Women who lead: San Juans to have first all-woman county council - Salish Current
June 28, 2022
Women who lead: San Juans to have first all-woman county council
Nancy DeVaux

Time was, San Juan County Council was overwhelmingly made up of men, with only a handful of women elected throughout several decades. But next year, the ongoing quest for equity is expected to mark a milestone when an all-woman board takes office in the scenic island county. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

June 28, 2022
Women who lead: San Juans to have first all-woman county council
Nancy DeVaux


#MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #EqualPayforEqualWork, #TitleIX, #RoeVsWade … headlines and hashtags have marked the steep and torturous paths women have faced in their battle for equality.

Fifty years ago, the San Juan County Council was routinely all men — and all Republicans. Since then, a political transformation has taken place in the county: next year, the county council will for the first time be comprised of women, when Jane Fuller of Lopez Island is expected to take office.

1972: Linda Henry, the first woman elected to the county board, served during a time of transition — and sometimes-volatile discussions around land use planning. (Friday Harbor Journal image)

Fuller is running unopposed for the residency district 3 position, joining Christine Minney (San Juan Island) and Cindy Wolf (Orcas Island) on the current council. Fuller will become the ninth woman elected to the executive branch of the county’s government.

The historical significance of taking office isn’t lost on Fuller. She has a master’s degree in gender studies and international development and has worked as a gender equity expert in developing countries that include Ghana, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Fuller said working with two other women wasn’t part of her decision to run for local office, but that she thinks it’s “pretty exciting when women govern, and it will be an honor to serve alongside two other women.”

Fuller said she is running for office because she cares about community and wants to help meet the challenges of affordable housing, a diverse economy, the ferries and a sustainable environment. She was one of the 18-member Charter Review Commission that reviewed San Juan County’s Home Rule Charter and proposed amendments to voters last year.

Volatile time of change

Linda Henry from Orcas Island was the first woman elected to the county commission, as the council was called then, in 1972. Henry said she ran as a Republican because at that time, “there were only three Democrats on Orcas.” 

[Editor’s note: Henry said the first woman to serve on the commission was from Lopez and had previously filled her husband’s unexpired term after his death; Salish Current was unable to verify that.]

Henry said her experience as a woman on the commission was “amazing, not just as a woman.” A big shift was happening in the islands, she said, mostly having to do with the introduction of land use planning. 

“We were the transition between a time when it didn’t matter and a time when it mattered a great deal,” she said and recalled that planning meetings were quite volatile. A man once banged his smoking pipe on the table for emphasis and the coal bounced out, burning a hole in her stocking.

1979: The election of Eleanor Howard (at left, with Evelyn Burke) bolstered efforts to finalize a comprehensive land use plan; she also instigated the establishment of a farmer’s market in Friday Harbor. (Friday Harbor Journal image)

Henry served one term. She and pro-planning commissioner Don Whitmill of San Juan Island were trounced in the 1976 primary election. The following two years of fighting over land use planning resulted in a recall in 1978 of San Juan Island commissioner Alton Boyce for his role in violating the Open Meetings Act in efforts to dismantle the county’s planning department. 

Party shift

In the election to replace Boyce in 1979, the first Democrat was elected in San Juan County since the 1930s, with Eleanor Howard of San Juan Island, who was also the second woman to be elected. She completed Boyce’s unexpired term and in 1980 was re-elected. Howard had served as chair of the planning commission and her election helped finalize the adoption of the county’s first comprehensive land use plan. 

Longtime islander Louise Dustrude, a former Democratic Party Chair, recalls the election of Howard. The race was too close to call on election night, and Howard was trailing in the count.

“We thought [her Republican opponent] Einar Nielsen had won, until the votes from Waldron Island came in,” Dustrude recalled. “With those 60 votes, Eleanor won!” (Waldron Island was then, as it is now, an off-grid island.)

Howard, as a woman and a Democrat, met with challenges. “After she got elected, she always had two men to contend with, and they always pretty much ignored her,” said Dustrude. “Really pretty disgusting. She was so soft-spoken and so polite, and she of course had great ideas.” 

After a gap

Ten years went by before another woman, Rhea Miller from Lopez Island, was elected in 1994. One of the first things she did was to get the county to stop using the term “chairman” and change it to “chair.” 

Rhea Miller said it did not seem unusual to have women in local leadership positions, but when she went to statewide meetings of county officials, it was clear that women were a small minority. Voters elected her three times; she resigned during her third term to take another opportunity.

1994: Rhea Miller, who was elected to the council for three terms, observed when she began her first term that women made up the minority statewide among county leaders. (Courtesy photo)

Three other women held the position of county commissioner before the current council. Darcie Nielsen from San Juan Island was elected in 1996 and served two terms. [Editor’s note: Corrected Nielsen’s number of terms, June 29, 2022] She served alongside Rhea Miller for some of those years, the only time before the present when two women formed the majority of the board.

In 2005 San Juan County voters approved the Home Rule Charter process and switched its form of government from a three-member board of county commissioners to a six-member county council. 

Lovel Pratt of San Juan Island was elected that year and served alongside five men for two years, until Patty Miller from Orcas Island was elected to the council. Patty Miller served for two and a half years until 2012, when voters amended the charter and reverted to a three-member county council.

It was back to all men on the council again until 2020 when Minney and Wolf, now in their second year, were elected.

A nonpartisan council

County offices have been nonpartisan by charter amendment since 2006 but the county has supported Democrats in more recent years. In 2020, President Joe Biden received 74% of the vote in a 90% voter turnout. 

Fuller appreciates that the job is nonpartisan because she believes her role is hearing different perspectives and that it is “very important to keep an open mind.” 

“That being said, I do believe climate change is a real problem, and I care about the well-being of individuals in our community and wish to foster greater equity,” she said, acknowledging that these stands are more in alignment with Democratic policy platforms.

Fuller will replace Jamie Stephens, who is completing his third term this year. County voters in 2020 approved term limits among several amendments to the county’s Home Rule Charter, making Stephens ineligible for another term.

Wolf has been active in Democratic Party politics, and Minney is perceived as more moderate, in coming from a business background. She was endorsed by county Republicans, while the Progressive Voter’s Guide endorsed her opponent. 

2023: Jane Fuller is on track to become a member of San Juan’s first all-woman county council. (Courtesy photo)

Minney said she did not seek the endorsement of any party and stressed that she is not aligned with any party. “I take the nonpartisan nature of the job very seriously,” Minney said. “I feel like the organization is best described as a service organization.” She noted, however, that she has a “Mamas for Obama” magnet on her refrigerator.

Minney said she is excited about serving on the first all-woman council. “It is historic for our county [and] it speaks to the changing tide, not only of women stepping up to run but voters making the choice,” she said. “Having an all-woman council may have a different trajectory. Women bring a different sense of caring to the job.” 

[Editor’s note: Wolf was not available to be interviewed for this article.]

An unopposed, open seat

Stephens called the open seat “a big conundrum,” and said he was surprised there were not more candidates, especially with no incumbent in the race.

Nonetheless he didn’t think having three women was so unusual, pointing to Island County having an all-woman council. “I think personalities are more important,” he said.

Rhea Miller said she encouraged a number of potential candidates to run for the position. Though some were interested, she said most expressed reservation with the “intensity of the job.” 

“There is an overall sense that it’s just no fun to be involved in politics because of the demonizing of politicians,” she said. “There did seem to be a time when public service was considered respectable.” She recounted how she once spoke to a group of high school students about serving as an elected official and not one student said they would consider going to work for the government. “These days, not even diplomacy is respected,” she lamented.

Fuller said she very deliberately announced her candidacy early, on April 11. She thinks that through her community involvement over the past five years on Lopez, having a daughter in school, and volunteering and supporting the community in multiple ways, she has met many people and gained the respect in the community. This may have dissuaded some people from running, she said. 

She thinks an all-woman council will be an opportunity to demonstrate to some of the more skeptical males that women do have the skills to serve, and perhaps do things differently and more creatively.

“There are a lot of good things that come out of women in leadership,” she said.

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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