Longtime Legislator Carlyle Says He’s Going Out on Top


By John Stang

On Monday, longtime state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, announced that he won’t run for re-election. In an interview with PubliCola, Carlyle said he has “a deep sense of fulfillment” and is “taking the luxury of going out on top.”

He is the second Seattle state senator to announce that he won’t seek re-election, following Democratic Sen. David Frockt (D-46), who announced his retirement in October.

Seattle’s liberal legislators have gradually shifted further left over time, a trend that led to rumors that Carlyle would face a primary challenge from someone on the left. (As PubliCola reported Thursday, Rep. Noel Frame, D-36, has said she will seek the seat Carlyle is vacating.)

Carlyle said his party’s ongoing leftward tilt (at least in the Puget Sound region) had nothing to do with his decision to leave. Citing his margin of victory in 2018, when he won 89 percent of the vote, Carlyle said he wasn’t worried about reelection. As of Thursday, he had $135,000 remaining in his campaign account, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records.

Instead, Carlyle pointed to the 2021 passage of the Climate Commitment Act  as a crowning achievement of his legislative career. The Climate Commitment Act places a cap on greenhouse gas emissions while creating a program to auction off emissions allowances to large polluters. It took Carlyle several years to get the legislation passed, after first facing a hostile Republican-controlled Senate, then opposition from moderate Democrats in swing districts after his party took over the Senate in 2018.

Carlyle said his biggest unfulfilled wishes are eliminating the death penalty and bolstering the state’ data privacy laws — efforts that have passed the Senate, but stalled in the House.

“We won the Super Bowl of climate activities,”  he said.

The 2021 law requires the state Department of Ecology to create a system by 2023 capping the state’s annual industrial carbon emissions, a cap that slowly decreases over time—from almost 100 million tons in 2018 to 50 million by 2030 and 5 million by 2050.

The state will auction off parts of the overall annual limit to large polluters—those that emit 25,000 metric tons or more of greenhouse gases annually four times a year, and companies will be allowed to trade, buy and sell those allowances. The state estimates that about 100 companies produce that quantity of greenhouse gases, including the oil, cement, steel and power industries, and predicts that the auctions will raise about $500 million a year for projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions (and alleviating the impact of climate change) across the state.

Carlyle also sponsored a bill in 2019 that will phase out all coal-fired electricity in Washington by 2025 and eventually phase out natural-gas power as well. The new law sets a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. Over the past several years, Carlyle said, “we have passed the strongest suite of climate change legislation in United States history at the state level.”

Climate change was not high on Carlyle’s list of priorities when he joined the Washington House of Representatives in 2009 after defeating a longtime political insider in what was, at the time, the most expensive state legislative race in Washington’s history. Eventually, Carlyle rose to chair fo the house finance committee, which handles tax and revenue issues. Carlyle credited multiple conversations with his three daughters and one son—currently 15 through 24—for helping shift his legislative focus to climate change. 

In 2016, Carlyle was appointed to succeed Democratic Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles after she was elected to the King County Council. He easily won the next election in 2018, the same year Republicans lost control of that chamber, where he became chair of the Energy, Environment and Technology Committee.

In 2008, he succeeded Democratic Rep. Helen Sommer when she retired after 36 years representing the district covering Queen Anne and the surrounding area. In his 14 years in office, Carlyle also pushed through legislation improving conditions in foster care, making the value of a corporate tax break public information, easing students’ transitions from two-year to four-year colleges. He was also one of seven senators who voted against exempting the legislature from Washington’s public records law. The bill passed, and Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it.

Carlyle said his biggest unfulfilled wishes are eliminating the death penalty and bolstering the state’ data privacy laws — efforts that have passed the Senate, but stalled in the House.

His day job is as high-tech entrepreneur and business consultant in the wireless, software and clean energy industries. He said he plans to keep active in local, state and federal civic affairs but doesn’t know what he will tackle next. “I have no formal plans,” Carlyle said.

“I won’t become a lobbyist,” he added.