There’s no better way to celebrate the end of black history month and the beginning of women’s history month, than by honoring the remarkable career and contributions of Rosa Franklin, the first Black woman to serve in the Washington State Senate.
Rosa Franklin served in the Legislature from 1993 to 2010, where she worked tirelessly to advance health equity, end housing discrimination, and win a just tax code for Washington. A local trailblazer, Franklin broke down barriers for people of color in the Legislature and inspired a generation of civic leaders of color. In her impressive 17 years in the state Senate, she served in many leadership roles such as Democratic Whip, Majority Whip, and twice as President Pro Tempore.
In 1991, Rosa Franklin left her 42 year career in nursing to join the State House of Representatives. She served as a Representative for Tacoma’s 29th district until 1993 when she joined the Washington Senate. Though a newcomer, Franklin quickly got to work introducing legislation. In her freshman year, she sponsored a bill that would become the Washington Housing Policy Act, establishing affordable housing and anti-discrimination policy. In 2000, she set her sights toward the issue of racial profiling by law enforcement, sponsoring SB 6683 and SB 5852 (2002), requiring police and law enforcement agencies to track and report the demographic information for all stops and searches.
Franklin’s years as a nurse made her a fierce health care advocate in the Legislature. In 2006, she introduced SSSB 6197, creating the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities, which identifies priorities and develops recommendations for the Governor and Legislature to eliminate health disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. Franklin worked hard to improve health equity and access for all Washingtonians.
A Champion for Tax Reform
Today, the Legislature faces growing pressure to raise new revenue to increase investments in much-needed public services and jump-start our economy. Progressive revenue proposals like the windfall capital gains tax, the wealth tax, and the working families tax credit have been introduced and heard in committee, with some proposals making it farther in the legislative process than ever before. But a decade ago, Rosa Franklin was the lone Senate voice urging the Legislature to reform Washington’s unjust tax code. In 2003, Franklin introduced a plan for progressive reforms that would lower taxes for all but the wealthiest in our state. The proposal included an income tax, but was unpopular in and out of the Legislature, and never made it to the floor. Even still, Franklin continued the fight for a just tax code, introducing an income tax each year until she retired in 2010.
The First, The Only, but not the Last
In addition to being the first black woman in the state Senate, Franklin was the chambers’ sole black member for the entirety of her term and the decade after. After her appointment in 1993, it would take another 28 years for a black lawmaker to join the state Senate. In 2020, T’wina Nobles became the second Black woman elected to the chamber after beating seven year incumbent Steve O’Ban, for the 28th district Senate seat.
In 2021, with six black women in the Legislature, and a diverse slate of incoming elected officials, the state Senate and House of Representatives saw record-breaking representation for women and people of color. Thirty years after Franklin began her career in politics, Washington finally gets a state legislature that better reflects its residents.
Rosa Franklin was at the vanguard of many progressive issues lawmakers have only just begun to advance. She spent her 20 year political career introducing the legislation we need now, more than ever: measures to hold police accountable, balance our tax code, restore voting rights, expand health care access and affordability, address environmental racism, and more. Rosa Franklin never stopped advocating for her communities, even when she was the singular voice, even if it made her unpopular.
Franklin has spent her life and career propping doors open for those who’ve come behind her. She is black history, and she has cleared the path for countless black futures.
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