Washington's freshman class of lawmakers — the largest in a long time — makes itself heard
Washington’s legislators will be back in the capitol on May 16 to hash out the state’s law on possession of drugs.
One important player: The freshman class in the House.
KNKX reporter Scott Greenstone spent this year's legislative session following one member of the new class of lawmakers – the largest since anyone can remember – as they make themselves heard in Washington politics.
In the third part of this series, Rep. Sharlett Mena passes her first bills, and comes into conflict with her party's leaders.
If you missed the two parts, listen at knkx.org/freshmanmagic.
Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Mena (sniffing hard): Oh my God, that's terrible. It feels terrible still, even though it's not all the way up your brain.
Greenstone (narrating): Rep. Sharlett Mena is finishing her second month in office. It’s a big day for her. She’s going to be in close quarters with lawmakers on the House floor. Hence the nasal swab.
Mena: Guess what? I don't have COVID. We're on. It's ONNN.
Greenstone: Being a freshman lawmaker in Olympia isn’t easy. The last freshman class … they came in in 2020, and many didn’t make it to reelection.
But 2023’s freshman class has come in with a bang, introducing big, viable legislation. And Mena has the most.
She’s also snagged a vice-chair position on the Energy and Environment committee. Which means lobbyists are on her morning calendar.
Mena: How can I help you guys today? It looks like we're talking about a bill that's coming up on the floor.
Jeff Gombosky, lobbyist: Yes.
Greenstone (narrating): They want to talk about a bill from one of Mena’s fellow freshmen: A Republican, Representative April Connors, from over the mountains.
She wants to limit blinking lights from wind turbines at night.
The wind lobby doesn’t want costly regulations.
Gombosky: Representative Connors has been pretty unresponsive to a number of our concerns.
Greenstone (narrating): As tough as freshmen Democrats might have it, Republicans don’t control the House or Senate, and leadership doesn’t care as much about wins for Republican freshmen.
Connors told me she met with Republican and non-partisan staff before the session.
Connors: And they said, 'What would be your goal for the bill?' And I'm like, well, you know, I want it to pass. And they go, 'Well, you know, how about, maybe... would a goal be a hearing?' And I'm like, yeah, that would make the people in my community excited if it got a hearing.
Greenstone (narrating): But – despite the lobbyists – the Democrats liked the turbine light pollution bill, more or less. Later on that day, nearly every House member voted yes. The governor signed it into law but vetoed part of it.
Mena: Thank you. Bye.
Greenstone (narrating): Mena’s mind is elsewhere.
Mena: Okay, I got to go. And Alec just called me, so I'm concerned.
Greenstone (narrating): Alec is a staffer on the energy committee.
Mena (on phone): Hey, what’s up?
Greenstone (narrating): It’s a big day for Mena because her first bill is up for a vote in the House. During heatwaves, it would stop utilities from shutting off your water and electricity.
She’s been in long conversations about it with the powerful utility lobby – who scored some changes, and wanted more.
Mena (on phone): Nitpicky things. And I was like, we're not making any changes. Not the ones that the advocates want, not the ones that you want. Like — this is where we are now. And they were like, 'Oh, meow meow meow.'
Greenstone (narrating): Environmental justice groups didn’t love the changes, but still endorsed it.
[Door opens; footsteps.]
Greenstone: In the House chamber, I’m only allowed in the wings – not on the floor, where official things happen, and not in the Democratic caucus room, where the real decisions are made.
Former Rep. Steve Kirby: What happens in caucus stays in caucus. That's a thing, a real thing.
Greenstone (narrating): Also here to see the vote on Mena’s first bill is Steve Kirby. He served in the legislature for 20 years, but retired right before this session. Endorsed Mena as his successor.
He still comes around the capitol … checking in, sometimes offering Mena advice.
Kirby: Would I be Obi-Wan or would I be Yoda? I'm trying to decide. I don't know.
Greenstone (narrating): Where we’re sitting, it’s like we’re backstage. Hushed conversation swirls around us.
At one point, a longtime House member next to us… says something to the young new Democratic Majority Leader… about some other bill sitting in the Rules committee.
Majority Leader: Have talked to you about it, yes.
Representative: Get it out of Rules please. Hey Steve.
Kirby (laughing): Hi. (to Greenstone) You just saw a bill make its way from rules to the floor calendar.
Greenstone (narrating): Mena’s bill comes up. I watch from the wings with her assistant, Ubel Perez.
Perez: She’s been practicing with Guy. Got her talking points.
Rep. Tina Orwall: The good member from the 29th, Representative Mena.
Mena: Thank you, Madam Chair. It's snowing and freezing across our state today, and in times like these, I'm so grateful that we live in Washington where regardless of whether you can afford your power and water, we don't shut it off in the winter months. Because people can get hurt, people can die. And the same is true of extreme heat. As you all may recall, the heat wave...
Clerk: Madam Speaker, there are 64 yays, 31 nays, three excused.
Orwall: Having received a constitutional majority, engrossed substitute house bill 1329 is declared passed. [Gavel]
Mena (to Perez): We did it.
Perez: You did it.
Greenstone (narrating): Ultimately, SIX bills Mena introduced will pass.
That’s a lot for anyone – for a freshman? It’s huge.
But having an Obi-Wan helps. Steve Kirby whispered this to me while the House was in session:
Kirby: She was complaining to me that none of her bills were out a week or so ago, not on the floor calendar. I don't know why all of a sudden they are.
Greenstone: Did you call someone in Rules?
Kirby: I can't remember. I think… I think she just got lucky. …I do stuff like that for a lot of my friends.
Greenstone: He’s essentially admitting to me that he’s pulled some strings. Though he could be exaggerating his influence, Mena’s got other connections. She worked in D.C., in the state Senate, where the utility shutoff bill sails through. She also worked for governor Jay Inslee, who signs the bill at the end of April.
Inslee: I want to thank sponsor Representative Mena, who is really on a roll.
Mena: Thank you, Governor.
Greenstone (narrating): Sitting in the governor’s office, I can’t help but think about what Mena said the first time she ran in 2020.
Mena (from 2020): I can't win playing their game, right? Maybe we do need to dismantle the system.
Greenstone (narrating): Because she has played the game.
When I asked her, she talked about working within the system to transform the system. And I thought that was where we’d leave it.
Then, a few days later, the session ended with one big issue unsettled.
Monique Ming Laven, KIRO 7: Time is up.
Drew Mikkelson, KING 5: But one of the final acts was a failure – the attempt to make drug possession a gross misdemeanor.
Jeanie Lindsay, Northwest News Network: …Watching the vote happen, and I had to consciously remind myself to close my mouth because it was nothing short of jaw-dropping to witness.
Franque Thompson, Q13 FOX: Gov. Jay Inslee says the failure of state lawmakers not reaching an agreement is unacceptable.
Inslee: My belief is the legislature needs to do its job.
Greenstone (narrating): Without a compromise, there’d be no state law against possessing drugs.
The solution Democratic leadership pushed for — Republicans said it was too soft. Progressives said it was too tough.
Mena was torn.
Mena: Like, what is the vote I need to take to be true to myself and my values and my constituents and what is obstructionist and obstinate and how will it be perceived? And what really was the right thing? And I battled with it a lot.
Greenstone (narrating): She was also thinking about what she said in 2020. When she lost to Kirby by 82 votes.
Mena: You know, I had a conversation with Steve Kirby. There was a time where he came in and ran against a Democratic incumbent and lost by 17 votes and came back and ran again. And, you know, he was kind of a change candidate at the time. And then here we are a generation later, and so what I'm saying is, you know, is it really– is anyone really trying to tear this up from the ground up or does it just happen in cycles? And that's how we continue to make progress.
Greenstone (narrating): She decided – alright, I might not be tearing the whole thing down. But I’ve compromised enough.
She voted no.
Along with three-quarters of the freshman class. Breaking ranks with leadership, and forcing the governor to call a special session on drug possession.
Greenstone (on the phone): So you didn't have Rage Against the Machine, like playing in your head or–
Greenstone (narrating): I’m looking for a song here at the end.
Mena had a hype song on the campaign trail… a song on swearing-in day.
Mena (to Greenstone): What's your song for this one?
Greenstone: I don't have a song for this one.
Mena: I'm going to send you recs.
Greenstone: If you have an idea.
Mena: I do have an idea, but I have to send it to you.
["Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" plays]
Greenstone (narrating): This is what she sent. It’s by Selena.
Obstructive? True to her values? A tool of the system? Only the people Sharlett Mena represents get to decide. And they will – next year. She says she plans to run for reelection.