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Freshman lawmakers of color in WA have a tough road. One let us come along

A smiling woman with long brown hair looks to her right and listens to another woman wearing a mask speak in a conference hall.
Parker Miles Blohm
Rep. Sharlett Mena, left, listens to Rep. Melanie Morgan speaking at the Anderson University Center on Pacific Lutheran University campus Saturday, March 11, 2023.

Washington's legislature has the largest freshman class since anyone can remember, and the most diverse ever recorded.

But they’re working in an institution designed in the 1800s – by and for white male farmers.

KNKX reporter Scott Greenstone is following one of these freshman members who’s pushing for change. This is the first part of a series, from the campaign to the capitol.

Listen above.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

Scott Greenstone (narrating): Back in the summer of 2020, Sharlett Mena was running for state House, for the first time, to represent Washington’s 29th District: Tacoma’s South End and suburbs.

It was during quarantine. It was during protests over police killings, a time when the system felt like it could come down. And people like Mena were saying, ‘maybe it should.’

Here she is on a local podcast in June of that year.

Sharlett Mena on podcast: "There's a system in place to keep those that are already in office in power, and it's built around, like, everybody supporting each other and maintaining the status quo. And so as we go out and try to compete for endorsements and then we hear responses like, ‘well, we were pressured by, you know, the party and the leadership that we better not do this,’ you start to realize, oh, my gosh, like there is –"

Podcast host Nate Bowling: "Wait, wait, wait, wait."

Greenstone: That’s Nate Bowling, the host.

Bowling: "Do you want to name names there? I'm just curious — on the ‘we were pressured’ —"

Mena: "Uh, I do not. I do not."

Bowling: "Fair enough. Keep going."

Mena: "Yeah. And so you kind of start to realize, ‘All right, this – I can't win playing their game, right? Maybe we do need to dismantle the system. Maybe we do need to reconsider how this is working for people of color and young women and young people who want to – who want to be in office.’"

Greenstone: Mena is a child of Mexican immigrants. Farmworkers. She’s 33. She’s not an outsider by any means – she’s worked for two Congressmen, for Governor Jay Inslee. She’s special assistant to the director of the state Department of Ecology.

Still, she was taking on a ten-term incumbent. A white guy. A 45-year veteran of Tacoma politics, and a Democrat institution. Representative Steve Kirby.

So it was devastating when she got knocked out in the 2020 primary – only 82 votes behind Kirby.

But she got the establishment’s attention. This is Kirby himself talking about the days of vote-counting after election night.

Steve Kirby: "And when it got to be about a hundred vote different, I– I'm thinking I better take a look at my retirement. So I called up the Department of Retirement Systems, and that's when I found out that I could, in fact, retire. I would be just fine the whole rest of my life."

[A mariachi cover of "Fortunate Son" begins to play]

Greenstone: He decided, this is my last race. At the end of 2021, he called up Sharlett Mena, told her he was retiring, and endorsed her.

This was her pump-up song during that second campaign. Which she won.

[Cheering from Mena’s election night]

This is a story we hear all the time in politics today. People get elected promising to, on one side, drain the swamp; on the other, fix a racist system.

[A female vocalist sings, ‘"Some folks are born, made to wave the flag’"

But what happens next? You’re new. You’re in a legislative body that, in the words of Steve Kirby, sees its job as killing bills, not passing them; where bills die behind closed doors for mysterious reasons.

And one reason this freshman class is so big: the last freshman class from 2021? Many of them decided not to run again. Particularly members of color. One called the Democratic caucus ‘a toxic work environment.’

[Music fades] 

The heat of that pandemic summer, and the two since, is far in the past. The buzz of fall and election season is quieting.

Now, it’s winter in Olympia.

[Ice crunches under feet.]

It’s the calm before the session. Mena’s about to start freshman orientation.

Politicians are returning to the capitol in person for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Commissioner Kristin Ang: "Congratulations there representative."

Mena: "Aw, commissioner. What are you doing on campus today?"

Ang: "'m just saying hello to folks."

Greenstone: That’s a Tacoma Port Commissioner – Mena runs into friends from the governor’s office, the U.S. Attorney is here…

Mena: Yeah, well, believe whether or not I'm on my way to see Rep. Kirby just to make sure he's actually leaving. Just packing up all this stuff. For real.

Greenstone: Kirby’s senior, so his office is right in the seat of power – in the Legislative Building.

It’s almost a hundred years old. It’s survived three major earthquakes. At nearly 300 feet, it’s the tallest self-supporting masonry dome in the United States. Marble from Alaska and Europe covers almost everything – even the bathroom stalls are marble.

It feels impenetrable.

Kristine Reeves: So much of the way we do things is just absolutely ingrained in the marble in this building.

Greenstone: That’s Rep. Kristine Reeves, another Democrat who Mena met in freshman orientation. She’s not new exactly – she took a break to run for Congress, unsuccessfully.

Reeves: And there's been a lot of legislators who come in and they're like, ‘I'm going to burn the f——g building down because f—k the system, f—k the man, f—k the institution. Right?’ Okay, cool. 

And you may burn the building down for a hot second. But they're going to come right back in and they're going to replace the carpet the exact same way it was. And they're going to replace the curtains the exact same way it was. And they’re gonna – you know, because the – the – the building is marble. 

Greenstone: Quick story demonstrating how hard it can be for a freshman looking to change something here: Reeves FIRST ran in 2016, a bad year for Democrats, in Federal Way.

Reeves: I ended up flipping that seat in 2016. It was the first time that a Black woman had been elected to our legislature in 18 years.

Greenstone: In the House, that is.

It was immediately obvious to Reeves how outdated the legislature was. She was a mom with kids in daycare, and there was no option to attend meetings or register votes on Zoom, at that time.

But she has a master’s degree in organizational development. So she said, 'Let’s put together a task force to modernize the legislature. Maybe lean in to technology; maybe have a better onboarding process for freshmen.

This is not a burn the building down type piece of legislation. But—

Reeves: A member of leadership found out that I was circulating the blue sheet on this bill, meaning I was getting people to sign on to a bill that would introduce this modernization concept.

Greenstone: She got around a dozen Democrats to co-sponsor.

Then, there’s a meeting of the Rules Committee. That’s the powerful group of senior lawmakers that every bill has to get through if it’s ever going to get scheduled for a vote by the entire House.

Reeves: And literally was told after that meeting that every single bill that I had sitting in Rules was dead – if I dropped that bill. 

Greenstone: Her other bills Reeves really cared about – rebate programs for low-income transit riders, educational support for Gold Star families – dead.

So she never introduced the bill.

That’s what Sharlett Mena, and all these new freshmen who want to change things, are up against. A legislative body that, in the words of a former Democrat majority leader this month, doesn’t seem to believe in open government.

Reeves: How do we keep doing that work to make sure that when the Sharlett Menas of the world get here, that instead of feeling like they're banging their head against that marble wall and bloodying their head on it, that they feel like they're making movement.

Greenstone: But there is something Sharlett Mena has. She told me about it during one of our first phone conversations.

Mena: I've heard it recently called ‘Freshman Magic,’ where, you know, the… where folks are really aware that it's your first year and they want to really sort of mentor you along in the process or make sure that you have some early success.

Greenstone: Freshman magic.

[Mariachi music comes back with a flourish]

Democrat leadership wants to look responsive. They look bad when new people don’t do well. Experienced lawmakers know this … some are coming to Mena with bills they want her to sponsor.

Mena: You know, they're working on something and they're thinking, okay, you know, what this bill could use is some freshman magic.

Greenstone: Next – magic meets marble. Mena introduces her first bills on things like plastic pollution, toxic chemicals in cosmetics, ranked-choice voting. Some are going to be a fight.

Unless she compromises.

Scott Greenstone, KNKX News.

Scott Greenstone reports on under-covered communities, and spotlights the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington. You can email him with story ideas at

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.