“Olympia” is a utilitarian word in Washington state. It’s shorthand for all things governmental. When someone starts a news report with “in Olympia today,” we know it’s probably going to be about the Legislature or the governor or some state agency taking action (or not). “I’m going to Olympia” suggests something purposeful. It can be used as an epithet, as in “well, that’s Olympia for you.”
Our state capital is familiar, and it’s not. I suspect that only a tiny percentage of the state’s population has actually visited the place, toured the Capitol building, watched the Legislature at work, sought out an agency official, observed arguments before the Supreme Court, hunted down a representative or senator from their legislative district, or lobbied for something important.
Most people know what the buildings look like because they have seen them on TV, in the background over the shoulder of a reporter, but may be unaware of how accessible it all is. The Capitol can seem a bit imposing. There is of course security, and some areas are closed to the public — but most of the campus is remarkably open to visitors. You can take a tour of the Capitol, but you can also just wander around and see what’s happening. Enjoy the history and architecture of the place. Check out the small cafeteria in the basement to see who’s meeting whom over an espresso.
For many Washingtonians, Olympia has become symbolic and emblematic rather than the living, bustling, intriguing center of state government that I’ve observed over the years. Maybe it’s because I’m a political junkie, but I’ve always been fascinated by seeing how the process works close-up. With a little effort, Olympia is approachable, as some of our local elected officials and students from Liberty Bell High School have demonstrated recently.
Spend enough time there, and you will understand that Olympia isn’t a faceless monolith. The machinery of government is reduced to headlines and short bursts of information that hardly represent the complexity of what’s going on there — or the humanity. It’s all about people, and despite cynical images to the contrary, they are working hard to come up with the best solutions for how to make the state operate.
Because of my positions as an editor and/or publisher of newspapers in Washington, I’ve had better access to the movers and shakers than most citizens over the past 25 years. I’ve had private meetings in the governor’s office and in legislators’ inner sanctums, not because I am special but because my media role gave me entrée. I appreciate the opportunities and try not to be a shameless name-dropper about it (although sometimes I can’t resist).
Every year, the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (of which the Methow Valley News is a member) gather for what’s called “Legislative Day” in Olympia. Publishers, editors and editorial writers from around the state spend the day meeting with legislators from both parties and with department heads. We are treated to a reception with members of the state Supreme Court. The day ends with dinner at the governor’s mansion.
Legislative Day 2019 was last Thursday, and as usual, I found it informative and instructive. We met with Attorney General Bob Ferguson, state Treasurer Duane Davidson, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, state Auditor Pat McCarthy and State Patrol Chief John Batiste, among others including half a dozen lawmakers.
While the partisan battles over legislation rightfully generate intense news coverage, what you learn by listening to the legislators is that they work together, get along with each other, respect each other and cooperate more than you might think.
It’s fun to hobnob with the Supreme Court justices and learn that in a casual setting, with their austere black robes parked in a closet, they are engaging people. Dinner at the governor’s house — with about 50 other people jammed into a small dining room — is an opportunity to see the state’s chief executive in a more intimate, less structured setting. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee arrived at the dinner after a bill-signing ceremony that filled his office. In a room full of journalists, he was personal, funny and seemingly more at ease — even as he dealt with some hardball questions about his newly launched presidential campaign. He’s quick with a quip but never misses a talking point.
Not everyone will make it to the governor’s dining room. But don’t be intimidated by the concept of “Olympia.” You’re as entitled as anyone to interact with the actual place, and you should.