When Rep. Judy Clibborn announced her retirement from the Washington State Legislature in March, many in Mercer Island lamented the departure of a transportation leader, bipartisan lawmaker and seasoned mentor.
Clibborn was one of Washington’s longest-serving Democratic legislators, and held one of the most important roles in the House: chair of the transportation committee.
Before being elected to statewide office in 2002, Clibborn served the Mercer Island community as executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, city councilmember and mayor.
To honor Clibborn’s decades of public service, the city held a reception for Clibborn before a special council meeting on Nov. 26, with cake and remarks from local leaders, including Fred Jarrett, Rep. Tana Senn and Roger Millar. Current Mayor Debbie Bertlin also presented Clibborn with the first “key to the city” of Mercer Island.
“When we were thinking about Judy and everything that she’s done for the city, for the community, let alone the state, there was no award that seemed suitable,” Bertlin said. “I can’t think of anybody better to be that first recipient than Judy Clibborn.”
The speakers talked most about Clibborn’s leadership style, which they said was collaborative and compassionate.
“Judy’s politics was service at the most kind,” said former Mercer Island City Councilmember Linda Jackman. “She works with everybody, she always has a smile, pleasant behind the scenes as well as her public face. She’s just a fabulous person.”
As House transportation chair, Clibborn had to navigate many important regional issues, from car tabs to tolling, along with statewide projects and Mercer Island-specific issues, including the controversial Interstate 90 center lane closure and reconfiguration. Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar praised her even-keeled approach.
“When I came on board at WSDOT, it was a little toxic down in Olympia, and Judy’s leadership made it a lot less so,” he said.
Cliborn was influential in the passage of the $16 billion transportation package in 2015.
“When you look around our office, one of the things that I’ve done is taken down all of the historic stuff and put up pictures of our folks — the men and women who work at the DOT,” Millar said, addressing Clibborn at the reception. “Everything they’re doing, they’re doing because of you, so thank you.”
Former Mercer Island Mayor Elliott Newman said Clibborn “leads by doing,” and always does “what is needed and what is appropriate.”
Clibborn championed legislation to help foster children and “walked the walk,” serving as a foster parent herself.
She has also worked as a registered nurse at Harborview Medical Center, and in Olympia she helped push through legislation that made sure every child in Washington state had access to health care.
Former city manager Rich Conrad wrote in a letter that Clibborn “left a positive mark” on the city, region and state. Clibborn helped establish Summer Celebration, acquire Luther Burbank Park and led a visioning process for Town Center and Mercerdale Park, among other accomplishments, Conrad wrote, adding that she always knew “when to listen and when to lead.”
“I always was wanting to be the person that understood where the other person was coming from,” Clibborn said.
Clibborn said she sees Mercer Island as an “incubator” for leaders. Senn, who also served on the Mercer Island City Council before joining the state Legislature as Clibborn’s seatmate, said she will miss Clibborn’s presence in Olympia.
Jackman said Clibborn’s husband, Bruce, three children and six grandchildren are looking forward to spending more time with her.
“It’s hard to say farewell to Representative Clibborn. But welcome, citizen Judy, to retirement,” Jackman said.
Clibborn said she is ready to pass the baton to other leaders.
“I have learned as much from you as anybody has ever said that I taught them,” Clibborn said, adding while looking around at her friends and colleagues, “I know that you were the reason that I was successful.”
“I’m very happy to be retiring because I do think that there are people who need to come and do what I’ve been doing, and I need to go home and have some time with my family,” Clibborn said.
The Nov. 6 General Election results were certified on Nov. 27, and Bellevue School Board president My-Lihn Thai won the election for Clibborn’s seat, House Position No. 2 in the 41st Legislative District.
With Clibborn’s retirement, it is unlikely that a representative from the 41st will serve on the House transportation committee next session, but Senn said hopefully someone from the Eastside who understands the issues will represent the entire region.
The Legislature will convene for a regular session on Jan. 14, 2019. See www.leg.wa.gov for more.