Dunn, Jennifer Blackburn (1941-2007)

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 9/30/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9174

Jennifer Dunn was the first woman to serve as Washington State Republican Party chair and went on to serve six terms as a U.S. Representative from the 8th Congressional District in east King County, including Bellevue and other Eastside communities. With conservative positions on economics and foreign policy and more moderate views on social issues, Dunn urged the party to broaden its base and put more women in positions of influence. In the mid-1990s, she served as one of the top Republican leaders in the House. After an unsuccessful run for majority leader in 1998, she was praised for her response to President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1999. She was a strong influence on many Washington Republican politicians, including Attorney General Rob McKenna, former state senator and twice gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi (b. 1959) and state Party Chair Luke Esser.

A Bellevue Childhood 

Jennifer Dunn (nee Blackburn) was born in Seattle on July 29, 1941, to Helen and John “Jack” Charles Blackburn. According to “Women in Congress: 1917-2006,” a volume prepared by the House of Representatives, Jack worked in a cannery, sold fishing equipment, and brokered real estate. Helen taught children from Native American backgrounds but later became a housewife to raise her children.   

Dunn graduated from Bellevue High School in 1959. She attended the University of Washington from 1960-1962 and, after transferring, graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1963. After graduating from college, she secured a job as an IBM systems engineer. From 1978 to 1980, she served as a section supervisor with the King County Assessor’s Office. 

She married Dennis Dunn, who later became the GOP chairman in King County. They raised two children, Bryant and Reagan. Reagan would later become a Republican King County Council. He was named after then California Governor Ronald Reagan, showing Dunn’s admiration for the conservative actor/politician. The Dunns divorced in 1977. 

A Reagan Supporter Enters Politics

From 1978 to 1980, Jennifer Dunn served as a public-relations specialist for the King County department of assessments. She became involved in politics as the Washington state coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign. (He was beaten in the primary by Gerald Ford, who went on to lose to Jimmy Carter.) Despite this early disappointment, she became even more engaged in Republican politics, becoming the state's first woman to be Republican chair, from 1980 to 1992, in addition to serving as vice chair of the Republican National Committee’s executive board from 1988 to 1991. She was a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1984 and 1990. 

During her stint as state party leader, Dunn cultivated a number of young conservatives to become active in Republican politics. Among them were activists John Carlson, now a talk radio host, and Brett Bader, now a Republican political consultant. The two were part of a group that had been active organizing conservatives on the University of Washington campus.  “She came to us and said, `How’d you like to do that in the real world?” Bader told The Seattle Times (Thomas). It was her way of involving more people in the state party. 

She also encouraged future State Senator Rossi to run for office, which he did. He also ran for governor, and was narrowly defeated by Chris Gregoire (b. 1947). 

In 1991, when Congressman Rod Chandler, an 8th District Republican, announced his intention to leave the House and run for U.S. Senate, Dunn decided to run for his seat. (Chandler eventually lost to Democrat Patty Murray.) Dunn defeated Democrat George O. Tamblyn with 60 percent of the vote. In her five succeeding races, Dunn never won by less than that percentage. In her election campaigns, Dunn found a way to talk to suburban voters about controversial issues without scaring away moderates or conservatives. 

A Fiscal Conservative with an Independent Voting Record

As a freshman in Congress, Dunn showed her independence in a number of votes. She demonstrated her conservative credentials by arguing for fiscal reform, pushing House committees to reduce their budgets by 25 percent. However, her support for the Violence against Women Act distinguished her from many of her Republican colleagues.

Then, in 1993, she voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act, which set her apart from other women in Congress. While she opposed federal subsidies for abortion and international support for family-planning clinics that used the procedure, she voted in favor of women’s reproductive rights in other legislation. Along with other Republicans, she supported a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer and favored gun rights. 

Over the years Dunn became an expert in tax policy. She backed a bill to repeal the estate tax, which received significant support in the House but was vetoed by President Bill Clinton. She also favored an end to the “marriage penalty,” which taxed married couples filing jointly at a higher rate than those filing separately.  

Moving into Leadership

Starting with seats on three committees -- House Administration; Public Works and Transportation; and Science, Space and Technology -- Dunn worked her way up the Republican ranks, especially after the 1994 election brought in a GOP sweep and she became allied with House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. As a two-term representative, she was awarded a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. She became vice chair of the House Republican Conference in 1997, making her the fifth-ranking Republican leader, the highest ranking woman up to that time. 

Along the way Dunn continued to mentor young Washington Republicans, including GOP state chair Luke Esser and state senator Dino Rossi, who later ran for governor but lost by a narrow margin. 

During this period, Dunn argued that the Republican Party should broaden its base and overcome the partisanship of the 1990s. She especially advocated that the party needed to reach out to women voters, many of whom were alienated by some of the party’s more strident positions. Dunn knew well how to communicate with suburban women in her district and this was part of her continuing re-election success. During the 1996 election she traveled the country, stumping for male Republican Congressional candidates in front of women audiences.

“I've have found that if you listen to the American woman and respect her advice, the answers are all right there,” she said in her frequently used stump speech. 

“Too often, we assume that women are going to be liberals,” she said, according to Women in Congress. “But there are women out there who believe we can solve our problems with non-governmental, non-invasive solutions.” 

In an interview at the 1996 Republican convention, she commented, “I’ve said I don’t want the women who should be with us to be driven away because of an appearance of rigidity in the party. We weren’t telling the story; the Democrats were using harsh rhetoric, and Newt’s style wouldn’t have worked well to respond. I thought we needed more women out front.”

In 1998, Dunn ran for House Majority Leader against Congressman Dick Armey of Texas, who eventually defeated her. In television appearances at the time, she characterized herself as “a fresh face,” “a softer voice,” and “carrying a banner for working women.” 

During the race, Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times wrote: “Dunn is trying to convince colleagues who are, by nature, resistant to change that the party desperately needs a top-level shake-up. It needs to provide graphic proof to female voters that it has changed. It needs to replace one of these men [in leadership] with a woman.” 

In 1999, Dunn and Congressman Steve Largent (R-OK) delivered the Republican response to President Clinton’s State of the Union Message. In her message, Dunn called for sweeping tax cuts and tried to play down the impact on the capital of the Clinton impeachment trial, which had just begun in the Senate.

''A couple of weeks ago, I heard a network anchor say, 'The capital is in chaos,' '' she said. ''Another proclaimed we were in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Ladies and gentlemen, our country is not in crisis…There are no tanks in the street.'' 

During 1999 and 2000, Dunn served on George W. Bush’s (b. 1946) campaign committee. She became a Bush “Pioneer,” raising more than $100,000 for the campaign in 1999 alone. With Bush’s election in November 2000, many observers expected him to appoint her to a cabinet seat, either Labor or Transportation. But that call never came, possibly because Bush needed experienced Republican leaders in the closely divided Congress. 

Moving On

Dunn continued to serve on the Ways and Means Committee until 2004. At that point, President Bush tried to persuade her to run against Patty Murray for the Senate. Instead, she surprised many inside and outside of Congress by announcing she would step down from Congress. She had just married Hanford nuclear facility executive Keith Thomson in November 2003. Dunn made the announcement to a crowd of about 150 guests at a belated wedding reception in January. 

In a letter to supporters, which she asked Thomson to read to the guests, she wrote: "It is time for me to move on. While I never took a pledge on term limits, I do believe that our nation is better served if from time to time we senior members step aside to allow individuals with fresh ideas to challenge the status quo in Congress.”

From March 2005 to February 2007, she worked as a lobbyist at DLA Piper, one of the largest lobbying and legal firms in the world. On September 5, 2007 at the age of 66, she died of a blood clot in her lung at her Alexandria, Virginia, home.

A Trailblazer for Women

News of her death reached the Puget Sound region on the day of the funeral of another trailblazing woman political leader, Karen Marchioro (1933-2007), who was the first woman to head the Washington State Democratic Party. By another coincidence, both women took their leadership positions in the same year, 1981. 

U.S. Representative Jim McDermott, a liberal Seattle Democrat who served on the Ways and Means Committee with Dunn, commented: “People think everyone [in D.C.] has a D or an R after their name. She was somebody who really had a W after here name, thinking about what was best for the state of Washington.”

“Jennifer was a trailblazer for women who cleared the way for others with a career of firsts ...,” said GOP chair Esser. ”Her enduring legacy is an entire generation of Republican grass-roots activists who learned through her to fight for their principles and values with thoughtfulness and grace.”

Sources: Matthew A. Wasniewski, Women in Congress: 1917-2006 (Washington, D.C., Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration of the U.S. House of Representatives by the Office of History and Preservation, Government Printing Office, 2006), 701-703; Ralph Thomas, “Jennifer Dunn, Who Inspired Face of Today's State GOP, Dies at 66,” The Seattle Times, September 6, 2007; Neil Modie and Chris McGann, “Jennifer Dunn, 1941-2007: Tireless Advocate for State’s Interests,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 6, 2007; David Postman, “Jennifer Dunn’s Son up for King County Council Seat,” The Seattle Times, January 26, 2005; Danny Westneat, “Race and Gender at Play in GOP Leadership Spots -- Jennifer Dunn Appealing to Party to Place Women in Key Roles,” The Seattle Times, November 17, 1998; Speech by Jennifer Dunn, “What the GOP has done for Women, Gifts of Speech website accessed September 15, 2009 (http://gos.sbc.edu/d/dunn.html).

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