By Julian White-Davis, Photo Editor
A well-dressed woman walks purposefully up the ferry dock hill with the rest of the commuters after a long day at work. She climbs into her car with her two dogs and drives away around the corner. This woman is in fact the leader of the Senate Democrats in Washington State and a past member of the state House of Representatives.
Sharon Nelson went from being an average stay-at-home mom living on Vashon with her husband to being a member of the House of Representatives in only 11 years.
She moved to Vashon Island with her husband and two daughters in 1994 after growing up in Hawaii. She had visited the island to see friends before buying a house.
“[I like it for] the rural feel and the community feel,” Nelson said. “It’s just kind of an unassuming place, which I really like, and we just both felt at home here.”
Her work in politics was sparked by an inspector from King County overlooking a faulty septic system in her home when she built it. After that government failure, she decided to take a stand and join in on some civilian legislative work.
“I started working on legislation for consumer protection, just as a citizen,” Nelson said. “Then I got to know Dow Constantine and others, and about a year or two later, we started fighting the proposed stripmine on Maury.”
Through this participation in citizen legislature, Nelson began working consistently for Constantine, the current King County Executive, as his chief of staff at the King County Council for seven years.
She was then elected to the state House of Representatives in 2007 and served for three years before being elected to the Senate. In her third year, she was chosen as the Senate Democrats’ leader.
“I work a lot on environmental issues and transportation — i.e. ferries,” Nelson said. “[Being a senator] is really [about] figuring out what we need to do for the state and my district. A lot of that right now is also focused on education and trying to meet our commitment that we have to our kids for a better education system.”
Nelson’s goals in her work are wide-reaching. However, they revolve centrally around those in need in her district.
“I try to protect the most vulnerable because the state is responsible for foster care,” Nelson said. “They are responsible for helping developmentally disabled and elders who need support. It’s a broad array of services to provide.”
Nelson’s self-proclaimed most significant work was helping to lead the “Glacier fight” against the mining company, Lone Star, which was trying to excavate gravel in the current Maury Marine park.
“The Glacier fight was a 14-year fight, and I was joined in by thousands of citizens as well as environmental organizations,” Nelson said. “Ultimately — after Glacier failed at the federal court — we were able to buy the site and make it a natural area.”
Nelson organized the initial committee to study the mine and was also the president of Preserve Our Islands for three years. During that time, she gathered money and hired lawyers to aid in the fight against the Lone Star, later renamed Glacier.
“The final push was in federal court, and Judge Richard Martinez ruled that they [the mining company] had to go back and start over on environmental impact statements at the federal level,” Nelson said. “I had gotten money appropriated from the state. Dow came through with an even larger appropriation from King County, and we were able to purchase the site.”
She has since worked hard on smaller projects throughout her district, which encompasses parts of Burien, North Highline, West Seattle and Vashon. These projects include some more controversial subjects on the island — such as the newly-built Vashon Center for the Arts building.
“[The Vashon Allied Arts] had actually applied for a grant and won it,” Nelson said, “but then during the recession they were not able to start construction, so the grant was lost. So what I did was stepped in and made sure that the money they had counted on was put into the budget.”
The grant in question was a state grant called Building for the Arts, so Nelson did a special appropriation to back up the Vashon organization.
After leaping through the political ranks of our government, Nelson had some words of inspiration for those wishing to make a difference in their community and in the world.
“It’s really [about] following your passion. Find a project that you are really interested in and be willing to commit some time and energy there. If ultimately that’s not the project that compels you to stay involved, then find another one. Public service and volunteering … [are] so important in a community like ours and in any community.”