State Sen. Keiser announces retirement after 29 years in Legislature

Des Moines woman represents 33rd Legislative District that includes portions of Kent

State Sen. Karen Keiser. COURTESY PHOTO, Washington State Legislative Support Services

State Sen. Karen Keiser. COURTESY PHOTO, Washington State Legislative Support Services

State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, announced Tuesday, March 5 on the Senate floor in Olympia that she will retire later this year.

“It has been my privilege to serve the people of the 33rd Legislative District and the people of the state of Washington for the last 29 years,” said Keiser, the most senior member of the Senate, according to a Washington Senate Democrats news release. “I am in awe at the amazing progress we have made together in this institution over the last few decades.”

The 33rd District includes portions of Kent and the cities of SeaTac, Des Moines, Burien and Normandy Park.

Appointed to fill an open seat in the state House in 1995, Keiser ran and won her first election in 1996. She served in the House until 2001, when she was appointed to a seat in the Senate, where she has been reelected six times. Since 2018, Keiser has served as President Pro Tempore, presiding over the Senate when the lieutenant governor has been unavailable.

“The Senate won’t be the same without Karen Keiser,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane. “She has been a leader in so many areas. Because of her unceasing persistence over many years, working families in Washington are so much better off today than when she joined the Legislature. And her generous mentorship of new members ensures that her expertise will live on in this institution.”

In the Legislature, Keiser earned a reputation as a champion of health care access, worker protections and women’s rights, according to the news release.

Keiser played a pivotal role in implementing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in Washington state — helping make Washington a national leader. Among other key bills, she sponsored the legislation establishing the Washington Health Benefit Exchange, which has since provided more than 1.9 million Washingtonians with health care coverage.

While implementation of the far-reaching act was slowed and hindered by numerous glitches in other states, Washington experienced far fewer problems and was looked to as a national model, according to the news release. The effective implementation of the ACA helped drive the state’s uninsured rate down from 14.2% in 2010 to 4.7% as of 2022.

In 2017, Keiser capped a 10-year effort when Washington became only the fifth state in the country to offer comprehensive paid family and medical leave insurance for all working people. Since the Paid Family and Medical Leave program began paying out benefits in 2020, almost 470,000 Washington workers have tapped its benefits to bond with newborn babies, care for ailing relatives, or take time off for their own medical conditions.

In her most recent role as chair of the Senate Labor & Commerce Committee, Keiser steered the state’s unemployment insurance system through the Covid pandemic, ending with one of the strongest unemployment insurance trust funds in the nation. She repeatedly led landmark efforts on behalf of working people in Washington, including:

• Expanding and modernizing Washington’s nation-leading apprenticeship

• Requiring businesses to provide accommodations for pregnant employees.

• Prohibiting the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up sexual harassment and other workplace abuse.

• Passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which prevents employers from requiring workers to attend meetings where employers impose religious and political opinions.

• Making Washington the first state in the nation to implement full overtime protections for agricultural workers. For this work, she received a personal letter of commendation from President Joe Biden.

A former chair and longtime member of the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee, Keiser continued to spearhead work on health issues in recent years, including:

• Preparing for future pandemics by passing the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act, which provides presumptive workers’ compensation coverage for essential workers during public health emergencies.

• Capping out-of-pocket costs for life-saving medications such as insulin and epinephrine.

• Establishing a prescription drug affordability board.

Keiser has worked hardest for her constituents in the 33rd Legislative District, which also include Sea-Tac Airport. One of the first bills she sponsored in 1996 would have funded a study of airport noise. This year, one of the final bills she passed establishes a grant program in partnership with the Port of Seattle to assist homeowners in airport communities to repair failed soundproofing.

Keiser’s guidebook for effective legislating, “Getting Elected Is the Easy Part,” was published by Washington State University Press in 2023. She wrote it to help newly elected lawmakers navigate the often-daunting culture of legislative bodies and does not benefit personally from the proceeds of its sale.

Keiser was born and raised in Iowa and moved to California for her senior year in high school. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in journalism. She worked as a broadcast journalist in Portland, Denver and Seattle before becoming the communications director for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. She has three children — two sons and a daughter.

Keiser concluded her farewell remarks on the Senate floor by quoting the labor leader Elise Bryant:

“We did not come this far to give up now,” adding, “And you can damn well bet that I’m not giving up either.”

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