The 2021 session of the Washington State Legislature was dominated by the Democrats, who controlled both Houses and the governor’s office and was one of the most progressive sessions in recent memory.
Since Democrats still control the Legislature, it becomes a challenge for Republicans to try and control the message for the 2022 session in preparation for next year’s elections. In 2022, there will be a short session so that everyone can get out of Olympia and go home and campaign.
Even though this year’s elections for city and county government positions are not over yet, many people are already planning ahead for next year’s and state legislative elections. Why? Because many of the candidates running now might be good candidates for the Legislature, and both parties will start their candidate recruitments Nov. 3.
Recruiting candidates who have run for office before saves a lot of time. They already have experience in a campaign and know how all-consuming it can be. To build a voter bank of support, they already will have approached Republicans or Democrats for an endorsement and have a basic philosophy that will match with one party or the other.
And the two parties are always recruiting to build a bench of candidates for future races. In some cases, a losing candidate might be the most attractive to run for the Legislature because they learned a lot, want to prove the voters were wrong, and believe that if they had raised a little more money, they would have won. If they won the local office they ran for, they usually want to wait a couple of years and demonstrate some accomplishments before running for a higher office.
Some candidates run for local office as a stepping stone to running for the Legislature where they can influence state laws. There are people running now for city council seats that have run for the Legislature already and others who are serving in local government who have already served in the Legislature, lost, and returned to the city council. They are the ones to watch as potential candidates next year.
Local issues and state issues tend to have a lot of similarity. Last session, the two big issues were COVID-19 and homelessness, but the most controversial topic was “police accountability.” After several years of the evening news showing police officers killing people of color, each city had a story that reflected poorly on the city. Many people of color ran for the state Legislature in 2020 and were elected, and the 2021 session was the first time they held the power to make changes they promised to make if they won. They were persuasive with the changes they made because they had real stories to tell and real experiences to share.
Policy change areas included use of force, decertification of police officers, requirements for each officer to report bad behavior by another police officer, training changes, and the discontinued use of military equipment. But this past year has been filled with some police chiefs attacking those legislative changes, saying the new laws were an over-reaction and poorly thought out, thus making police work more dangerous and difficult. They have been particularly critical of House Bill 1054 (police tactics) and House Bill 1310 (use of force). Also, a progressive call to arms backfired as “defund the police department” was used more by supporters of police as an acknowledgement that defunding police could work against everyone, including the very people it was trying to help, and became a strong political counter-message for police supporters.
However, backers of the accountability changes have fought back against the chiefs through the media, and we will likely see competing messages leading up to the session as police supporters try and change the recent laws while progressives want to maintain the changes they made. There may be some common ground available.
As noted earlier, COVID-19 was a major issue during the 2021 session. There were competing messages from both sides. From Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democrats, it was “we are trying to save your life by requiring you to wear masks” and closing businesses in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Republican counter-message was an attack on Inslee’s authority to close schools, restaurants, bars and gyms with “hurting businesses and putting people out of work when they need the money.”
Another message came from a Democrat and Republican in the form of legislation to curb Inslee’s emergency powers by seeking to share the governor’s authority with the state Legislature. The bill would have ended Inslee’s authority after 30 days unless it was extended by the Legislature. A surprise that a fellow Democrat would seek to reduce Inslee’s power? Actually more politics. Inslee had endorsed District 5 Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet’s primary opponent, then after winning, Mullet teamed with District 17 Republican Sen. Lynda Wilson on the legislation. Republican leaders’ message was that Democrats want to “tell you what to do.” Voters will hear and see similar legislation in the 2022 session as both sides try to build a message record of the other side’s vulnerable legislators that can be used in the 2022 elections.
Part of building that record will be to compare suburban Democratic legislators with their Seattle counterparts and call them “a Seattle Democrat.” That statement in the minds of suburban voters conjures up a city out of control with homelessness, crime and police issues. Voters will be reminded with television clips of what Seattle was like with protests after the death of George Floyd.
It may be the short session, but the Legislature will be worth watching. Then the election cycle will start. Watch to see how the messaging is used for and against South King County legislators and candidates and who file bills with meaningful legislation. Then study the issues and read between the lines on what each side is messaging and why. That will make it easier to understand what is going on.
Not only are the two sides keeping track of vulnerable legislators, but the messaging has already started with a front page story in the Seattle Times and pictures about Inslee’s recent decision to require vaccinations for all state employees by Oct. 18 or else they will lose their jobs. Next on the list is teachers for K-12 and college. Rep. Alex Ybarra (R-13th District) said getting the vaccination should be a personal choice, and new Senate minority leader John Braun (R-20th District) said: “No other governor has gone so far to take deeply personal health care choices away from people and force them to inject something into their bodies.”
To make their point, a small number of protesters held signs in front of the legislative building, saying “no jab” and “unmask our kids” and “liberty over tyranny.” Inslee’s supporters will say his decisions are intended to save lives.
There will be more attention getters once the local government races are over and politicians can focus on the 2022 session. Because education and state employees usually support Democrats, once the session starts, you will need a score card to keep track of who is on each side. It will be an exciting year.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.