Long before she ran for office, Jolene Unsoeld created a lasting imprint on Washington politics.
Unsoeld died Sunday at the age of 89, leaving a legacy of advocacy — both as an elected official and as an active citizen. As she once explained to the Wall Street Journal, that legacy flourished when her family came to the region in 1971: “We had moved to Olympia, and there was the state Capitol, so I set out to see what was happening under that dome.”
More than seeing what was happening, Unsoeld set out to change it.
By 1972, as a founding member of the Coalition for Open Government, she was helping to lead a campaign for limits on campaign spending in the state. The landmark Public Disclosure Act passed with 72 percent of the vote and led to the creation of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. It also reflected Unsoeld’s philosophy: “There is no substitute for an informed, participatory public. If you try to stay on the sidelines, you’re just deceiving yourself, so you have to find that inner strength to keep going.”
Unsoeld often drew on her inner strength. Her daughter, Devi, died in 1976 while mountain climbing in India. Her husband, Willi, was killed in 1979 in an avalanche on Mount Rainier. Jolene was an accomplished mountain climber herself, having been the first woman to scale the north face of Grand Teton in Wyoming.
According to HistoryLink.org, she once said: “With both of their deaths I was so immersed in the political stuff that I didn’t have much time to think about lots of things. … I also think learning to live beyond grief toughened me up for running for office.”
That outlook informed Unsoeld’s career as a state representative and then as a member of Congress, where she represented Washington’s 3rd District for three terms beginning in 1989.
In Washington, D.C., Unsoeld often focused on issues relating to the environment. She lobbied the United Nations for a ban on driftnet fishing — it was adopted in 1991 — and she supported logging restrictions to protect the northern spotted owl while advocating for sustainable forest practices. And as a Democrat, she risked alienating her base by opposing strict gun-control measures.
According to Unsoeld’s official biography on the House of Representatives website: “Her willingness to stick to her convictions, especially on the environment, eventually won the admiration of even those who opposed her.” Her autobiography is titled “What are you going to DO about it?,” with the subtitle of “Stories of a hopeless meddler.”
But it is Unsoeld’s work for government transparency that stands as her political legacy. It is work that resonates today amid questions about the fate of American democracy. As supporters of the Public Disclosure Act wrote in the Voters’ Pamphlet: “Trust and confidence in governmental institutions is at an all-time low. High on the list of causes of this citizen distrust are secrecy in government and the influence of private money on governmental decision making.”
Following passage of the act, Unsoeld published a book examining the state’s 1974 legislative campaigns titled “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?” She followed up with a similar book after the 1976 election.
Unsoeld received the James Madison Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government in 2008 in recognition of her efforts to advance government transparency. It is an appropriate honor for a woman who has left a remarkable impression on Washington.