Jennifer Dunn, a longtime Washington state GOP official, won election to the U.S. House in the so–called “Year of the Woman.” A self–styled “Reagan conservative,” Congresswoman Dunn became a prominent figure in the Republican Party as it gained control of the House in 1994, moving into the GOP leadership and securing a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.1 Her chief legislative work was in the field of tax policy.
Jennifer Blackburn was born in Seattle, Washington, on July 29, 1941, the daughter of Helen and John “Jack” Charles Blackburn. Her father was a cannery worker, fishing equipment salesman, and real estate broker. Her mother taught Native–American children but gave up her career to raise her children. Jennifer Blackburn grew up in Bellevue, Washington, and excelled at sports and outdoor activities. “Just about everything she did was full steam ahead,” her brother recalled.2 She attended the University of Washington from 1960 to 1962 and earned a B.A. in English literature from Stanford University in 1963. For five years she worked as a systems designer for a major computer company. She married Dennis Dunn, who later became the GOP chairman in King County, Washington. The Dunns raised two children, Bryant and Reagan, but were divorced in 1977. Jennifer Dunn worked as a public relations officer in the King County department of assessments from 1978 to 1980. One of her first major political posts was as the statewide coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. From 1980 to 1992, she chaired the state Republican Party and also served as vice chair of the Republican National Committee’s executive board from 1988 to 1991. Dunn joined U.S. delegations to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in 1984 and in 1990.3
In 1992, when incumbent Washington Republican Rod Chandler left his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate, Dunn declared her candidacy. In the open primary for the district spanning many of Seattle’s affluent eastern suburbs in King and Pierce counties (an area containing many of the leading technology companies), she edged out Republican state senator Pam Roach 32 to 29 percent. In the general election, she faced a Republican–turned–Democrat, businessman George Tamblyn. Dunn campaigned on a pro–abortion rights agenda that contrasted with her conservative bona fides: opposition to tax increases, support for school vouchers and the line–item veto, and a tough–on–crime platform.4 Dunn won with 60 percent of the vote. In her subsequent five re–election bids, she equaled that margin of victory or exceeded it.5
When Dunn took her seat in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she received assignments on three committees: House Administration; Public Works and Transportation; and Science, Space, and Technology. In the 104th Congress (1995–1997), when her ally Newt Gingrich of Georgia became Speaker, Dunn began a swift rise through the Republican ranks. In just her second term, she won a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee, which required her to relinquish her prior assignments. In the 107th Congress (2001–2003), Dunn served on the Joint Economic Committee. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Dunn was tasked as vice chair of the newly created Select Committee on Homeland Security.
During her freshman term, Representative Dunn advocated fiscal reform, challenging House committees to make 25 percent cuts in their own budgets. She broke ranks with her GOP colleagues to support the Violence Against Women Act, though she later voted against the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which was backed by most of her women colleagues. Dunn also consistently voted to support women’s reproductive rights, though she opposed federal subsidies for the procedure and funding for international family–planning programs. On most other hot–button social issues, however, Dunn was firmly in the GOP ranks, voting for gun owners’ rights and a constitutional amendment to allow school prayer. “Too often we assume that women are going to be liberals,” Congresswoman Dunn said. “But there are women out there who believe we can solve our problems with non–government, non–invasive solutions.”6
Dunn focused on issues of tax legislation, high technology, and retirement security from her Ways and Means seat. Considered one of the House’s top experts on tax relief, her most prominent piece of legislation was a 2000 bill to repeal estate taxes, which won convincing bipartisan support to pass the House, though not enough to override President William J. Clinton’s veto.7 She also supported the abolishment of the so–called marriage penalty, whereby married couples filing jointly were taxed at a higher rate than if they filed separately.8
Before the start of the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Congresswoman Dunn was elected Secretary of the House Republican Conference. Later in 1997, after the resignation of Susan Molinari of New York, Dunn was elevated to Vice Chair of the conference, the fifth–ranking position in the GOP leadership. At the time, it made her one of the highest–ranking women in the House. One of her major tasks was to overcome the rancor and partisanship of the 1990s and, as well, present the Republican Party in a more favorable light to women voters. “I have found that if you listen to the American woman and respect her advice, the answers are all right there,” Dunn declared.9 During the 1996 campaign, she pitched the GOP to women voters as being friendly to women business owners, married couples, and working families and concerned with health care and research issues. “We agree on 80 percent of the things in our party.…We ought to be able to help come out with really good legislation by including everybody, their energy, their passions, their work,” Dunn said in a 1998 interview.10 At the time, she was making history by becoming the first woman of either party to run for House Majority Leader. Dunn used her gender as an entering wedge, noting that she was a “fresh face” with a “softer voice,” who could carry “a banner for working moms.” As a woman familiar with “bumping up against the glass ceiling,” she nevertheless portrayed herself as effectively “working in a man’s world.”11 She eventually lost her challenge against Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and also gave up her seat as Vice Chair of the GOP Conference.
In the 2000 presidential election, Dunn served on George W. Bush’s campaign committee and raised more than $1 million for the GOP candidate. After Bush’s victory, some insiders believed Dunn would be offered a Cabinet post as Secretary of Labor or Secretary of Transportation. But the offer never came, in part, because with Congress so evenly divided, the Bush administration was reluctant to pull key congressional allies out of the House or Senate, and Dunn held a powerful post on Ways and Means.12 In early 2004, having recently married Keith Thomson, a Hanford nuclear facility executive, Dunn surprised colleagues by announcing her decision to retire from the House. “While I never took a pledge on term limits, I do believe that our nation is better served if from time to time we senior Members step aside to allow individuals with fresh ideas to challenge the status quo in Congress,” Dunn said. “It is time for me to move on.”13 Dunn retired at the end of the 108th Congress in early January 2005. Jennifer Dunn died in Alexandria, Virginia on September 5, 2007.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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