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Behind the scenes of a new lawmaker's effort to pass a utility shutoff moratorium in WA

A young woman wearing large dangly earrings and a dark cardigan stands with a beige marble wall behind her.
Washington Legislative Support Services
Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma, in the Washington State House of Representatives.

KNKX reporter Scott Greenstone is following one new state lawmaker through her first session. Rep. Sharlett Mena, from Tacoma, is getting a crash course in what it takes to make progress in a legislative body, that can seem just as immovable as the marble walls of the capitol building itself.

In the second part of the series, we’re going across the street from the Capitol – where the new lawmakers have their offices.

Listen above.

If you missed the first part, listen at


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

Legislative Assistant Ubel Perez: Come in here. And here we are. Hola.

Scott Greenstone: Start of session is day after tomorrow; today, it’s move-in day at “J-LOB” –  the House office building in Olympia. Representative Sharlett Mena is getting help from her friends, her boyfriend, her mom.

They’re putting up pictures. Decor.

Mena: So this the United Farmworker flag. When Dolores Huerta came…

Greenstone: That’s American labor leader Dolores Huerta, the originator of the phrase ‘si se puede’ –

Mena: …signed that one for me. And it's one of my favorite things because, like my mom did farm work, you know, and like to have someone that was able to organize in a community that people say is 'un-organizable.' Well, it's just not true, right? We can do it, we just have to put our minds to it.

I can't look at my mom. She makes me cry. So and then some of these photos my mom took, um, and gifted to me in these frames. This is from our home state Sinaloa.

Greenstone: ‘Juicy’ by The Notorious B.I.G. is playing on her phone. It’s kind of appropriate; in it, Biggie talks about how far he’s come. Today, Sharlett Mena is being sworn in.

She’ll take the oath of office with one hand on the Washington state constitution and her grandmother’s rosary.

Mena's mother: I think is a perfect day to use it. You're going to use it, right?

Mena: So I'm taking the oath of office on that.

Greenstone: In her family’s Catholic tradition, when you pray the rosary you’re praying for future generations. So these rosary beads in a way hold prayers for Mena.

Mena: Are you okay, Mom? Are you nervous?

Mena's mother: No, just emotional.

[They speak in Spanish]

Greenstone: Every time I’ve seen Mena, she’s been light-humored. Unflappable almost. But underneath, she is nervous about the road ahead. We talked the night before she was sworn in, on the phone.

Mena: (on phone): I don’t know if dread is the word, but there's a little bit of, like, worry about what you don't know, you know.

Greenstone (on phone): Yeah.

Mena:: I want to do so right by this district, I want to make sure that folks that entrusted me with legislation that they heard last session or an idea. You know, don't feel like I dropped the ball, and I'm going to work really hard to make sure that I don't. I think there's just an irrational worry about, well, what if I do?

Greenstone: Irrational worry or not, the session is starting. Here we go.

['Juicy' plays in the background of the office again]

Mena: (in office): This song has been on repeat, you guys. Okay.

Greenstone: I was like, Is that your song?

Mena: (laughing): No–I just played it once, and then I — it just was — kept going.

[Beat to 'Juicy' grows behind Mena]

Mena: Okay.

State Supreme Court Justice Steven Gonzalez: ...The constitution and laws...

Mena: The constitution and laws...

Gonzalez: ...Of the state of Washington...

Mena: ...Of the state of Washington.

['Juicy' continues playing]

Drew Mikkelsen of KING5: Representative Sharlett Mena is one of 43 new members to join the House of Representatives, the most diverse body in state history.

Mena (in TV report): It makes me excited and a little scared.

Mikkelsen: Her first bill was one of the first to get a hearing this session.

Mena (in committee): This bill will simply prevent toxics from going into cosmetics.

Greenstone: That’s a KING5 report about the first of many bills.

Mena: This is the hopper. You put it in the bill and then it gets filed and they'll send you an official notice has been filed.

[A montage of committee hearings]

Mena (in committee): Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you, members of the committee, for hearing this bill to protect Washingtonians against extreme heat... access the promise of the Washington Voting Rights Act...

...Gender based pricing, often called the pink tax…

...So this bill provides a quick solution to this issue by allowing Sound Transit…

...and surgical fix to a loophole that we found in our campaign finance laws...

...both state and tribal fish hatcheries to perform the important operation and maintenance needed...

...House Bill 1427, affectionately referred to as the Solar Energy Resiliency Bill.

[Record scratch]

Alexandra Mather, Pierce Transit: She is working on all of those?

Perez: Literally, yeah.

Greenstone: That’s Ubel Perez. Her legislative assistant. The only staff member Representative Mena has.

It’s more than a month into session. In the last five weeks Mena has introduced 12 bills. Her office has been a carousel spinning through meetings with constituents like these people, business owners, advocates, lobbyists rushing through for 15 minutes each.

Mena: Hi folks. Oh my god! What a nice surprise.

Greenstone: Some want her to vote yes or no on a bill they like or don’t. Some are here to talk about issues in the 29th district. This is a hair salon owner in Parkland.

Deborah Billings: The homeless have come in with their trailers and cars and shopping carts. And no one, you know, hates the homeless. We all have compassion for humanity.

Greenstone: Late morning. Guillermo Rogel is on the calendar.

He’s a lobbyist for Front and Centered, an org that advocates for communities of color feeling the impacts of pollution and climate change.

Guillermo Rogel: How are you doing Charlotte?

Greenstone: He’s also friends with Mena.

Mena: I'm tired, yeah. Well, we're going. What do you want to talk about today?

Greenstone: He wants to talk about the extreme heat utility shutoff moratorium. One of Mena’s more controversial bills – at this point, still in committee.

Mena: You hate it.

Rogel: Okay, I got questions.

Greenstone: The state already prohibits utilities from cutting off someone’s heat in the winter, with a few stipulations. This builds on it, and says during and leading up to heatwaves, your utility can’t cut your water or your electricity – like, for AC – because you didn’t pay.

But Mena has changed the bill. Now utilities can make you enter into a payment plan before reconnecting you. Also, the first version required utilities, when a heatwave was on the horizon, to try and reconnect occupied homes they had disconnected.

That changed too.

Rogel: And then so with that one now, it kind of feels like the responsibility is on the resident in order to — for reconnection. So what's the deal there? Is that just because utility districts think that they can't identify folks to be reconnected? Because they know, right?

Mena: They identified a myriad of problems with reconnection that we couldn't seem to get past. And I'll just be really forthcoming with you...

Greenstone: The utilities can be big political spenders. Few politicians want them as enemies.

Mena: Unfortunately, people have felt from the start that this bill is really messy and doesn't have support. It's not — it didn't — it definitely didn't have support the way that it was before.

Rogel: Yeah, yeah. Right now we would testify as 'other' maybe even go as far to testify as 'con.'

Greenstone: That’s not great. That means this environmental justice group and their allies might actually oppose this bill.

Rogel: I'll check in with the community and let you know kind of where they land. Um, because yeah, I know that a lot of folks are reaching out to us on the bill and looking for us for guidance and like, we're, we're not trying to sink it either.

Mena: Well, that's, I mean, that is the question, right? Like these conversations are the most painful for me because we're on the same team and I fully understand that the bill doesn't go far enough, but it's something.

Greenstone: Rogel’s organization – Front and Centered – that’s a group Mena really doesn’t want as an enemy.

Mena: It's okay if we're not in agreement but — I just like to know.

Rogel: Last thing.

Mena: You're running a campaign against me.

Rogel (laughing): No, no —

Mena: 'Sharlett wants you to have AC... sometimes.'

Rogel: But that's what some people will think. Is that like, 'well who makes the decision?' And it's like 'well, a committee.'

['Juicy' begins to play again]

Greenstone: This kind of painful conversation – it’s happening all the time in politics. Do you compromise so you can get something done? Or do you push to get what you want and risk losing?

These conversations between lawmakers and lobbyists and others are happening around dozens of bills, behind closed doors, in the state legislature.

Just this week, Rogel’s organization Front and Centered reversed course and ended up supporting the utility shutoff moratorium.

It passed the House, and made it to the Senate, where it sits in another committee, as powers that be, determine whether it’s enacted, or amended… or killed.

Scott Greenstone, KNKX News.

Scott Greenstone will be back with another chapter in April closer to the end of the legislative session.

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