Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on women candidates running for down-ballot offices in the 2020 election.
Who: Hilary Franz (D)
What: Franz was elected as the Commissioner of Public Lands for Washington state in 2016. In that role, she oversees the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which manages nearly 6 million acres of state forest, agricultural and aquatics lands — and generates over $400 million in revenue that goes toward local government, education and the environment. She also leads the state’s Wildfire Fighting Force. She is now running to retain the position against Republican challenger Sue Kuehl Pederson. Franz has been endorsed by large regional newspapers The Seattle Times and The Columbian.
Where: Washington state.
When: Election Day is Nov. 3. Ballots were mailed out to voters for completion on October 16.
When President Donald Trump tried to open federal waters near Washington to offshore drilling in 2018, Franz had a simple answer: no.
It became a national moment for her — and she did not mince words when media outlets pressed her to expand on her message to Trump. “We didn’t invite you here, and we don’t want you here,” she told Reuters. Of course, when we spoke with Franz ahead of this year’s election, she brushed off her time in the spotlight. “What happens is, too often, headlines lead instead of on-the-ground change.”
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And on the ground is, quite literally, where her work happens. This year, there’s been even more to do than usual. Washington’s 2020 wildfire season began in March — as of September, fires had scorched over 800,000 acres in the state, resulting in the loss of an entire town, as well as 181 individual homes and the life of a 1-year-old child. “This year is the first year we lost a citizen on my job,” she says. “My number one focus is to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
That’s the goal of her 10-year wildfire prevention plan, unveiled in 2018, which emphasizes prescribed fires, investments in in-air firefighting methods and teaching preparedness to landowners and residents, along with restoring the health of 1.25 million acres of forests. Retooling Washington’s wildfire response and prevention efforts was a top priority upon taking office. “When I came into this role, we were coming off of the 2014 and 2016 wildfires — the worst in state history. More than a million acres burned — it was unprecedented and shocking.” She adds that three firefighters lost their lives battling them.
So within her first term, she enacted her multi-pronged response strategy — “one of the leading ones in the nation,” she says. “Often we don’t have a plan — we just act. And we aren’t being as effective with resources or time.”
This is the sort of work Franz had always envisioned for herself, even as a child. She was raised by a single father in Portland, Oregon, who worked in city government. “I grew up in City Hall,” she says, remembering days walking its corridors after school let out and sitting through council meetings once her homework was finished. “I ate, slept and breathed all of that.”
And it made a lasting impression. “I witnessed, firsthand, how advocacy and policy and decisions impact people’s lives.”
She earned a bachelor’s from Smith College, then graduated from the Northeastern University School of Law. Rather than jumping right into politics, though, she worked as a practicing attorney specializing in environmental law while raising her three children. But that dormant dream was rekindled when she realized that the persistent problems she saw plaguing fellow Washington residents would be better addressed if she were working from the (political) inside. When a city council seat opened up in Bainbridge Island, where she lived in 2007, she decided to campaign for it.
With that decision came a harsh dose of reality regarding the hurdles women face when running for office. At the time, she was the mother of very young children, and both would-be colleagues and outsiders “were telling me there was no way a woman could lead in this type of job.” But win she did, and she served one term, spending much of it helping the city navigate the after-effects of a nationwide recession.
Rather than run for re-election, or for the state’s House of Representatives as she considered doing at the time, she went to work for a land conservation nonprofit as its director. But in 2016, when the Commission or Public Lands position opened up, she leapt at the chance — seeing it as the ideal fusion of her aspirations toward elected office and her years of experience in environmental law and land conservation.
Despite the seeming good fit, that wasn’t an easy election, either. “I wasn’t the only Hillary on the ballot,” she recalls dryly, adding that much of what Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton faced, Franz faced, albeit on a smaller scale. It was the constant messaging around her inability to win that sticks out to this day. “You hear it over and over again — it almost becomes a mantra, just not from you.”
But plenty of people and institutions did believe in her — including two former governors and a senator, as well as a coalition of environmental groups — and she won a majority of the vote. She had a bear of a job ahead of her, though. Her department “couldn’t have a worse brand” at the time, she says, and her job was to fix it.
To make matters worse, “many of the fire chiefs throughout the state — most of them men at the time — said, ‘Oh God, we’re in trouble. How can a little lady do a big job like this?’” She started by meeting them face-to-face to hear about the major pain points of addressing wildfires, then set to work on figuring out solutions. “Within a year and a half, I had changed those minds.”
That’s the kind of work she wants to keep doing — and if she bests former biologist and natural resources manager Kuehl Pederson once the votes are counted, she’ll be able to. Franz beat her opponent handily in the state’s nonpartisan primary, garnering 51 percent of the vote as compared to Kuehl Pederson’s 23 percent. But in debates, they have clashed on a range of issues, in particular the best ways to prevent wildfires — a critical subject in this race after a headline-making wildfire season.
Franz says her prevention plan is one of her proudest achievements — but if elected, she’d still want to improve upon it. Beyond that, she has ideas for expediting the state’s transition to using clean energy, hoping to see Washington go 100-percent clean by 2040. She also is developing a climate resilience plan for Washington state, looking particularly at communities impacted by floods, fires, dust storms and other climate calamities.
When asked about her future aspirations, Franz says she’s just laser-focused on keeping her current job. But whatever does lie ahead, she has promised herself to never let words of doubt from others cloud her aspirations. “I don’t know what’s in front of me — I just know I’m going to make sure to no longer be the voice limiting what can be.”