The 2021 session is underway, and it is a session like no other. I would like to share some personal thoughts following the first few days of session.
First, I can’t imagine the impact this session is having on newly elected legislators. With all the hard work campaigning and the excitement of being elected as one of 147 Washington state legislators, getting to come to Olympia and sit on the floor of the House or Senate as a voting member is a unique experience. And just walking into the Legislative Building and looking up at that dome and its surroundings is awe-inspiring. Now they will join the rest of us in spending all or a vast majority of time staring at multiple computer screens while conducting the state’s business. With Zoom, I call it government by Hollywood Squares or The Brady Bunch—for those of you old enough to remember those long-ago TV shows.
While most of the session will be virtual, you can follow the floor sessions and hearings on TVW.org and streaming on legislative websites. I will share information on how you can interact with the legislature in my next newsletter.
The first day of session was surreal. I went in on Saturday to take my suit and tie to the office. That way, I could face whatever was happening in casual clothes. Getting access on Saturday required going through two checkpoints on Sid Snyder Drive, the only street access, to get to parking. I then had to call a Senate security staff to let me into the Legislative Building and to my office. It was two days before session, and the building was eerily quiet. I left my clothes and some food and drink in case it was needed on Monday. Then I exited the building and went back through security. As I left, I drove south on Capitol Way and saw that all the streets west of it were closed for a number of blocks.
Monday’s opening day session was scheduled to begin at 11:00 AM. We were told that we should arrive early to avoid too many cars trying to enter and to protect legislators and staff. I arrived around 8:30 AM at the first security gate, showed my ID and was welcomed by state troopers and security staff. There were Washington State Patrol vehicles lined up outside and inside the gate. I drove past the Insurance Building; there were lots of troopers and Washington National Guard members along the way.
Then came the eight-foot cyclone fence around the Insurance Building, along the street and surrounding the Cherberg Building. And another gate with WSP officers and lots of guard members in full combat or riot gear. I again showed my ID and one of the officers looked through my windows to see if anyone else was in the vehicle. I was welcomed and directed to the parking lot, which had lots of law enforcement vehicles parked in it.
At the door to the Legislative Building, there was more security. Senate security staff recognized me and opened the door. There were troopers in the hallways and at every stairwell and entrance. I certainly felt safe and secure and went to my office to await the session.
In 1966, I went through Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall on a tour into East Berlin. Getting into the capitol was very similar to that experience except that the troopers, security staff, and guard members were much friendlier. I never thought I would have anything similar to that experience in our country, especially to carry out the duties of a state senator.
The opening day session went well. House and Senate members had to be physically present on opening day in order to adopt Senate and joint Senate and House rules that would enable us to conduct some or all of our business remotely. It was disappointing to see Senate Republicans oppose all rule changes and vote against adoption of the rules because of provisions allowing remote meetings and voting.
Most Senate members had assigned locations off the Senate floor and only a few Senate leaders were actually on it in order to comply with social distancing guidelines. Members who have offices in the building were assigned to their offices while others were assigned to the galleries, caucus rooms, and lunch room to view the session and wait for roll call votes. When it came time for a roll call vote, and there were a number of them from Republicans trying to eliminate or drastically reduce remote authority, we were assigned to vote in groups. Members would go to the wings, standing at least six feet apart, walk one-at-a-time to a microphone on the floor, announce their vote, walk down the aisle and back to their assigned location. At least I got some good stair climbing during the day. As soon as we finished adopting rules and electing Senate leaders and officers, we adjourned for the day. We were asked to leave campus as soon as possible so all those security forces could be relieved.
There were only two arrests and the number of protesters was small, probably because of the size of the force protecting the area. All I can say, is, given what happened with the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Capitol last week and threats for continued violence by these anti-democracy forces, it is better to be safe than sorry. It is just a very sad comment on the status of free elections in our country that Washington state government has to face possible violence in order to conduct the people’s business.
One final note. Tuesday, we met in joint virtual session to accept and approve the results of the 2021 election. We accomplished that by unanimous consent and without a roll call vote in about 15 minutes. That is much different from 2005 when the legislature met to ratify the 2004 election results after the race for governor between Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi went through three recounts, a court case and a 134 vote win for Gregoire. Republicans were obviously upset and asked for an oral roll call vote of all members in the joint session. So each senator and representative had to stand and cast a vote for Gregoire or Rossi. The election of Gregoire was confirmed. But that was a very contentious day and an end to an equally contentious election. I felt especially bad for the newly elected legislators whose first public vote was to stand and state who they were voting for. But we got though it without violence. I wish I could say the same about 2021.
There will be more updates on the 2021 session, and I will try to share information about just how the hybrid in person/virtual session progresses. In the meanwhile, you can follow me on Facebook to get updates, like when our district Town Hall will be! You can also always call or write my office to give us your input.
Sen. Sam Hunt