Kagi, Ruth LeCocq (b. 1945)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 12/16/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21143

Legislator and children's rights advocate Ruth LeCocq Kagi was born August 14, 1945, the daughter of a surgeon and granddaughter of a pioneer lumberman. Her childhood years were spent at the family home in The Highlands. She was a Seafair page, attended a private girl's school, and was presented at a debutante ball. In 1967, she received her bachelor's degree from the University of Washington and a graduate degree from Syracuse University the following year. In 1969, she married Herbert Mark Kagi, one of her UW professors. Kagi became interested in policy in 1985 through the League of Women Voters, where she chaired studies on street youth and at-risk children. In 1998, she ran for the state legislature and won, representing Washington's 32nd district for two decades. The legislation she championed helped improve the quality of early learning, strengthened foster care, and reformed the state's drug-sentencing laws. She was the prime sponsor of the Early Start Act in 2015, which expanded learning opportunities for Washington's children and was a key player in creating the state's Department of Children, Youth, and Families in 2017. She chose not to run for office in 2018.

Prominent Lumber Family

Ruth Kagi was born Ruth LeCocq on August 14, 1945, at Seattle's Swedish Hospital, daughter of Dr. Edward A. LeCocq and Jane Nettleton LeCocq. She was their second child, joining brother Edward Anthony LeCocq (b. 1941).   

Her mother Jane (1906-1981) was the daughter of Walter B. Nettleton (1878-1969) and Emma H. Nettleton, nee Carpenter (1878-1947). The Nettletons, one of Seattle's most prominent families, made their fortune in the timber industry. A Minnesota native, Walter Nettleton served in the Spanish American War and then moved to Seattle, where he joined the Stetson Post Lumber Company around the turn of the century. He soon formed a wholesale lumber company with Lewis Schwager, and their business boomed. In 1910, Schwager and Nettleton opened the area's first all-electric sawmill in West Seattle, and by 1927, employed 350 workers. By then, he was the sole owner and ran the business (now called the Nettleton Timber Company) until it closed in 1965.

Nettleton married Emma Carpenter in 1908 and the couple lived in a "splendid residence" ("Summary for 620 West Lee Street") on Queen Anne Hill, designed by well-known architect Albert Walter Spalding (1859-1919). Emma, born in 1878 in Syracuse, New York, was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, served on the first board of directors of Children's Orthopedic Hospital, and was a charter member of the Sunset Club. When she died in 1947, she left an estate in excess of $1 million to her husband and children.

Ruth's father Edward A. LeCocq (1901-1965) was the youngest of eight brothers, all residents of Washington state. He attended the University of Washington and the University of South Dakota and received his medical degree from the University of Oregon in 1929. He completed post-graduate work at the Hospital for Surgical Specialties in New York City. Edward was in practice with his brother John, also a doctor, at the Seattle Orthopedic and Fracture Rehabilitation Clinic. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy and retired as a captain.

The wedding of Jane Nettleton and Edward LeCocq on February 7, 1936, was an event of "beauty and simplicity ... It was one of the most distinguished events of the winter" (Miss Jane Nettleton Wed ...").

Teen Years End in Tragedy

Ruth's adolescence was sprinkled with parties, luncheons, and teas, often hosted by her mother at their home in the exclusive The Highlands. The family's social gatherings, vacations, and charitable commitments were frequently featured in the local papers. In 1961, the "bouncy, bright-eyed and beautiful" teenager (Heilman) was chosen to serve as one of two pages assisting the Seafair king, carrying his cushion, crown, and scepter during that year's events.

Kagi graduated from St. Nicholas School, a private girl's school in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood which her mother had also attended. Wearing a white gown and carrying a bouquet of red roses tied with red velvet streamers, she was presented with 29 other debutantes at the 1963 Debutante Christmas Ball at The Olympic Hotel. She attended Mills College, a private women's liberal arts college in Oakland, California, for two years and then transferred to the University of Washington, where she graduated in June 1967. She received a master's degree in public administration in 1968 from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

During an interview, Kagi admitted to growing up "in a rarified atmosphere. I did not know a single Black person except our maid ... After I transferred to the UW in my junior year, I had a remarkable economics professor. When he talked about rich people having access to most of the world's resources and working people not being able to get ahead, I was absolutely stunned" (Ruth Kagi interview).

A month after she turned 20 years old, Ruth’s life was turned upside down. On September 22, 1965, during a family visit with his brother Irwin in Lynden, Washington, her father Edward shot and killed himself, although several newspaper accounts stated the gun had accidentally discharged. Kagi recalled years later: "My father was a terrific alcoholic who committed suicide as a result of his alcoholism. His alcoholism played a major role in my life as a child and as an adult" (Kagi email).

Marriage to a University Professor

Ruth LeCocq met her husband-to-be Herbert Mark Kagi (1933-2007) when she was a student in his public administration class at the University of Washington. They married in 1969 at the Florence Henry Memorial Chapel in The Highlands. He was 36, she was 24.

Herbert Mark Kagi, often called Mark, was born to Swiss immigrants, Albert and Hannah Kagi, in Rochester, New York. He received his doctorate from Syracuse University and later joined the faculty of the political science department at the University of Washington where he was recognized as one of the top undergraduate professors in the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1974, he became director of the political science and administration program at Seattle University.

An avid yodeler, talented pianist, enthusiastic skier, and lifelong reader who later owned Lynnwood Books, Mark Kagi was known for his good humor, energy, and zest for life. But in 1986, he was arrested on Aurora Avenue North and arraigned in Seattle District Court on "charges of agreeing to an act of prostitution, resisting arrest and possession of cocaine" (Emery). A week before his arrest, he had requested to be placed on leave from Seattle University's criminal justice department. He eventually pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor drug charge. Ruth Kagi stood by him during this period, and would do so again as he underwent several surgeries for lung disease. They were married for nearly 38 years until his death in 2007. The couple raised five children, including three from Mark Kagi's previous relationship.

An Interest in Children and Youth

After graduate school, Kagi worked for some 15 years at the U.S. Department of Labor's Manpower Administration (the name was changed to the Employment and Training Administration in 1975) and helped to set up the regional office in Seattle. It was an eye-opening experience in several ways. As Kagi recalled: "Often I was the only woman in the room for a meeting, or the only woman walking through the airport carrying a briefcase. ... My mother, a moderate Republican, was not happy when I took a job with the Department of Labor. Her response was: 'You're not going to work for those damn unions, are you?'" (Ruth Kagi Interview). She rose to Deputy Regional Administrator before leaving the agency.

In 1985, Kagi joined the League of Women Voters where she chaired a study on street youth and later explored statewide services available for at-risk children. She wrote about her early days in an editorial in Crosscut: "Back then, many people thought that runaways and homeless youth were just troublemakers. But I learned that most of them were out there because they were abused or neglected, in bad foster care homes or had parents with substance abuse or mental health issues. I knew I wanted to help change the lives of these at-risk children and families" ("Kagi Calls [email protected] ...").

Her passion for helping at-risk children led to other public-sector appointments, including the Snohomish County Children's Commission in 1988 and King County's Child and Family Commission in 1995. She chaired the Seattle Commission on Children and Youth in the early 1990s. Ove the years, she served as the chair or co-chair of the National Conference of State Legislature's Human Services Committee, Washington Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, and Thrive Washington board of directors. She was on the boards of Treehouse, Shoreline Community College Foundation, and numerous other nonprofit organizations. 

Running for Office

The idea of running for political office first came up when Kagi served as an Action Chair at the League of Women Voters. "I spent time in Olympia on behalf of the League, lobbying and coordinating our volunteer staff, and I became intrigued with public policy and how you could change the world. ... Finally someone asked if I had ever thought of running for office. I was floored. It had never occurred to me. Don't forget, I was a policy analyst for years. The whole idea terrified me: taking a stand on a position, speaking in public. But two years later, there was an empty seat and I made a go for it. I had strong supporters in my kitchen cabinet and we raised a lot of money" (Ruth Kagi interview).

At the age of 53, Kagi left a career in commercial real estate to run against Republican candidate Sidnee Andersen, a teacher and reporter. She won handily, receiving 70 percent of the vote, and headed to Olympia to represent the 32nd district, which encompassed Shoreline as well as parts of Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and Seattle.

A Passion for Foster Care

During two decades in the Washington state legislature, Kagi focused her efforts on helping foster children, improving the child welfare system, reforming the state's drug-sentencing laws, and expanding early learning opportunities.

Decades later she recalled how overwhelming the transition to Olympia was: "Our legislative process is complex and there are so many players. Trying to learn it all quickly was like drinking through a fire hose ... It took a few years to understand how it all worked, and how important relationships were to get the bills passed ... You can't prepare for that kind of life. A typical day was two to three hearings, eight to 10 meetings with people. I would start work at 7 a.m. and work until 9 or 10 at night" (Ruth Kagi interview). 

During her first legislative session in 1999, she was appointed vice-chair of the Children and Families Services Committee, where she shepherded legislation that allowed foster children to continue attending the same school after they were removed from their home. She argued there was much to be gained by providing such continuity for children who grew up in unstable home environments.

House Bill 2338 to reform the state’s drug sentencing laws was one of Kagi’s proudest achievements, spurred in large measure by her father's struggles with alcoholism and her own. "My family's addition to alcohol -- my father's, my husband's, my own -- drove my passion to improve our state's drug and alcohol treatment options and reform sentencing laws" (Ruth Kagi interview). Signed into law on April 1, 2002, by Washington Gov. Gary Locke (b. 1950), the new legislation began the state's shift regarding non-violent drug possession from one centered on law enforcement to one more focused on public health and harm reduction. The law adopted a new set of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, slashed sentences for non-violent offenders, and significantly expanded funds for treatment and support. 

Kagi put the bill passage into context: "I sponsored something like 77 bills in my 20 years in Olympia. Two or three of those stand out. One is HR2338. This was my first foray into how to fashion a big piece of legislation. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. I had to get all the right pieces in the right place ... That bill impacted more people than any other bill I worked on during my two decades in Olympia" (Ruth Kagi interview).

Impact on Education

In 2002, Kagi became chair of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, a position she held for 16 years. In that role, she had significant impact on child welfare services, children's mental health and substance abuse, aid for needy families, and juvenile justice. The committee also oversaw issues related to early learning and child development from birth to kindergarten.

During her tenure, Kagi continuously advocated for early education and foster care reforms. "When I came into the Legislature, early learning was a totally fragmented system ... Quite frankly, child care was viewed as babysitting. It was not viewed as a profession" (Santos). Years later, when asked to name her biggest legislative achievements, in addition to drug-sentencing reform, Kagi cited her work around foster care. "Over the course of the last 20 years, we have developed the training and technical assistance and scholarships and expectations that child-care providers are professionals, and they have a tremendous responsibility to help children develop the skills and the emotional grounding that they need to succeed in school" (Santos).

In 2015, Kagi sponsored the Early Start Act, which applied and measured quality standards for child care, including improved training and coaching. It was signed into law in June 2015 by Gov. Jay Inslee (b. 1951). Two years later, she spearheaded the creation of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, a standalone department that consolidated child protection, early learning, and juvenile justice programs. These services had previously been scattered among other state agencies, impacting program efficiency and budgets. Both pieces of legislation carried wide bipartisan support.

Retiring from the Legislature

After 20 years in Olympia, Kagi retired from the legislature in 2018. In a statement, former House Speaker Frank Chopp (b. 1953) called Kagi, "the conscience of our caucus when it comes to children and families. With her leadership, the Legislature changed the way the state views early learning challenges, transforming the way we address these issues from separate components to a holistic approach" ("Rep. Ruth Kagi ...").

After she retired, Kagi served for two years as co-chair of the board with oversight of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. Her co-chair position ended in 2020 but she continued to serve as a board member.  

In 2018, to recognize her many achievements in support of public policy, the University of Washington School of Social Work created the Ruth Kagi Scholarship. The three-year term scholarship supports social work graduate students who dedicate their careers to creating social change through public policy.


Sources:

Henry F. McClure, "Reasons Why Seattle is a Young Man's Town," The Seattle Times, August 12, 1906, website accessed November 1, 2020 (www.seattletimes.com); "Miss Jane Nettleton Wed to Dr. Edward LeCocq," Ibid., February 5, 1936; "Mrs. Walter B. Nettleton Dies," Ibid., November 4, 1947; "Trophy Group Named for Horse Show," Ibid., September 6, 1954; "Women's News: Notes and Notables," Ibid., August 26, 1958; Robert Heilman, "Pert Pair: King's Pages Seem Always Hungry," Ibid., August 4, 1961; Dorothy Brant Brazier, "30 Girls Make Debuts in Beautiful Setting," Ibid., December 29, 1963; "Shotgun Blast Kills Dr. Edward LeCocq," Ibid., September 23, 1965; "Mrs. Herbert Mark Kagi," Ibid., December 21, 1969; Julie Emery, "Criminal-Justice Tables Turned," Ibid., August 27, 1986; "Voters Guide to the Tuesday, Nov. 3 General Election – State Legislature," Ibid., October 27, 1998; Melissa Santos, "Three Lives Devoted to Improving the Lives of Children," Ibid., December 28, 2018; "Rep. Ruth Kagi Says She Won't Run for Re-election," Mountlake Terrace News, March 10, 2018 (https://mltnews.com/rep-ruth-kagi-says-she-wont-run-for-re-election/); Casey McNerthney, "Herbert Mark Kagi, 1933-2007," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 18, 2007, website accessed November 1, 2020 (www.seattlepi.com); Summary for 620 West Lee Street, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, website accessed November 2, 2020 (https://web6.seattle.gov/DPD/HistoricalSite/QueryResult.aspx?ID=-148983850); Ruth Kagi, "Kagi Calls [email protected] Series Instrumental," Crosscut, March 26, 2014 (https://crosscut.com/2014/03/ruth-kagi-crosscut-membership-piece); "Redefining What's Possible," a brochure celebrating the 75th anniversary of the University of Washington's School of Social Work, 2009; "Ruth Kagi Scholarship Announced at School of Social Work Recognition Event," November 29, 2018, press release, University of Washington School of Social Work, website accessed November 4, 2020 (https://socialwork.uw.edu/news/ruth-kagi-scholarship-announced-school-social-work-recognition-event); Ruth Kagi interview with author Rita Cipalla, November 20, 2020, transcript in possession of Rita Cipalla; Ruth Kagi email to author Rita Cipalla, December 11, 2020, in possession of Rita Cipalla, Seattle. 


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