William Smitherman, First Black Legislator from the 26th, Dies at 78

The legislator did more in eight years in Olympia than most accomplish in a lifetime.


William Conrad “Bill” Smitherman, the former state representative and senator for the 26th legislative district, which includes the Key Peninsula, died Nov. 3. He was 78 years old.

In 1982, Smitherman became the first Black man elected to the Legislature from the 26th, which at that time included part of Tacoma, Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula, west to Gorst.

Smitherman was elected to the state Senate in 1986, where he became chair of the Higher Education committee and was instrumental in getting the UW Tacoma branch campus started. He was also vice chair of the Commerce and Labor committee, sat on the Transportation, Energy, and Utilities committees, represented the Senate on the Washington Housing Council and helped pass the Growth Management Act.

In 1989 Smitherman was named the Washington State Labor Council Legislator of the Year.

“He was a standout who did a lot for the KP and our whole region — not least, setting an example of upright public service,” said Larry Seaquist, who represented the 26th in the State House of Representatives from 2007 to 2015. He first met Smitherman in the early 2000s at the annual Fourth of July celebrations and confabs hosted by KP boosters Hugh and Janice McMillan at their home in Home.

“I met Bill on the campaign trail back when he was running for the House,” said Hugh McMillan. “Any kind of legislation that we wanted on the Key Peninsula, Bill did everything he could to make it happen. And let me tell you, he was very persuasive.”

“We met in about ’79; he was an urban planner, so he understood zoning,” said longtime KP resident Norman McLoughlin, himself an urban planner and onetime housing director of the Pierce County Housing Department. He worked with Smitherman to protect KP shorelines and shellfish from pollution.

“He created a new classification in the county for sensitive areas,” McLoughlin said. “They drew a boundary around Rocky Bay and Minter and Burley, and it brought a lot more attention to what needed to happen. Now we have water quality meetings with people from the county and the state; all sorts of different agencies.”

Smitherman bought property on the south end of the peninsula at Devil’s Head. “He had it for many years; he’d come and visit, but eventually sold it,” McLoughlin said.

Smitherman grew up in Lakewood and graduated from Clover Park High School in 1962. He graduated from Langston University, Oklahoma, in 1966 with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and education, then went to work at West Seattle High School until 1971, where he taught sociology and anthropology, coached track, and created a program with the UW to support students with adverse childhood experiences.

He went on to teach race relations at the University of Puget Sound, volunteered in the community, and helped establish the first neighborhood councils in Tacoma.

In 1973, Smitherman earned a degree from the University of Washington Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. In 1993, he earned another graduate degree, this time from Gonzaga University Graduate School of Education.

He and his wife Karen, now a retired Tacoma public school teacher and administrator, were married in 1974 and have two daughters.

After his political career, Smitherman returned to teaching

“He was just a great guy,” McLoughlin said. “He was charming and disarming and had one of the best senses of humor of anybody, which is one of the reasons he got elected. And he listened to people at the same time. Everybody liked him. His students loved him. He was a great teacher.”

“My main recollection has less to do with the admiration for being the first Black legislator, but just as a legislator,” Seaquist said. “He modeled the kind of elected official that was calm, thoughtful, obviously tuned into you. He was a thorough human being.”

“It’s important not just to celebrate his life in memorial, but to actually apply those models to people we’re looking to elect in years to come,” he said.