Longtime state Sen. Karen Fraser was first introduced to government work in 1967 through an internship she noticed in a one-inch article in the University of Washington’s student newspaper.
After spotting the internship — which offered work at the state Capitol in Olympia through the Ford Foundation — she hustled over to the dean’s office at the political science department to apply. Fraser was finishing up a degree in sociology at the UW.
“They gave me a brochure showing a group of men sitting around a table,” Fraser recalls. “I even asked if women could apply, believe it or not.”
She got the job, and became the sole staffer for a health and welfare committee in the state House.
“I drove down here the Friday before the session with all my worldly possessions in an old car,” she said with a laugh. “It didn’t have a heater and I remember there was snow on the ground.”
Exactly 50 years since the internship drew her away from sociology and into government, Fraser is saying goodbye to a long tenure in the Legislature and leaving behind a lifetime of accomplishments in Thurston County. She retires from the Senate in January after 24 years in the office.
“Turned out I was so intrigued with the legislative process,” she said. “And I’ve been intrigued ever since.”
The Democrat from Olympia gave up her Senate seat this year in an unsuccessful bid to be the next Lieutenant Governor. She finished third in the top-two primary in August. Fraser said running for another elected office isn’t in her plans.
In total, Fraser, a Seattle native, served 28 years in the Legislature and another 15 in local government.
In 1973, at age 28, Fraser was appointed to serve on Lacey’s City Council. She became mayor in January 1976. She was the first woman to hold either position.
Next came eight years as a Thurston County Commissioner, and four as a state Representative. She joined the Senate in 1993.
“I think she’s arguably the most successful political figure in the history of Thurston County,” said Mark Brown, who served on the Lacey council with Fraser and later succeeded her as mayor. “She really has pretty much covered all the bases in terms of state and local government.”
Work in government
Around Olympia, Fraser is known for being involved in a range of political issues.
She notes her work on environmentalism, advancing women’s rights, funding public construction projects and more.
When Fraser was mayor of Lacey, which was officially incorporated in 1966, a permanent city hall was built, roads and utilities infrastructure in the young city were greatly improved, and a museum was established.
As a Thurston County commissioner, Fraser did pioneering work on land management before the state Growth Management Act was adopted in 1990.
As a commissioner, she also led a state legislative task force that developed a plan for managing the Nisqually River basin. The plan, later implemented and still ongoing, included many measures aimed at protecting habitat and wildlife in the basin.
During her time in the state House, Fraser sponsored a bill that created the statewide 911 emergency telephone system.
Over her 24 years in the Senate, more than 90 bills she sponsored were signed into law, including environmental measures, legislation to aid victims of sex trafficking, and a bill that created a consortium to document the history of women in the state.
Fraser chaired the Democratic caucus in the Senate for three two-year stints — a key leadership role — and created parks, trails and other construction projects through capital budgets she wrote in the Senate for six years.
Perhaps her most visible legacy is how she helped shape the face of the Capitol Campus and the greater Olympia area through her influence on the capital budget — which funds public buildings and other construction projects — her role on the Capitol Campus Design Advisory Committee and other legislation.
Fraser was instrumental in securing money for projects at The Evergreen State College, including the creation of the Seminar II building, and numerous buildings at South Puget Sound Community College.
She also got money from the Legislature for Olympia’s Percival Landing, The Washington Center for Performing Arts, the Children’s Hands On Museum and the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey.
Fraser even managed to teach a class on state government and environmental policy most years at Evergreen State while in the Senate.
“You can look almost anywhere and find something she’s contributed to,” Brown said.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island, said Fraser was successful because she knew the ins and outs of the legislative process and built relationships to pass bills.
Fraser avoided vitriol and rhetoric in favor of building bipartisan consensus, said state Rep. Sam Hunt. Hunt, a Democrat from Olympia, was elected to Fraser’s Senate seat in November.
Longtime friend Sandra Romero, an outgoing Thurston County commissioner who served as a 22nd Legislative District representative with Fraser, said Fraser orchestrated teamwork among lawmakers with her professional approach.
“If people trust you, they know they can work with you,” Romero said. Romero managed Fraser’s first campaign for the state House and was later elected to the seat when Fraser switched to the Senate. She served from 1993 until 2004.
“Because of (Fraser’s) style, people listen to her,” Nelson said.
Top Republicans, too, vouch for Fraser’s willingness to collaborate.
State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, a Republican from Wenatchee, said Fraser is easy to work with because she’s a great listener and carries an abundance of institutional knowledge.
Parlette, who is also retiring from the Senate in January, served on committees with Fraser and was her Senate leadership counterpart as Republican caucus chair at times.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville, said, “We have obviously disagreed at different times during our careers, but she’s always been respectful of the institution and the decorum, and that’s sometimes a trait that lacks in this era.”
After the Legislature, Fraser said she wants to travel with friends and spend more time with her daughter and two granddaughters.
A return to hiking, boating and skiing could be in store, too. She has summited Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount St. Helens (before and after the 1980 eruption) and Mount Olympus, as well as taken hiking trips in the Himalayas and the Yukon in Alaska.
She also used to win sailboat races on Puget Sound in her own boat — crewed usually by women, she adds.
“I have a whole shelf of trophies from that,” she said.
Good luck tearing Fraser completely away from public service, though. She said she has joined the TVW board — governing Washington state’s CSPAN — and will continue to serve on the board of the nonprofit Humanities Washington.
“I want to do kind of a little bit of everything I’ve always done,” she said.
Nelson said Fraser is leaving behind a legacy that is “incredible.”
“If people coming into office could follow her example, the politics in Thurston County would go up a bunch,” Romero said. “I think she’s an excellent role model.”