OLYMPIA — Mike Sells, an Everett lawmaker whose roots in public education and the labor movement powered him to become an influential voice for both, will not seek re-election this year.
Sells, 76, a Democrat in his ninth term representing the 38th Legislative District, was instrumental in cementing Washington State University’s presence in Everett, launching a nursing degree program at UW Bothell and strengthening workplace protections and collective bargaining rights across the state.
He made the announcement at a Washington State Labor Council conference last week.
“I will not be seeking another term. I wanted to announce here because this is my home to a certain extent,” he told attendees. “I am getting old and it is time I think for me to retire. I am confident that we have the people who can carry the torch.”
In an interview, Sells said, “I’m in good health. Eighteen years for me in the House is enough.”
He said he contemplated leaving two years ago but decided on a final term.
Asked if he still enjoyed it, he said, “I don’t know if enjoy is a good word. I always find it interesting.”
Sells first won election in 2004, defeating a fellow Democrat, David Simpson, who was appointed to the seat a few months earlier by the Republican majority of the Snohomish County Council. Sells sought the appointment, too, and won backing of precinct officers but not the council.
“It was a moment of awkwardness,” he recalled. “I think the Republicans offered me a challenge and I took them up on it.”
Since 2011, he has served as chairman of the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee. He also serves on the College and Workforce Development and the Capital Budget committees.
A graduate of Central Washington University, Sells’ career as a teacher began in 1967 in the Everett School District and lasted 24 years.
In 1969, he was elected president of his union, the Everett Federation of Teachers. When it merged with the Everett Education Association in 1981, he was chosen president, a post he held until 1998.
In the same period, he served as secretary-treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council from 1976-2014. That position started off part time. It became full-time in 1998. He also served a decade as a trustee of Central Washington University.
As a lawmaker, Sells is an unassuming workhorse, known for his humility and wry sense of humor. He’s unafraid of negotiating details on complex legislation yet does not want attention when agreements are reached.
“I always remember Warren Magnuson talking about it isn’t the people, it’s the policy that matters,” he said. “You shouldn’t care who gets it done, you should just get it done.”
Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, said he never seeks recognition.
“He’s always willing to support others in the work that needs to be done,” Robinson said. “Mike is so fair and thorough and thoughtful. He’s been an amazing champion of public schools, higher education and making the workplace better for people. I am going to miss him so much.”
Joe Kendo, government affairs director for the state labor council, said Sells “is integral to any success the labor movement has had the last 10 years.”
“Mike is not the rah-rah guy. He is the quiet, strategic guidepost. That is a big part of his success,” Kendo said.
Sells’ approach has earned Republican respect, even when he often doesn’t get their votes.
“Mike is a good man. He is a consummate professional,” said Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, the ranking Republican on the labor panel. “In our committee we often disagree but we always share our opinions in a respectful manner.”
Reflecting on his tenure, Sells cited two successes of which he is especially proud.
One is his role in bringing a four-year university to Everett after a years-long pursuit.
Initially, he envisioned it would be a University of Washington branch campus. When that didn’t pan out, he embraced Washington State University, which planted its flag as a result of a 2011 law Sells helped write.
The other achievement occurred a year earlier, when he secured passage of a bill launching a nursing degree program at UW Bothell.
“The need for more registered nurses is critical, but without enough resources devoted to education programs, we simply will not meet the demand,” he said at the time.
That one took a little politicking.
Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire needed votes to pass a budget and asked Sells what it would take to get his. Sells told her his nursing bill was stuck in the Senate.
“She asked, ‘If we get it through, would you support the budget?’ They did and I voted for the budget,” he recalled.
Ironically, this session Sells is in the middle of negotiations on bills that would set hospital staffing standards and further expand nursing education and training programs.
Along the way, he has tangled with fellow Democrats over labor issues.
For example, in 2013 Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and other elected officials pressed Boeing workers into a contract vote, which secured the 777X program for the state. That vote was on a revised contract extension containing a loss of some retirement benefits and other take-backs.
It hasn’t hurt his relationship with those leaders since.
“You have to move on,” he said. “If you hold a grudge on an issue you’re not going to get anywhere.”
When retirement arrives, Sells said, he’ll be spending time on home projects and hobbies and “speaking out on issues of the day wherever I am asked to be involved or intervene. I intend to stay involved in the community.”