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A Fond Farewell to the Legislative Life

At the sundial.

At the sundial.

OLYMPIA, March 21.—I remember, some 20-odd years ago, at dusk one Saturday during session, when the only people at the Capitol were the budget-writers who were working on a final compromise, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Cherberg Building, staring up at the Dome. I’d never noticed before the way the light comes shining out of those narrow slits between the columns. Dan McDonald, then the Senate Republican budget-writer, came walking by. “What are you looking at?” he asked.

“It’s the Capitol,” I said. “You ever stop to think – it’s the coolest damn looking office building in the state?”

No, he laughed, he really hadn’t; he lingered long enough to look polite and walked on. But I’ve always thought that. Sometimes when I’ve thought about it I get a lump in the throat. I’ve always been proud to work there, and it’s the sort of thing I think about today, as I get set to move on. What can you say when you’re about to leave a place where you’ve played virtually your entire adult life? Where you lived and loved and learned and basically grew up? Today I bid Washington State Wire adieu — and with it the Legislature in which I have worked as a statehouse reporter, off and on, pretty much from the day I graduated from college. This calls for something a little unusual. It is one of the few moments in my career I think it proper to talk about myself.

I’ll still be around, in a sense, watching things in Olytown from the editorial board at the Seattle Times. But I don’t expect to be hanging around on the House floor watching those interminable budget debates, listening to every single member say pretty much the same thing, over and over again. Or waiting hour after hour in the Senate for someone to move for the 9th Order of Business. Or sitting through press conferences about bold new policy proposals, waiting for my chance to shout louder and faster than the other guys and ask my burning question, usually something important like — “Hey, is this going to cost money?”

Of course I’ll miss it. The whole thing, even the boring parts. And I guess this is something people don’t often say about the Washington Legislature, or any legislative body, but those of us who hang around year after year know it somewhere deep. This is what keeps all of us coming back – the place really is a hoot.

The Buzz in the Cafeteria

Best-looking office building in the state.

Coolest-damn-looking office building in the state.

I remember sitting in the Capitol cafeteria, back in 1990, my third session here, when I was writing for the Tri-City Herald. It was the week before opening ceremonies, when all the members and staffers and lobbyists were regrouping for another session. You’d see them hunched over the tables plotting in low tones and looking up and shouting a cheery hello! whenever someone familiar passed. And then they’d turn back to one another and carry on with their skullduggery.

By that point I really didn’t need to eavesdrop. Anyone paying attention knew what they were talking about already. You’d see so-and-so talking with so-and-so and you’d know it had to be about motor-fuel-pricing policy, or you’d see another pairing and you’d know the subject had to be the nasty things the enviros were doing to those salt-of-the-earth people in the nuclear industry. Two tables over they’d be talking about the horrible stuff that was leaching from Hanford into the Columbia. Or maybe it was that session’s big issue, growth management. It didn’t matter – just by watching who was talking with whom you had a pretty good sense of the conversation.

I was having lunch with the lobbyist Tom Parker, who at that point was representing the state’s private colleges and universities. “There’s just something about the atmosphere in this place,” I said. “I mean, listen to that buzz. People come back for a session, the first thing they do is they come down here to the cafeteria and they start talking about ideas. It’s not like that in Eastern Washington.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “This isn’t the real world. Everyone here is highly intelligent, highly verbal. The Capitol sort of draws people like that together, and when everyone shows up it’s like the sum is greater than the parts. Whenever I come back here for a session, I can feel my I.Q. going up ten points.”

That I would remember that conversation more than 20 years later ought to tell you something. There really is something about the Capitol that draws people of a certain sort like moths to a flame. Sometimes I have marveled at the fact that in the marbled hallways I keep bumping into people I have known all my life. There are people I met as a teenager, through high school debate. Or people I knew in college, at the campus newspaper or in student government. I suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise at all. People of a certain type are bound to find one another somehow, and even a state of nearly seven million becomes something of a small town. They find their way into public life in a way that suits their talents, whether it be in the media or politics or policy development or campaign work or lobbying or public relations. In the state of Washington, if they’re any good at it, they all wind up at the Capitol at some point. Some do a lengthy tour of duty. Some find a home and stay their entire lives.

Preconceived Notions

A gubernatorial news conference circa 1992. Front row, Peter Callaghan, The (Tacoma) News Tribune; Erik Smith, Tri-City Herald; Dale Folkerts, The (Everett) Herald; Ed Penhale, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Back row, Laurie Smith, The (Longview) Daily News; Louie Balukoff, House photographer; Randy Wood, House photographer; Mike Oakland, The Olympian.

A gubernatorial news conference circa 1992. Front row, Peter Callaghan, The (Tacoma) News Tribune; Erik Smith, Tri-City Herald; Dale Folkerts, The (Everett) Herald; Ed Penhale, Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Back row, Laurie Smith, The (Longview) Daily News; Louie Balukoff, House photographer; Randy Wood, House photographer; Mike Oakland, The Olympian.

I have to tell a story on myself, and it is one I think would make most people laugh today. Before I got here I did have some strange notions about politics and the Legislature itself. Keep in mind that everything I knew I read in the newspapers. What I saw was the reflected wisdom of others – and honestly, once you have a front-row seat on things, you begin to realize you can’t believe everything you read. It makes me more than a little suspicious about most of the coverage I see out of Washington, D.C. today. In sweet ignorance I batted out reams of copy for my campus newspaper on my old Royal manual typewriter, and the editorials I wrote of a political nature would make me cringe today. The evil Ronald Reagan and all that. It was what the cool kids were saying, you know? At least I can say that I and my fellow UW Daily-ite Luke Esser, a future Republican state senator from Bellevue, stood off the entire staff and wrote an editorial endorsing Dan Evans in his 1983 bid for U.S. Senate. Maybe we all start out that way. There was a fellow down the hall from me in my college fraternity who found himself an internship at Seattle City Hall. He knew everything there was to know about politics and he expounded on the subject for hours. “The last thing you want to do is to get involved in state politics,” he informed me one day. “The Legislature is so corrupt. Bob Royer told me all about it.”

That guy’s name was Craig Pridemore, and he went on to a distinguished career himself as a Democratic state senator from Vancouver.

Me, I found my way to Olympia right after college graduation in December 1986. In college I held almost every position at the Daily – I spent pretty much every waking moment in the newsroom except for the occasional times that I attended classes. I worked at internships at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane and The Columbian in Vancouver, where I wrote in-depth stories about parades and the weather. And yet — I was ineligible for the college’s Olympia-reporting internship program because I majored in history and not communications. Something funny happened, though, as the 1987 session was just about to start. The college program didn’t have enough applicants. The Daily got the short end of the stick – and the late publisher Barbara Krohn asked if I’d like to take the job. “Sure,” I said. “But since I’m not getting college credit you need to pay me a little more.” And when the deal was done I called the Daily World in Aberdeen and offered my services as a stringer. So on opening day I found myself in the newsroom in the basement of the Institutions Building with all the interns, making twice as much as they were and letting them all know it — and they all hated me for it, I am sure.

Lasted Two Days

Legislative life: With my sons, Rowan, left, and Trent, right, at the Children's Day floor session of 2011.

Legislative life: With my sons, Rowan, left, and Trent, right, at the Children’s Day floor session of 2012. Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, in foreground.

All my preconceived notions lasted approximately two days. The big issue as the session began was a proposal from Gov. Booth Gardner to extend the sales tax to professional services. It was a half-billion-dollar tax increase, for a noble cause – the money was going to go to the K-12 schools. I sat in on my first gubernatorial news conference. In those days the halls were thick with reporters and they certainly would never let a mere quasi-sort-of intern sit at the conference table, much less ask questions. But as I sat on the sofa in a corner of the room and listened to Gardner hold forth I found myself thinking his proposal must be a good idea. He was a Democrat and he wanted to do good things for people, and education was a good thing, right?

He kept on talking about the hard-hearted Republicans who were standing in the way, and it sounded like a story to me. I asked the House Republicans to set me up with someone who could speak for the opposition. They arranged a sit-down with their budget lead, a fellow by the name of Bruce Holland, Republican of Renton. When I got to his office I wasn’t expecting much – just a few empty quotes I might scribble on my note-pad. He started by telling me about the struggling self-employed businesspeople who couldn’t pass the tax along – it was like plucking money out of their pockets. He talked about the big firms that could easily pack up and leave, taking all their jobs and tax revenue with them, like a big company in Tacoma I’d never heard of before called Russell Investments. “Would that really happen?” I asked. “Can you prove it? Do you have it in writing?” He replied, “Do you want to see the letter they sent me?”

He went on for a half-hour, offering arguments I’m sure would be familiar to anyone who follows any tax debate today. But you have to remember, this was the first time I heard any of them. And then came the clincher – if these new education programs the governor was proposing were so all-fired important, wouldn’t you think that in a $10 billion state budget people could find room for them somewhere and cut something else? By the time I left that office I was reeling. Holy cow. That guy made sense. And he was a Republican. What was wrong with this picture?

I went straight to the governor’s office and demanded answers. Surely they had a response. But the best that press secretary Dick Milne could come up with was, “That’s just what you expect the Republicans to say.” I’d been in debate, I knew how to score a round, and I had to give the Rs that one. A few years later I told that story to a girlfriend, someone whose mother had run for the Senate as a Democrat, and she rolled her eyes. She said, “That was a dark, dark day.”

Kept Coming Back

'Does this cost money?'

‘Hey, is this going to cost money?’

Like so many people who get a taste of the statehouse I found my way back. I got a job at the Tri-City Herald after the ’87 session and a couple years later there was an opening for a legislative correspondent. Over the next nine sessions I’d find an apartment in town each year, rent a roomful of furniture, and spend the next few months following the combat. I got to know the issues and began to understand how each session’s debates flowed into the next. I began writing a snarky weekly column about it all. I remember how startled I was during a budget debate in 1991, when the majority Democrats were arguing there wasn’t enough money for teacher pay raises and the minority Republicans were talking about those valiant public servants who were being shortchanged. The funny thing about it was that when the Republicans were in charge in 1989, they were the ones who argued there wasn’t enough money for teachers and it was the Democrats who argued the opposite. I was dumbfounded; I wrote a column expressing my amazement. Old hands stopped me in the hallways to laugh. “You thought that was news?” said one. “Now you’re catching on.”

There was one thing I figured out rather quickly: As a lone reporter working for a smalltown paper in Eastern Washington, there was no way I could compete with the big dogs on their own terms. In those fat days of newspapering, the Times, the P-I, the TNT, the Associated Press, The Olympian – all of them had two and sometimes three-person bureaus, and usually an intern during sessions. There was usually one guy in each office who went drinking with someone in Democratic leadership and got the scoop that way. Not much I could do there. But there was another group of people no reporter ever talked to, really some of the sharpest and quickest-witted people around – the lobbyists. Fact is, the place couldn’t run without them. They usually knew the positions those Democratic leaders would be taking before the Democratic leaders did. Unlike most members they actually read the bills — they have to, they write them. No matter what anyone thinks, lobbyists operate with a code of conduct higher than the members themselves – one fib and they’re dead. I’d give them all a public nod, but most consider it a greater honor to keep their names out of the press. Let me just say that I would rather shoot a game of pool with someone who represents the toxic waste industry than with some ardent fellow who wants to save the whales. The toxic dude probably has a sense of humor. He needs to have one.

And then there are the staffers, the campaign consultants, the think-tankers, and everyone else who plays a role in this strange little world – I still have you in my Rolodex, all right?

Wanted to Scream

With former House Minority Leader Richard deBolt, R-Chehalis, at 2011 rally supporting TransAlta coal plant.

With former House Minority Leader Richard deBolt, R-Chehalis, at 2011 rally supporting TransAlta coal plant.

There is one serious thought I ought to share. The one thing that shaped my impression of the Legislature more than any other was my sense of horror as I watched higher education suffer a gradual strangulation. I saw the whole thing happen and I held my tongue, as a reporter is supposed to, but there were times I found it hard to sit quietly at that press table. I’m not thinking so much about the administrative end of things, the arguments that you hear from college and university officials, but rather about the impact on students of tuition costs. Back when I enrolled at the University of Washington in 1980, it was $669 a year – low enough that a kid with a full-time summer job and a part-time job during the school year could earn enough to pay the freight himself, no loans required. But starting in 1981, every time there was a hiccup in state tax revenue, part of the solution was to jack up tuition. Happened in good times, too. Happened every time there was a breeze.

Students and parents had to cough up more every year – really a hidden tax increase that choked off economic opportunity by making college less affordable. As I watched tuition climb into the stratosphere I wondered why I seemed to be the only one who was bothered. There was always some outstanding reason, some urgent need that took priority, some critical policy choice that forced the state to hire more people and spend more money and milk the students and parents. I can understand why it happened. It just isn’t in the Legislature’s nature to think beyond lunchtime, and few members remain long enough to perceive a trend that has lasted decades. Sometimes the schools themselves argued for higher tuition, the only way they saw to make up for the money the Legislature did not see fit to provide. And there were times I wanted to shout from the press desk during those budget debates – can’t you see what you’re doing? Even 25 years ago I was noticing a rather cavalier attitude on the part of some and I wondered where it would all lead.

Now we know. Tuition at the UW is now a staggering $12,397 a year; we see similar rates at other public colleges and universities, and it has reached the point where students probably ought to ask whether there will be a return on their investment. Certainly the public-spirited jobs that hold society together must seem less attractive today than before. I wonder how I possibly could have paid back student loans on the kind of money I made as an entry-level reporter. I wonder how my own kids will be able to afford college. I can’t say any one person is responsible, or even one party, and it is really a collective failure on the part of the Legislature as a whole. I was disturbed to see that one party’s budget proposal this year would have allowed schools to raise tuition if they wished, and I can only hope the hold-the-line position of the current Senate Majority Coalition Caucus prevails in future sessions.

A Word About the Wire

Senate budget debate, March 2012.

Senate budget debate, March 2012.

Five years ago, after an adventure in Southern-California newspapering and an abortive foray in small-business ownership in my home town of Spokane, I found myself selling used cars and was looking for a way back to Olympia. The news business isn’t what it used to be. These days there sometimes are empty seats at that conference table in the governor’s office. The press corps is about a third of its size at its peak in 1991. Reporters work their tails off as they always have, but the gaps in coverage are wider than ever. There were a number of people who recognized the problem and were interested in launching an online news venture – a different sort of voice, one that would cover the issues of importance in a thorough and thoughtful way. Not distractions like guns and abortion, but rather the business and taxation issues that determine whether the state will prosper. I trust we’ve made a good show of it, and I hope that in at least a small way we have managed to influence the debate. Former lobbyist Jim Boldt has been our publisher and senior editor; I have been chief cook and bottle washer. Clif Finch and Isaac Kastama have been occasional contributors. And there have been many others who have played various roles with Washington State Wire. All deserve a community-wide congratulation and a heartfelt thank-you from me.

The guys are interested in carrying on; they are now recruiting a replacement. I wish them the best and I hope the community supports them in their effort. It’s their show now. I think we established that Olympia needs a voice like the Wire – I know I’ll be looking at it every day for a sense of what is really going on at the Capitol.

For all the brickbats I have thrown at people over the years, I have infinite respect for all who make their lives in this trade – not just in the news business but in the whole legislative life that swirls about the statehouse. The life of argument and debate and dealmaking and compromise. Sometimes I think it is a little like sports – five years from now, not much of what happens today will have any significance; certainly most of the stories I have written are perishable. But the things that happen from one day to the next really aren’t what is important — it is the people who do them. When you have a chance to see things first-hand you find yourself thinking that they really do make things work as they should, most of the time, on the whole, in the aggregate and in the long run. And the rest of the time I find myself remembering a line I heard some 20-odd years ago — one of those quips from the gang that lurks just outside the doors to the House and Senate in the loveliest office building in the state. When I called the lobbyist Cliff Webster the other day I gathered he had forgotten he said it: “My worst nightmare is that I might wake up one morning and discover that I am getting all the government I am paying for.”

And with that I take my bow and contemplate expressing myself in 600 words or less.

 


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