Never walk across the state Capitol Campus with Austin Jenkins if you’re in a hurry.
Fortunately, we are not in a hurry as Jenkins shows us around today, which is good, because he stops every so often to chat with someone he knows: a staffer at the front desk of the Capitol visitors’ office, a lawmaker making his way across the rotunda to a meeting, an acquaintance whose son was on the same basketball team as his.
The truth is, Jenkins gets around this place with plenty of speed — he says he can get from his office to the rotunda in under three minutes — and knows the Capitol Campus inside and out.
Jenkins has been covering Olympia since 2004 for the Northwest News Network, a consortium of public radio stations in Washington and Oregon, including KNKX.
He, regional correspondent Tom Banse, and the rest of the capital press corps work out of an old house not far from where lawmakers meet. The building is white, with a few touches of Pacific Northwest moss, and a sign that used to read “The White House,” but now that some letters have fallen off just says “ he t H s .” A wall inside is festooned with political bumper stickers from throughout the years.
And the Olympia White House is emptier than it once was, as news organizations scale back on resources. Fewer are stationing full-time correspondents in the seat of state government anymore.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
The Legislative Building, completed in 1928, is topped by an enormous dome that rises 287 feet into the air – the tallest masonry dome in North America.
The House and Senate meet in chambers on either side of that dome, and when they do, Jenkins says this building is full.
“All the lobbyists are hanging out here, using the couches, on their phones, sitting on the stairs,” he says. “And that’s the place to be.”
For reporters, too. Jenkins and others are allowed into the wings on either side of the Senate and House chambers. Lobbyists are not. That makes for a good, competition-free place to pose questions.
“These are citizen lawmakers. You can stop them,” Jenkins said. “We know each other on a first name basis. Obviously, we have professional relationships and boundaries, but you do develop relationships.”
Jenkins says freshman lawmakers can find the building, and all that happens in it, a little overwhelming when they first arrive.
“They are a little bit deer-in-the-headlights,” he said. “They’re certainly a little bit wary of the reporters. They’re trying to just get up to speed, and often times they get ignored and neglected because they’re not in a committee chairmanship, they’re not in leadership, they’re not moving the chess pieces on the chessboard yet, but it’s also really important to get to know them, because they will be the future leaders.”
THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE
The executive branch also lives underneath the dome, tucked away in a corner of the Legislative Building.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, was once a political reporter like Jenkins, working for The Seattle Times. After leaving news for some time in the business world, he joined Inslee’s staff as communications director.
Postman said when he was a reporter, he thought he had a pretty good handle on what was happening inside the offices of this building.
“You don’t, until you’re there,” he said. “It’s also not as exciting or dramatic as you think it is.”
For Postman, transitioning from covering the Capitol to working for its most covered occupant was difficult.
“I’ve lost friends because of the change,” he said. “A lot of reporters very truly, deeply believe that what I’m doing is immoral. This is the ‘dark side.’”
But he sees it as simply making sure Inslee can work as effectively and efficiently as possible, and that the public knows what he’s up to.
Jenkins says covering state government is rewarding, but also an uphill climb, fighting for the attention of a public that’s often focused elsewhere.
“It’s so easy to focus on what your city council is doing, what’s happening or not happening in D.C., and to completely overlook state government,” he said. “We’re in this era where people are passionately expressing themselves on social media, or electronically, and then we see voter turnout in an off-year election that’s under 50 percent.”
As for this session, Jenkins plans to spend a lot of time looking at trends, asking how well systems are working, and covering the people who are affected by the decisions made in Olympia. Take, for example, Washington’s aging population.
“Do we have an adequate adult protection system in place to serve vulnerable adults at a time when we know we have an aging population and a silver tsunami happening?” he said. “That’s how I’m starting to think about how to cover this place, and state government, for the wider audience.”
And at a time when fewer news outlets are paying close attention to state capitals across the country, Jenkins says he’s proud to be part of a press corps still paying attention to how decisions are made at the state level, and whose lives are changed as a result.
“I’m not cynical,” he said. “By and large we tend to live in a fairly open-government, transparent state, where there is not rampant corruption. But I also think if people and the press aren’t paying attention that, if not corruption, bad habits can form."
You can hear stories from Austin Jenkins routinely on KNKX, and here at knkx.org.
Austin Jenkins shares an office with regional correspondent Tom Banse, whose work you also hear on KNKX regularly. Banse showed us around the press building, and some of the things they've acquired over the years.
You don't have to wander too far off the Capitol Campus before you're in a neighborhood full of houses. A couple years ago, Jenkins reported on the neighbors.
It’s the first day of the 2020 legislative session. Today, KNKX Connects to Olympia, bringing you stories about Washington’s capital and how citizens can influence the direction of their state government. As the Legislature convenes, we’re taking a closer look at what’s happening at the Capitol, and life in the city surrounding it. To listen to all our stories, visit knkx.org/connects.