was read, pointing out that Wojahn "often spoke the loudest for those least able to speak for themselves, especially the poor, the troubled and the disabled. Her vigorous advocacy in behalf of these groups before her colleagues in the Legislature was a hallmark of her long career in public service" (Wojahn Oral History, 749).

In the months that followed her retirement, Wojahn began meeting with Anne Kilgannon, who over the next few years would interview her for the Washington State Legislature's Oral History Project, led by the secretary of state's office. Wojahn was a perfect candidate. Having served in both the House and the Senate for a total of 32 years -- and a straight talker to the end -- she left an important personal view of the events and issues of her time in Olympia. An edited version of the Wojahn interview was published in 2010 -- 760 pages in all. She attended a book-signing following its publication.

Wojahn regretted that, over the years, civility and congeniality had been lost in state government. As she expressed it:

"The atmosphere in the Legislature was changing. There was so much acrimony. When I started it wasn't that way. We liked each other. We trusted each other. We didn't always agree with each other, but there was no acrimony. I didn't want to be a part of it anymore" (Wojahn Oral History, 753).

R. Lorraine Wojahn died of congestive heart failure on October 13, 2012 at the age of 92, on the same weekend that saw the death of another powerful longtime legislator, Democrat Sid Snyder (1926-2012), who had retired in 2002 after 50 years of service.


R. Lorraine Wojahn, An Oral History (Olympia: Washington State Oral History Program, 2010), available at Washington State Legislature Oral History website (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/oralhistory/wojahn/WojahnOralHistory.pdf); Alexis Krell, "Longtime Legislator Wojahn Dead at 92," The Olympian, October 15, 2012 (www.theolympian.com); "Wojahn, R. Lorraine," Our Campaigns website accessed November 27, 2013 (http://www.ourcampaigns.com/CandidateDetail.html?CandidateID=93047); Sally Gene Mahoney and Marcia Schultz, "Delight, Disappointment in Equal Rights Passage," The Seattle Times, November 29, 1972, p. B-1; Delores Tarzan Ament, "Museum to Add Vigor to Tacoma," Ibid., May 3, 1992, p. D-4; Cathy Reiner, "City of Contrasts -- Tacoma's Stately Historical District Sits on the Edge of Urban Renewal," Ibid., February 20, 1993, p. C-1; Lyle Burt, "Senate OKs Bill to Let Seattle Impose Gas Tax for Bridge Repair," Ibid., April 11, 1985, p. B-7; Matt Doren, "Proposed Bill Sparks Debate Over the 'Right to Die' Issue," Ibid., February 6, 1987, p. B-4; "Legislative Wrap-up -- Lawmakers Got Tough on Crime, Supported Property-Rights Measure, Did Away with Health-Care Act," Ibid., May 28, 1995, p. A-18; David Ammons, "Tax Relief May Doom Traffic Congestion Fix; Car Tab Initiative Leaves State Officials Scrambling," Ibid., August 1, 1999, p. B-4; Diane Searcy, "Senior Lawmaker Says Goodbye -- Champion of Issues for Women Lorraine Wojahn Retires After 32 Years," Ibid., March 10, 2000, p. A-17; David Postma, "Child Support Bill OK'd After Privacy Dispute," Ibid., March 11, 1998, p. B-1; Marisa Lencioni, "A Grand Opening: Museum Celebration Entertainment Ranges from Polka Breakfasts to The Wailers and Chinese Opera," The News Tribune, August 9, 1996, p. SL-3; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington State History Museum opens in Tacoma on August 10, 1996," (by David Wilma), and "Snyder, Sid (1926-2012)" (by Peter Blecha) http://www.historylink.org (accessed November 28, 2013).

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