Support Public Service Journalism

Q&A: Sen. Claire Wilson on her first session in the Legislature

Senator Claire Wilson represents Washington’s 30th Legislative District, covering Federal Way, Auburn, Des Moines, Algona, Pacific, and Milton.

Sen. Wilson is the Vice Chair of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee and serves on the Transportation and Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committees. She also serves as the Assistant Whip for the Senate Democrats.

The 2019 session was Wilson’s first session as a legislator. Now that session is over, we caught up with her for a conversation about her first session, her leadership roles, issues she is passionate about, and what her focus is for the interim.

Emily Boerger: Overall, how was your first session? Any surprises?

Claire Wilson: “It was a wonderful opportunity and an incredible experience, and I was actually very thrilled and humbled to be there. I don’t think anybody knows what you are actually going to experience until the day after the election and… your campaign dissipates, if you will. And then you walk into an entire world that is very much different from the inside out than it is from the outside in.

You know, nothing’s a surprise, because I knew my learning curve, as far as process, would be great. But as far as content and information, I come with a breadth and depth of knowledge. So, for me, the focus was on the systems and how to move things through.

For years, having brought individuals down there [to Olympia] and stood beside them and behind them speaking on things that were important for them — it was incredibly wonderful to be the one finally at the table when people were coming to visit to hear their stories… To actually be able to make some change and some difference and some legislation that moves things along was absolutely awesome.

…It’s the only job in the world — and I’ve been around for a while — where, literally, you walk in and there’s no pencil, no paper, or no folder or an orientation… It’s like jumping on a hamster wheel and drinking out of two fire hoses at the same time. Because, you know, the process doesn’t stop because there’s been an election and new people [are] coming in. The whole government: the legislation, governance, democracy, continues. And you’ve got to be able to jump in and start wherever and be comfortable with disequilibria and knowing that’s what moves you to equilibrium.

But also knowing that you bring a lens or a life experience that, hopefully, will broaden the impact of the kind of work that happens in the Legislature and the legislation that comes out of it… People came to see me that had never been welcomed there before, or never felt like they could walk through the door, or just never knew that this is their house. And that was constituents — young people and older people who had never been there before. To open those doors for them, and to share my experience and to have it be their experience as well — that was phenomenal.”

EB: Can you tell me a little bit about the experience you bring, or the lens you bring that might have made these people feel welcomed?

CW: “Well, you know, I am 63. I identify as LGBTQ and have for many, many, many years.

My mom was born in Germany and came here as an illegal alien when she was a young person and was able to escape…to a place that was free from both religious and cultural persecution. Her family came here and, you know, she learned what she learned at the public library. She was not able to graduate from high school, because she had a curfew and had to be in.

But, I didn’t really understand what her life experience was until I got older and she started writing about it. [I realized] that she spent her entire life really giving back and creating that safe community that was provided to her… her glass was always half full and there was good in everyone. And that’s kind of how I walk my world.

I’ve also been involved in education and in families for 35 years. I was a project director of WIC (The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), a federal funded nutrition education program for prenatal women and children up to age 5. I taught in Tacoma for 10 years; I worked with 11- to 21-year-old pregnant and parenting teens. From there, I went into early learning, spent 25 years at Puget Sound Educational Services District working as executive director of our state-funded and federally-funded early learning program. And I was on the Federal Way school board for 8 years.  

You know, my world has been around community and children and families. And [around] really feeling like, in the 30th legislative district, specifically, for a number of years I was not represented in decisions that were made and legislation and policy by the individual who sat in this seat. Nor were many of the constituents in my community. I stood on education, I stood on health care, I stood on access for all and reproductive rights and choices of women. I stood on issues related to transportation.

But, I also stand on understanding that we all walk our world differently, and your job, as an elected official, is to represent the constituents’ needs — not your ideology, not your individual perspective. And, when it comes to thinking about that, I will never take away someone else’s values or their beliefs on anything… At the same time, I have to be able to understand that there are many ways of looking at the world. And my way is not the only way.”

EB: I also wanted to talk about what it was like being a new legislator while also taking on leadership roles, both as the Vice Chair of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee and as Majority Assistant Whip.

CW: “It was good. I really felt like I was valued for the experience that I brought and the expertise that I brought… You know, I came, like I said, with a breadth and a depth of knowledge. And I think that was acknowledged — not only in my appointment as the Vice Chair of Early Learning & K-12, but also [in] my ability to really be seen as the early learning expert for the Senate Democratic caucus, which really felt very good.

There are many individuals who have great interest in making sure that we’re creating change and taking care of what we call the “opportunity gap.” But, not a lot of individuals have the expertise or the knowledge of the systems within and how to make that happen just because, you know, education is complicated enough as an institution. And then when you think of early learning… there’s complexities, there’s funding — there’s all these kinds of things. So, really, having lived that for so long, I was ready to come in and know, already, some changes that needed to happen.

As far as leadership on the actual leadership, I did not know that was going to happen. So, I was a bit surprised by that and didn’t quite know what all of that entailed, as far as the job of a Whip. But, I figured that out pretty quickly.

I know how to approach people and approach situations from, kind of, a neutral stance. Although, you know I’m pretty clear about how I feel about things, that’s not my role, specifically in my job as Whip… But I think I was accepted by caucus members and also valued for how I did the job that I was supposed to do — and that is in a very neutral way and a very confidential way.”

EB: Which of your bills that passed this year are you particularly excited about?

CW: “Well, I’m on my way down to Olympia right now to raise the Pride flag with the Governor, and one of the greatest accomplishments — not for myself but for a long-standing group of people who have really felt like they needed to make sure that we had representation — was the signing of the LGBTQ Commission bill. We were one of the only protected classes that did not have a commission and I’m really looking forward to having that created and having the executive director appointed by the governor, and that process is in process right now…. So, that’s a big one.

And the other… [is] the ability to expand our state-funded pre-K program… I’m a big supporter of early learning and prevention services. So, my work on early learning [legislation] has been a big one. But also, our ability to really do some greater funding for special ed. We knew that was a huge need that was not addressed in the last legislative session. So, that was a big one and really it was kind of a whole school safety package, if you will.

And I’m sure you’re going to ask me maybe if I was disappointed by anything that didn’t happen.”

EB: Yes, that was my next question.

CW: “What I would say, not a disappointment, but clearly something that will continue, is the conversation around comprehensive sexuality health education. And, specifically, around affirmative consent around healthy relationships. We said “just say no” and we’ve talked about that for many years, but we’ve not talked about what young people are asking for which is: “I can say yes, but then how do I change my mind? Or how can I say no if I’ve already said yes? What is a healthy relationship and how do I talk about that?”

… These questions and conversations came from young people in our colleges that came to my door saying that these were things that they didn’t really know about… the whole concept [of consent] is really new.

[This bill had] many people riled up and it turned into a religious issue and an issue around homosexuality, which is not what this legislation is about at all.

[There was also] fear around when you talk about K-5 and comprehensive sexuality health education. People were saying things like we were going to teach kindergartners how to put condoms on bananas, which is absolutely ridiculous. And, when you think about kindergarten through 5th grade, you think about personal safety, you think about stranger danger, and using your words, and keeping your hands to yourself. And those kinds of things are the things that then lead up to conversations, as they’re older, about relationships. We’re not talking about reproductive health when you’re talking to K-5.

So, anyways, all of that gets lost when people don’t really care about what the bill is — they just care about creating a stir and controversy. And the same group that was against this bill was against the social-emotional bill, and they were against the vaccine bill, and they were against really anything that they said was personal choice, but really was around a different world view, perhaps.”

EB: What held that bill back from moving all the way through? Was it from the backlash?

CW: “Well, it passed the Senate — it passed through committee, it passed through Ways and Means, and it passed through the floor. And then it went to the [House] Education Committee, and it did not [get] exec’d out of the Education Committee.

And what I can tell you, is when the bill was heard in the Senate, there was a very small group of individuals that spoke against [the bill]. And perhaps the reason is that I sat as vice chair on that committee and also was able to prime the bill.

On the House side, ex-Senator Mark Miloscia and reams of individuals who were there in support of the organization that he currently is executive director for, [spoke against the bill]. It’s a very conservative organization that is religious and faith-based. That’s all I’ll say.

And they were full force in the House. And, for whatever reason, a decision was made that it wasn’t going to be exec’d. There was conversation with leadership, numerous conversations about what amendments or changes could happen. There was a lot of conversation and there was no movement. And then, as you well know, when the deadline happens, then the only thing left was to continue the conversation about potential budget provisos. And I will say, I was never part of that conversation, unfortunately.

And so, there was a budget proviso in the end that came out. And the budget proviso was not at all what the bill was. The budget proviso is a task group that includes no legislators, to explore and gather data about, basically what we already know… nothing about affirmative consent, and nothing that touches young people at all. So, it’s a bunch of people in a room, once again, talking more about what we already know.”

EB: Looking forward, what will you be working on in the interim and where does your focus go now?

CW: “Well I have been engaged in, as you said, all of the early learning work…. There’s a state early learning plan that sunsets in 2020, and I was part of the creation [of it] in 2010. So, I’m part of really thinking about what’s the next iteration of early learning in our state.

[I’m] also doing work related to the developmental disabilities (DD) community. I’m really thinking about a DD Bill of Rights, which I was interested in getting going last session and didn’t have an opportunity. We’ve had conversations around minimum wage, but we really need to think about how are we looking at our DD community?

And also, in the same vein, family engagement and parent involvement has always been, and will continue to be, important to me.

And continued interest in the Department of Corrections and around support services, too. We’ve done some work around young men that are incarcerated, young men of color. And extending the age to 25, so young people will stay in the juvenile rehab system until they’re 25 and not go into the DOC at 21. And we’ve heard a lot from young men, but I’m also interested in what’s happening with our young adolescent women in those same systems. And, again, adolescents and adolescent parents who are in that system already and what kind of support services we are giving them… I’m just interested in digging a little bit deeper into that and how we are supporting our youngest families to make sure that we’re breaking cycles by providing opportunities and access.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Your support matters.

Public service journalism is important today as ever. If you get something from our coverage, please consider making a donation to support our work. Thanks for reading our stuff.