Ferry Godmother Karen Schmidt sails into the sunset

"When people talk about Karen Schmidt, Bainbridge Island’s retiring larger-than-life Republican lawmaker, four themes stand firm.One, at one time or another, she angered virtually everyone.Two, they respected her anyway.Three, most of her constituents have no idea how much she did for them.And four, for every island constituent who believed she held interests elsewhere in the 23rd District above theirs, there is a Kitsap County resident who felt she favored Bainbridge first.“It’s not surprising that people dislike her, because she’s very powerful and people fear her,” said Alice Tawresey, former Winslow mayor and chair of the state Transportation Commission. “Her attitude always was, ‘I’m not going to worry about getting elected here and I’m not going to worry about their parochial relationship with the ferries.’“When I was mayor, Karen and I never saw eye to eye – because Karen’s constituency is in Kitsap County, while Bainbridge Island is only looking out for itself. Those two constituencies have different values, and neither should be supplanted by the other.“It’s a conflict that creates a sort of useful tension,” Tawresey said, “and Karen handled it better than anyone.”Schmidt, 53, announced last week that she’ll resign Nov. 7 from the 23rd District seat in the state Legislature she’s held for nearly 19 years. One day later, she’ll begin work as the executive director of the new Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board – an agency she largely created as part of her career-long emphasis on regional transportation matters.She’ll be paid an annual salary of about $85,000, which triples her final legislative pay of $28,300 per year.“It’s a lot like leaving family,” Schmidt said of her tenure in the Legislature. “I’ve fought with them, worked with them, laughed and cried with them. “Now, I’ll still be with them, but I’ll be outside the door now – watching from the balcony, or on my kneepads groveling,” she said with a laugh.The freight mobility job was too good to pass up, Schmidt said.“To have the chance to be in on the creation of something that’s going to be so helpful to our state’s economy is a wonderful opportunity,” she said.“We are the most trade-dependent state in the nation – just about every job we have here can be tied to trade. We need the advancement of a good transportation network so we can compete in the open market.”It’s been quite a rise through the ranks for Schmidt since the fall of 1980, when she was a 34-year-old mother of two young sons whose resume highlights included the vice presidency of the island’s Welcome Wagon organization and the co-chairmanship of the Grand Old Fourth Committee. The owner of downtown Winslow’s Go Travel swept to victory with fellow Republicans in the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” defeating incumbent Democrat representative Rick Smith with nearly 53 percent of the vote.Schmidt made her mark almost immediately, crafting and cramming through a capital-punishment bill that still serves as the state’s legal guideline for executions. She also started work on streamlining ferry service to Bainbridge and the rest of Kitsap County – a burgeoning area of expertise that soon merited her the moniker of “Ferry Godmother” and earned her respect and fear as one of the most powerful women in Washington.“Karen has been the sole savior of the ferry system at times,” said Bainbridge icon and Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who began serving in Olympia the same year as Schmidt. “Losing her is going to be a real hard blow for Bainbridge Island. I don’t think people had any idea what she did for them.”As Schmidt grew more powerful from her seat on the Legislature’s transportation committee, she garnered more enemies. Many of them were Bainbridge residents, who felt that Schmidt didn’t look out for island-centric interests.“She just wasn’t a good spokesperson for the island,” said Charles Schmid, a longtime Bainbridge environmental activist. “She just didn’t register the local concerns for the environment or for local control, especially in things like the future of Highway 305.”And yet, Schmidt heard just the reverse on the other side of the Agate Passage Bridge.“There are constituents in other parts of Kitsap County who felt her tenure was marked by favoritism toward Bainbridge Island at the expense of services at Bremerton, Kingston and Southworth,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller, a Bainbridge Democrat who served with Schmidt in the House over the past year.“But I think she has responded to that perception of unfairness by saying we need to have a transportation system that responds to needs at all locations.”Whatever the perception, Schmidt took a beating from her constituents every two years at election-time town-hall meetings.And despite the fact that the majority of islanders voted against her in several of nine re-election bids, her survival was almost as sure a thing as has ever been seen in state politics.In those campaigns – against former Bremerton mayor Glenn Jarstad (1982), Anne Mitchell (1984), Danny O’Toole (1986), Mike Wistrand (1988), island attorney and current fire commissioner Alan Corner (1990), Andrew Schmid (1992), Dick McCool (1994), David Harrison (1996) and Charles Bickel (1998) – she garnered between 55 and 69 percent of the vote.“The reality is that the island’s political posture has gotten more and more liberal over the years,” Schmidt said. “That’s not in keeping with the feeling elsewhere in the district.”Though a Republican, Schmidt steered clear of social-conservative-agenda issues and concentrated on crafting a sizable body of transportation legislation. Some of her personal highlights include reshaping the Washington State Ferries budget so that commuters would no longer be hit with the double-digit fare increases of yesteryear; bringing in new Jumbo class and passenger-only ferries to the West Sound’s terminals; and implementing new safety features such as heart defibrillators on every vessel.And lest Schmidt be thought of as an one-issue legislator – a label she’s conceded before – she also points to creating the four-year-degree program at Olympic College and launching OC’s forthcoming Poulsbo campus.There have been lowlights as well. For example, even Schmidt conceded that she gave up state grant funding for a proposed Blakely Harbor public park in the last legislative session so she could save the Poulsbo campus money from a late budget cut.“I had to put all my chips on that,” she said.Despite that, even her political opponents tip their caps to Schmidt’s legacy.“I think there’s no question she was a tremendously effective legislator,” said islander David Harrison, who ran a spirited campaign against Schmidt in 1996. “There’s no shortage of things we should proudly point to that she did for us.”"

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 21
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates