The Road to Olympia
I will fully admit that I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I agreed to tag along to Viking Lobby Day. I am a freshman from Colorado, and therefore I know very little about the work that the AS President, VP for Governmental Affairs and Representation & Engagement Programs do and even less about Washington state politics.
This is what I knew: Viking Lobby Day is an opportunity for Western students to sit face to face with state legislators and try to convince them to support legislation noted in the AS State Legislative Agenda and that will benefit us as students. I jumped to conclusions, specifically that this was really all about grabbing as big of a chunk of the state’s budget as we could by schmoozing the democrats and shaming the tight-fisted republicans.
A conversation with AS President Carly Roberts on the bus got me a whole lot closer to understanding the true importance of these two days. When I asked if, as student lobbyists, we were just playing the game that all the other special interest groups play, she responded,
“I refuse to submit myself to the dichotomy’s of games. I’m idealistic almost to a fault in that I really believe in the power of the people when they show up. When people show up to our government, I think that’s when we work the best, and so that’s what I think this is.”
In terms of partisan politics, Roberts doesn’t see red and blue.
“No matter who you talk to, when it comes down to it, education is not a partisan issue… I go in with the mindset that I don’t care whether the person is a democrat or a republican. What can we all agree on? We can agree that we all benefit from a highly educated workforce and we should do that for Washington.”
Arrival: Little Girls and Guns.
The bus came to a jolting stop upon our arrival at the capitol, which shook me awake after an accidental nap. I awoke to a strange scene on the capitol lawn, the legislative dome rising behind what looked to be a middle-school-age girl in a red raincoat with a machine gun slung over her shoulder.
She was one of a large group of NRA supporters camped out on the lawn for the day. We jumped off the bus with a lot of nervous chatter and laughter. This protest was, after all, just as much an example of democracy in action as our lobbying efforts.
Yet already, I feared we were out gunned.
The Agenda, The Seahawks and President Bruce
The first order of business was to discuss the legislative agenda. These were the causes we went to Olympia to battle for. They were chosen and approved by the AS Board of Directors earlier in the year. They read as follows:
1. Dedicating revenue to Higher Education.
There is no direct provision in the state constitution that requires funding for higher education. Funding comes from what’s called the “general fund.” There are a bunch of different state agencies that have to fight over this chunk of money. Higher-education tends to get short-changed, so the goal is to have funds directly dedicated to higher education from the outset.
2. Advocating for the DREAM Act.
This is Washington’s version of the DREAM Act proposed at the federal level. It would provide undocumented students with access to state financial aid and the need-grant.
3. Securing funding for the safety renovation for the Carver Academic Facility.
Carver isn’t just ugly, it’s weak. A substantial earthquake could bring the entire structure to its knees and it has a history of raw sewage seepage and poor ventilation. Funds have already been invested the necessary retrofits that’ve already been planned, but $5 million is needed to drive pilings through the swampy soil and into the bedrock below the building. This process will be loud and distracting, and therefore can only happen during summer quarter. The legislature must provide the $5 million by June in order for the process to begin or the renovations will be delayed another year.
It was unfair from the outset to expect that VLD participants would completely ignore the Seahawks-49ers game to focus on the pre-lobby workshops Sunday afternoon. The workshops, led by AS VP for Governmental Affairs Kaylee Galloway, included presentations from Government Relations Specialist Brad Sherman and Associate VP and Director of Government Relations Sherry Burkey.
Burkey has been fighting for higher education funding for almost 30 years, so she knows how to play the game in Olympia. It was partly thanks to her efforts that tuition at Western hasn’t increased since 2011.
After a presentation from Washington Student Association Executive Director Garrett Havens (and a wild celebration after the Seahawks’ victory), University President Bruce Shepard made his way to the front of the room.
Shepard was informal and comfortable, rocking a pair of baby blue Sperry Top Siders as he spoke on the importance of our work at Lobby Day. He was fearless in expressing his stance on the issues within the agenda, calling the DREAM Act the “right, moral, just and fair thing to do.”
He discussed the demographic collapse in Europe and Asia due to rising populations and argued that America relies substantially on immigrants in order to continue to grow and progress.
On Carver, the concern is that legislators see it as a gymnasium and not an academic facility (even though hundreds of academic classes are taught in the building per year). Shepard joked that he would “call it the Carver Engineering Building if it means we get the money.”
Legislators, Muslim Americans and Muskets
Monday started early, and that was clear on the faces of all the Viking lobbyists munching on hotel breakfast in pencil skirts, khakis and other iterations of the uniform of the student who wants to be taken seriously.
The capitol was empty and silent when we descended upon it en masse at about 8 a.m. The echoing, florescent light-lit halls brought the words “dead institution” to my mind, but those words would disappear by the end of the day.
I was grouped with Roberts, a veteran of Lobby Day and it showed in her demeanor.
There were five legislators on our schedule: Rep. Timm Ormsby (D), Sen. Andy Hill (R), Sen. Rodney Tom (D), Rep. Frank Chopp (speaker) (D) and Sen. Mark Schoesler (R). Three democrats and two republicans, though as Roberts repeatedly reminded me, she doesn’t worry about party affiliation.
There was a pattern to our conversations with legislators: They agreed with our principles, but were pessimistic about policy implementation. The DREAM Act is stuck in a senate committee, there is very little money in the budget to be allocated for projects like Carver and dedicated revenue can only really come into being with a constitutional amendment. Nonetheless, conversation was lively.
Around lunchtime, a chorus of chanting voices floated up the hill to the capitol.
“Who are we?
Who are we?
What do we do?
Viking Lobby Day happened to coincide with Washington State Muslim Lobby Day organized by the Washington chapter of the Center for American-Islamic Relations.
Western students Jalesa Smiley and Cody Brower joined the crowd as it approached the capitol steps.
Brower felt “happy and proud that they feel comfortable doing that, and a little bit angry that there is a need for them to do so in the first place… My significant other is Muslim and I’m an executive board member for the Muslim Student Association at Western, so it’s pretty empowering to see people care about this so passionately and actually do something about it.”
“[This march] shows that minorities, and I use that term loosely, have a very strong voice and a strong opinion in everything, in the democracy in the government and it shows that we’re there and that we have something to say,” Smiley said.
As we watched, a Muslim-American veteran bound to a wheelchair from combat injuries spoke to the crowd. After speaking, he led those gathered in a chant, “The people, united, will never be divided.”
Our most interesting meeting was our last. Sen. Mark Schloeser represents Legislative District 9 - including Pullman and Washington State University. WSU’s Director for Legislative Affairs Janson VanderMeulen joined the meeting to help bridge the gap between our delegation and Schloeser.
Senator Schloeser’s office was lined with the mounted antlers of game he’s tagged. Hanging above his cigar humidifier was a painting of Abe Lincoln, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and a few other Republican heroes shooting pool together. On his desk was a bumper sticker reading “my viszla is a Republican.”
Discussion of the DREAM Act with Schloeser demanded tact on the part of the student lobbyists in the room. VanderMeulen made the argument that undocumented residents pay sales tax and property tax. Schloeser equated offering undocumented students financial aid to offering it to kids from Idaho, who’d like to go to school in Washington.
Roberts responded that students from Idaho still have the opportunity to use state resources in their home state, undocumented students have nowhere to go. She proceeded to discuss the importance of the state need grant in getting her to school, finally saying that without it, “I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of you as AS President.”
Schloeser did agree that tuition costs have been allowed to skyrocket, and that he believes in bringing them down. After a discussion of hunting with flintlock muskets, the meeting concluded.
What Happened and What’s Next
As we sat in ‘The Dome’ café after a long and difficult day of power walking the capitol halls and repeating the same startling facts about the raw sewage pumped from under a classroom in Carver, I asked Carly Roberts a lot of the wrong questions. By the end of the day, I was so caught up in the fight for our agenda issues and convincing certain politicians to change their minds that I was looking for a political scorecard, our wins and losses, our allies and enemies.
This day was really about getting students and legislators at the same desk, about watching the jumbled, grinding cogs of democracy turn. It was about seeing NRA protesters and Muslim Americans both utilizing the rights afforded to them by our constitution. It was about being there, on the steps, in a suit, sharing in the democratic process.
“It’s really important for students, regardless of their field of study, to learn how to engage in government and how to exercise their power which is the power of the people, and that is what our whole government relies upon,” Roberts said.
“If people don’t show up, this doesn’t work.”