OLYMPIA – Bryan Yates woke up at 4:30 a.m. Monday and walked three miles through Spokane’s predawn cold to catch a bus to Olympia.
The nursing home janitor, who said he’s earning less than $9 an hour after 13 years on the job, had a plea for state lawmakers: Spend more on nursing home care. It was an issue doubly close to home for him. He said his father, a stroke victim, is a patient in the same facility.
Washington’s 60th Legislature convened Monday, with newcomers and veterans gathering for a four-month session in which they’ll spend much of their time weighing budget demands like Yates’.
“Welcome aboard,” Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, told the House’s new members. “Now let’s get to work.”
This year, Chopp repeated Monday, the budget and the lawmaking will revolve around three issues: schools, health care and jobs. The challenge for lawmakers, he said, will be to “connect the dots” between, say, a motivated student who needs help with tuition and an economy-boosting skilled work force.
By 2015, Chopp said, he wants every public diesel vehicle – ferries, buses, diesel vans – to run on biodiesel made from crops grown in Washington. That’s $250 million a year, he said, in biodiesel sales.
Across the rotunda, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said she’s optimistic. Lawmakers in both parties, she said, care passionately about children and the future.
“We take our oaths as individuals, but we serve here as members of families and communities,” said Brown, D-Spokane.
One community that wishes it were larger this year, though, is the GOP caucus, which now holds just 36 out of the 98 seats in the House and an even smaller percentage – 17 out of 49 seats – in the Senate.
Given the Democratic supermajority, Rep. Alex Wood said, Republicans have a simple choice: Work with Democrats and have some say in the process or spend the session complaining from the sidelines.
Among this year’s freshmen are Sen. Chris Marr and Rep. Don Barlow, both Spokane Democrats, and Rep. Steve Hailey, R-Mesa.
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed,” said Hailey, sitting amid packing boxes in his mostly bare office. “I think it really hit me about the time everyone started singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ ”
Propped against one wall was a big picture the rancher brought with him: a watercolor of a herd of cattle. Like the chilly air drifting in the office window he likes to leave open, it reminds him of home.
Marr, a former chairman of the state Transportation Commission, is no stranger to the capital. But after a hard year on the campaign trail, he said, he was surprised at how collegial lawmakers in both parties are.
Marr said he’s also well aware that he’s a freshman – a point driven home when someone with more seniority appropriated Marr’s office couch.
The former Spokane auto dealer said he’s pleased he and several other new lawmakers bring business savvy with them. But some of the best advice he’s gotten, he said, is to not be in a hurry to make his mark.
“It’s a matter of accepting that you have a learner’s role in the process,” said Marr. “Don’t assume that you’re somehow a voice of fresh air blowing through the chambers.”
Barlow – one of the Legislature’s four American Indian lawmakers – said he’s proud to be among what’s believed to be the largest-ever number of tribal members serving in Washington’s Statehouse. The Tulalip Tribes organized a two-hour ceremony Monday night honoring the four with singing and dancing at nearby Evergreen State College. Kalyn Free, founder of INDN’s (Indigenous Democratic Network) List, a national political group dedicated to getting tribal members elected to public office, was on hand Monday to watch Barlow and the other Indian lawmakers sworn in.
“We’re making ground, little by little,” said Barlow, a member of Oklahoma’s Ottawa Tribe.
One of the most emotional moments Monday came when House Speaker Pro-tem John Lovick, an African American state trooper, was sworn in for another term.
Like many lawmakers, Lovick brought family members and friends. Among them was his 95-year-old grandmother, Elsie Lovick, of Robeline, La., who stood and held her palm up in joyful solidarity with her grandson as he – tears welling up in his eyes – took the oath of office in front of state Supreme Court Justice Charles Johnson. Nearby stood Will Bachofner, the long-retired Washington State Patrol chief who reformed the force in the 1960s by opening hiring to women and minorities.
“This place is not about us,” said Lovick, D-Mill Creek. “It’s about the people back home in Mill Creek, Port Angeles, Spokane and the rest of this state.”
As if to drive home that point, companies, trade groups and communities hungry for some exposure and influence touted themselves with exhibits and freebies in the Capitol Monday.
Camano Island Coffee was doing a brisk business handing out free coffee and smoothies. Nearby, rhinestone-studded Omak Stampede Queen Hannah McDaniel helped show off local fossils, chocolate coins (representing mining), a local woodstove-maker and beef recipes.
Upstairs, Puget Sound Rope was showing off a fat-as-your-arm cable purported to be the world’s strongest rope. And tables were awash with Washington-grown potatoes and apples.
Spokane promoters had Viewmasters with 3-D images of the Lilac City, bags and pens from Inland Northwest Health Services and sports stuff from Gonzaga University and the Spokane Chiefs.
Upstairs, a Seattle company called Flytes of Fancy was pitching its pet costumes: a jester outfit, sailor suit, graduation cap, tuxedo and top hat, bride outfit, propeller hat and tutu, among others. Nearby was the state wheat growers association, equally ready to hand out a free calendar or make small talk about Yemeni flatbreads.
As for Yates and the other members of a Service Employees International Union-backed bus trip to Olympia, they spent Monday trooping from one office building to the next, making their case to lawmakers.
“I want to talk to people to say ‘Who the hell are you, to compromise the health care of our people?’ ” said nursing home staffing coordinator Jen Wujick, who got up at 3 a.m. to pile into a car with six people and get to the bus stop. “It’s going to happen to all of us. We’re going to be sitting in that facility someday.”