I headed down to Olympia at the end of January with the understanding that I may happen upon a legislator or two.
When I was cordially invited by a state senator to shadow her for a day, I lobbied my boss. The decision was unanimous: I was going to Olympia!
I knew lawmakers would be extra busy during my visit, as the session is a short one — just 60 days as opposed to 105 days in odd-numbered years. I also knew I stood to learn a great deal. My knowledge of the legislative process until this point was derived mainly from what is called online learning — for an inanimate object, Google has an exceptional handle on the workings of the government.
My visit was six business days before all bills that survived the Senate would head to the House and vice versa. I envisioned the state capital with crowds of people overflowing out of the buildings. Kind of like the mall before Christmas, except everyone would be dressed professionally.
My itinerary indicated I was to punch-in at a press conference at 9 a.m. sharp. Upon arrival I had just enough time to give myself a tour of the recently renovated — and impressive — Legislative Building.
At the press conference, a group of Senate Democrats presented a package of bills aimed at giving a “big boost” to small business. The senator I was to shadow, Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, was one of the senators introducing a bill.
My next stop was to sit-in on the Financial Institutions, Housing and Consumer Protection committee, which is chaired by Fairley. Tim Eyman demonstrated at a previous meeting and by the time I arrived at the room, a few men in bright orange prison uniforms with duct tape covering their mouths were just showing themselves out the door. I had no idea that theater and costume design were part of the legislative process.
During the committee meeting, I heard Attorney General Rob McKenna testify on behalf of bills that could protect victims of identity theft. The meeting was interesting to observe, which I suspect may be due to the humorous chairwoman who possessed a very large gavel (a gift I believe).
Legislators do observe lunch and after the meeting I shadowed Fairley back to her office, where I met the people who work for her: two staff and an intern. As we dined in her office, constituents steadily stopped by to introduce themselves and their cause. All were welcomed.
Some visitors brought gifts of chocolate, or crème brule and we even sampled fortune cookies from a PTA group with fortunes that cleverly read “Enhance science and math education for all students.” Fairley’s staff assured me that the office was not typically a candy shop; I have my doubts.
In the quiet moments between visits, Fairley kindly (and amusingly) told me about everything from companion bills to where legislators live during the session — most rented apartments or other housing while a few owned houses in the area.
After the lunch break, I sat in on another Senate committee meeting before heading over to a House hearing. I was right on time for a House Transportation Committee meeting and heard a bill introduced by Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, related to vehicle gross weight violations. It was an emotional hearing, with the wives of two men who were killed in a logging accident testifying in favor of the bill.
I left the capital that day with a much better understanding of the legislative process that even a search engine could not have provided. It is heartening to realize that many legislators not only work on behalf of constituents, but enjoy the process.
Now I can add visiting Olympia to my list of political achievements. Highlights to date include sneaking past security with my twin sister to see former Secretary of State Madeline Albright give a speech and shaking former President Bill Clinton’s hand.
Brooke Fisher is a writer and editor with The Enterprise Newspapers.