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Majority floor leader, Monica Stonier aims for House speaker position

Vancouver representative cites experience, collaborative approach

By , Columbian political reporter
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Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is one of several candidates vying to succeed House Speaker Frank Chopp.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, is one of several candidates vying to succeed House Speaker Frank Chopp. Photos by alisha jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

OLYMPIA — On March 13, something unusual happened at the Capitol: Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, rose to give a floor speech.

Chopp, who has held or shared the House speaker’s position since 1999, is rarely present on the chamber’s floor, opting to let deputies preside over votes while conducting business behind the scenes.

On that day Chopp, his tie loosened and a knowing smile on his face, appeared on the floor as a regular member. Gales of laughter broke out when he asked if he could read his remarks on the first bill he’d introduced in 20 years. But his tone quickly changed.

“All across Washington, so many of our people are suffering and dying from mental illness and substance use disorder,” said Chopp, his voice quavering with emotion. His bill would create a new behavioral health campus at the University of Washington to address the shortage of mental health workers in the state. After Chopp’s bill passed 95-0, he received a standing ovation and his colleagues gathered around him to offer hugs.

Late last year, Chopp stated he would step down as speaker at the end of this session to become a regular rank-and-file legislator. Chopp’s bill signaled a new order in Olympia that could reflect the increasingly diverse Legislature. That new order could prominently feature a familiar face in Clark County’s political scene: Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who’s indicated she’ll seek the speaker’s gavel after the session ends.

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Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, pauses for a moment to check who is still on the floor before going into caucus during in Olympia, Wash., on Tuesday, April 9, 2019.
Gallery: Rep. Monica Stonier in Olympia Photo Gallery

Stonier, an instructional coach at Pacific Middle School, was drawn into politics, in part, to bring an educator’s perspective to Olympia. Last year, Stonier was re-elected unopposed to the west Vancouver-based 49th Legislative District. She’s risen in her caucus leadership being elected majority floor leader this year.

Sitting in her legislative office the day after Chopp’s floor speech, Stonier was reluctant to discuss her ambitions, stressing that she gets along with her colleagues interested in the post and that they would also be good picks. But she confirmed her interest in the position, citing her understanding of politics, her experience representing a swing district and her collaborative approach.

“You have to have really strong relationships and acknowledge what everyone is there to do, including the minority party,” Stonier said.

Members of Clark County’s legislative delegation, and others, have warmed to the idea of a Speaker Stonier. During this year’s Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce Legislative Outlook Breakfast, Rep. Sharon Wylie, who was seated next to Stonier, said, unprompted, that she was grateful to be sitting beside the future House speaker (Stonier responded by telling a reporter in the room to not report Wylie’s remarks).

Republican Rep. Paul Harris, who Stonier ran against in 2010, said that she has a good working relationship across the aisle and has collaborated with him on numerous bills.

“Monica is probably in the top three to be speaker,” Harris said.

“She’s unafraid to walk in and deal with hard stuff,” said Rep, Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia. She added, “She’s turned adversaries into allies.”

But just a few years ago Stonier’s ascent seemed unlikely. Since then, she’s had second and third chances.

Office space

When Stonier was elected to a leadership position last year, she was offered an office in the Legislative Building. But instead of taking the more prestigious space, she opted to keep her third-floor office across the courtyard for its view of the Capitol rotunda, which she said reminds her that she’s there “for good things,” especially on days she misses her husband and two kids.

On the wall hangs a “Star Wars”-themed poster with the slogan “A woman’s place is in the resistance” along with mementos from past legislation including a Marshallese headdress from when the Legislature passed a bill giving health benefits to Pacific Islanders exposed to radiation by the U.S. government’s nuclear testing. Also on the wall is a poster of John Lennon with his famous lyrics, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

“It’s a reminder that we have immigrant kids in this state who have done everything right,” said Stonier, referencing “Dreamers,” undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children who are now facing possible deportation. Stonier proudly mentioned a vote she took during her first stint in the Legislature giving qualified Dreamers access to in-state tuition.

Road to Olympia

Stonier, 43, has long black hair, an easy smile and a quick laugh. She can seamlessly toggle between relaxed and affable to strictly business.

She was born at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to a Mexican-American father and a mother who is Mexican-American and Japanese-American. She always wanted to be a teacher and recalls lining up her stuffed animals for spelling tests. After graduating from Kentridge High School and Western Washington University, she landed a job teaching language arts and social studies at Vancouver’s Pacific Middle School. In 2001, she married Brandon Stonier; they purchased a house in east Vancouver the following year.

Stonier, who wasn’t raised in a political family, said she became politically involved volunteering for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Stonier said. “So I appreciated the unifying message and the laundry list of things we could do if we worked together that he really stood for.”

During the campaign, she hoped to meet the candidate and tell him how wrong he was on education policy. She didn’t like that Obama sought to continue the No Child Left Behind Act, a Bush-era education reform that increased student testing and directed funding away from failing schools. Stonier likened depriving struggling schools of resources to expecting a sports team to perform better with less training and equipment.

Stonier even attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention as an Obama delegate, wearing a hat wrapped with the slogan “Trust Teachers, Not Test Scores.” But she never got to meet Obama.

In 2010, retiring Democratic Rep. Deb Wallace, citing the lack of legislators with teaching backgrounds in Olympia, encouraged her to run for her 17th Legislative District seat. Stonier ran in the swing district and lost decisively to Harris.

In 2012, Stonier had a second chance when Democratic Rep. Tim Probst gave up his seat to run for state Senate. Describing herself as “fiscally conservative,” according to The Columbian’s archives, Stonier stressed her education credentials, opposed tax increases and legalization of marijuana while supporting same-sex marriage. She beat Republican Julie Olson by 140 votes.

During her stint in the Legislature, Stonier introduced several education bills intended to improve teacher training and help students understand graduation requirements.

Sometimes she broke ranks with her party. In 2013, Stonier was one of a few Democrats to vote against a bill that would increase the gas tax to help pay for the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing, a controversial replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge. The bill failed to pass the chamber and Stonier, at the time, cited her no-tax-increase pledge and wouldn’t say if she supported the Columbia River Crossing.

The project died the same year after Senate Republicans refused to fund it. Since then Clark County’s legislative delegation, including Stonier, has sought to restart talks with Oregon on a new bridge.

When asked recently about her 2013 vote, Stonier said she was being responsive to her district’s concerns and that it was part of a strategy to steer the package through the Democratic House and Republican Senate.

“I don’t know that people always appreciate the strategy behind the politics,” Stonier said.

When asked if she would have cast votes differently, she said, “I don’t think I would have taken them differently because it was my job as a representative of the 17th to represent the constituents that elected me.”

In 2014, Stonier lost her seat to Republican Lynda Wilson. Disappointed, Stonier said she initially didn’t plan to return to Olympia but felt she had unfinished work. Two years later she’d have another shot.

Adversaries to allies

When the Legislature is in session, Stonier rises early and begins trying to piece together the floor agenda for the day, which can sometimes stretch late into the night. She takes the marble stairs to her office in high heels most days. She drinks mochas, and, she stressed, lots of water, jabbing her finger in the air like a stern cross country coach.

On a typical morning this month, she lugged a heavy bag of papers from her office to the Capitol for another day of House votes. She said she has a running competition with Sen. Markos Liias, the Senate floor leader, for who can pass the most bills.

“I’m a little competitive,” she said.

This session has been particularly busy as Democrats have used their expanded majorities to pursue tax increases and a clean fuels bill that critics said would increase the cost of gas. As floor leader, Stonier has been at the center of it.

She’s responsible for making sure that members of her caucus are ready to speak, briefing them on bills and amendments, and ensuring the rules of decorum are followed by both sides. This year’s session included 12 newly elected House Democrats, whom Stonier has been partly responsible for orienting.

“Monica has been doing that with middle school kids all these years,” said Rep, Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, of her leadership duties. “I’m pretty sure she’s using the same skill set as floor leader.”

Dolan, also an educator, said that teachers build relationships, find common ground and move forward, which is what Stonier has done as a legislator.

Dolan pointed to how Stonier successfully sponsored a bill de-linking test requirements for students to graduate, one of her long-standing goals. Dolan said that Stonier worked with the business community to add career and college readiness pathways, which she said required complicated negotiations with many people.

Stonier has also had to win over her own colleagues, starting with Harris, her one-time electoral opponent.

“It took a while to warm up to each other,” Stonier said laughing.

Harris said Stonier has developed a good working relationship across the aisle. He said that this session Stonier helped him pass his bill raising the smoking age to 21, and the two also worked on a bill removing the personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination.

She’s also built stronger connections within her own party.

In 2016, Democratic Rep. Jim Moeller stepped down from his seat representing the heavily Democratic 49th Legislative District at a time when the Legislature was grappling with a court order to fully fund basic education. Stonier had moved to the district and ran for Moeller’s seat against fellow Democrat Alishia Topper, then a Vancouver city councilor.

According to The Columbian’s archives, Sen. Annette Cleveland and Wylie, the other legislators from the district, endorsed Topper. They said Stonier had been undermining their leadership (which Stonier denied).

After Stonier won her race, she said they all had a “meeting of the minds” and agreed to focus on the work. Now, Wylie said she’d back Stonier for House speaker, praising her tough and respectful style. Cleveland also praised Stonier.

During a break from the House floor, Stonier ate a lunch of pasta and vegetables while reviewing the list of bills to run, which included an anti-bullying bill.

“I hope that people wouldn’t have that many bad things to say about an anti-bullying bill,” Stonier said. But she said she expected pushback. Specifically, Stonier mentioned Rep. Vicki Kraft, a socially conservative Vancouver Republican, who opposed the bill on grounds that it would infringe on the rights of religious students.

While the two haven’t seen eye-to-eye, both say they’ve kept a working relationship and Stonier has helped advance Kraft’s bills on sex trafficking and securing funding for Clark County.

“It would be a real positive benefit for someone like myself,” Kraft said of a possible Speaker Stonier in a House that hasn’t been controlled by Republicans in 20 years.

When asked about Kraft, Stonier took a matter-of-fact tone. “I understand that people in certain districts will represent their district differently,” she said. “I’m sensitive to that.”

While finishing lunch in the wings of the chamber, Stonier’s cellphone and papers were close by. She was settling in for a possibly long night. If Stonier has her way, she’ll have many more.