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Gentzler: My first session reporting in Olympia

Before January 15, I understood the legislative process and a general skeleton of what to expect from “session.” Beyond that, I went into the Capitol with only the general impression I got from more-experienced reporters and my boss, DJ Wilson.

Based on what they said, I knew it would be a relentless onslaught of new information and daily action. Big stuff would probably slip by me, for lack of time and headspace. Those things were absolutely true.

While I’m still caught in its inertia, here are some reflections on covering session for the first time:

On legislators

On the lighter side, I learned that a lot of legislators use a particular lexicon. I’ve never heard the words “frankly,” “robust,” or “percolating” — to name three — more in my life.

I also found, through Q&As with legislators like Reps. Paul Harris, Monica Stonier, Cindy Ryu, and Laurie Jinkins and Sens. Steve O’Ban, Randi Becker, Reuven Carlyle, Mona Das, and David Frockt, that at least a small sample size of legislators love their jobs. They, and I assume others, go to Olympia because they actually want to make changes that matter to their constituents. And they’re thrilled to be there, or at least they seem like it during interviews.

On politics

Politics, I thought, might become totally disenchanting by the time session spat me out.

Evidence to the contrary includes last week, when I sat in on a Senate Facilities & Operations Committee meeting because I wanted to be “in the room where it happens,” even if “it” was something as mundane as overtime policies for staff. I’m more critical and skeptical now, but even that benign meeting still felt like magic. That’s an exaggeration. It was still interesting.

On reporting

To that end, I’m constantly inspired by the reporters who have been doing this much longer than I have.

Watching the pros like Austin Jenkins, Joe O’Sullivan, Rachel La Corte, Melissa Santos, James Drew, Jerry Cornfield, Jim Camden, and Brad Shannon go after complex issues, ask well-informed, contextualized questions in press conferences, and ultimately tell the story of session is a privilege. I thank them for mentoring me when I needed it, ushering me into the wings when necessary, and generally being super kind.

Their work inspires, in part, because of the deftness with which they sort through the massive amount of policy involved in session.

How all this stuff — the bills, hearings, speeches, history, personalities — fits together is a fascinating puzzle, and also frustrating. Frustrating that there is so much happening that it’s impossible to cover it all.

On session

There’s surely a better analogy than this, but: Session is a giant ball of story strings. I could grab onto any one of them and let it drag me through session and I would get a narrative worth sharing.

Instead, I scrambled and reached for several and hung onto all of them for dear life, letting lots of other threads fall in the process. Luckily, some of the stories I followed turned out to be consequential — the public option, clean energy, statutes of limitations for sex crimes, Tobacco 21, etc.

A lot of whiplash comes with reporting on session.

There were days when I felt in-control, with a general handle of what was going on. When a senator said they noticed my byline and that I do good work, or when other outlets started picking up the Long-Term Care Trust Act, a bill I wrote about starting with its first public hearing.

It was also an honor to be able to cover things other outlets don’t get to cover — a luxury I have because of the Wire’s unique approach to entrepreneurial journalism. That happened with the Walla Walla Watershed Management Partnership extension, “wage and benefit theft,” and this session’s Janus bill.

Those things built confidence.

Then there were the days that put me in my place: press conferences when I felt so unsure of my questions that I felt it best not to ask anything at all. Or the day I first tried to sort through an operating budget. Or the day my computer died in the gallery, then I waited 40 unproductive minutes for a legislator to get off the floor, eat lunch, and talk to me about a bill.

Another lesson: In that big, old marble building, outlets are exceedingly rare, inconveniently placed, and coveted. Knowing how to get your hardware charged in the Legislative Building is probably a sign of experience, hard-earned by running out of juice just when you need it most.

In sum

105 days later, I’ve developed an elementary knowledge on what session actually is, and admiration for all the people who make it happen.

The legislators, staff, lobbyists, TVW, and the press corps all dedicate so much energy and time to session. It’s what makes our state republic work — and what allows us to hold it accountable. And I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.

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