This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Ever since the clearcut nextdoor, I have started “participating”. I have started showing up at local community meetings. I have gathered signatures for a petition to make sure the county knows what we on this road want with respect to our 40 acre square of clearcut “forest heritage park”.

I have turned up to tree advisory boards and trail stewardship meetings, state senator meet’n’greets and county commissioners meeting, environmental coalitions and even a Department of Natural Resources board meeting.

What I have observed is that local government wants direction.

people at community meeting
This is what democracy looks like. If you’re not there, you have no input.

They want people to participate. And the people who show up and do the work, who participate, can actually affect things. Don’t just throw a shoe at the dog or send a sharp email or tweet grumpily. Turn up at the often tedious and obscure meetings in person.

The lighting is usually fluorescent. Caffeine is instrumental.

a community meeting
This is what democracy looks like.

Watch how decisions are made. See how the input from members of the public is received. Observe the process. Second time around, decide your goal, make your plan, gird your loins, step up and speak. You will be heard. Other people will share your perspective, and together it can gain strength.

Participation Begets More Participation

One of the things I have volunteered to do is to input upcoming and relevant events into the local environmental coalition website calendar. One of the events I input was an Environmental Lobby Day at the state capitol in Olympia, WA. I thought, “What the hey?” and I went. My friend Kim from our road came, too.

Environmentalists on capitol steps
The rah-rah on the capitol steps. Can you find me? I’m there.

This was an event put on by a consortium of environmental groups who wanted us to focus our opining on 4 bills that are currently in process. We were to wear green and got sorted into our legislative districts. Appointments had been made for groups to have 15 minutes of our representatives’ and senator’s time.

Rank Newbies

Most of our group had never been to the capitol before, had never done this sort of thing. Fortunately we had one person who works for the Nature Conservancy from our district. We were also assigned an experienced activist from another district who knew her way around the buildings and the lawmaking process. She shepherded us around and gave us a mini tour of the legislative building. She was great!

The halls were packed with aides, pages, lobbyists and constituents. Gangs of us eco-warrior snowflakes in green garb. There may have been actual legislators bustling around as well, but since I was woefully ignorant of state politics, I recognized none. I didn’t know a Democrat from a Republican. No idea who was a mover and a shaker.

The EMTs were also having a lobby day. At least 20 emergency vehicles were lined up outside. If ever there was an opportune time and place to have a heart attack or a broken leg, it was there and then.

Governor's OfficeThe capitol building in Olympia is lined with marble, top to bottom, and sound echoes. In each of the four corners of the main floor are the Offices of the Governor, Lt. Governor. Secretary of State and State Treasurer. They are carpeted, wood-paneled and hushed, bestowing a certain grandeur and dignity to them. But you can just walk in. They work for us, remember.

The Gatekeepers Are Key

Now, the fact is that our chance of speaking directly to an actual representative or senator was pretty low. Because they are very busy and have votes on the floor or committee hearings to hear. So most of us spoke to the legislative assistant of the legislator.

That’s okay, because they are the gatekeepers. They are the ones whose job is to gauge the passion and seriousness of the constituent regarding the issue. Convince them you care about the issue at hand, and they will convey that to their boss. Their bosses are too busy to spend time on your thang if it doesn’t really matter to you. And it is a lot less daunting to lay out your issue to an assistant than to the boss. Much.

Citizen lobbyists
(This was not our group, but similar.)

Each person in our group volunteered to speak on one of the 4 issues and express why it was a good bill to vote for, tying it in to some personal experience. Of course, we in the 23rd district are very fortunate in that our legislators are totally on board with progressive action on environmental issues, so it was really just adding ballast to their voting plans. But, as one person pointed out, everyone needs positive reinforcement, and it was good practice and we spoke better each time.

My Covert Agenda

If you read my last post, you know that I have come up with an idea to generate funding for forests through the use of a flat user fee of $25 for all passengers flying into and out of Washington State. A personal carbon offset, so to speak. I printed up a summary flyer (no pun intended) and aimed to buttonhole anybody I could drum up the courage to buttonhole. Just to drop the idea into their minds.

Since this was my own personal project, once everyone was done advocating for their assigned bill, I then handed the assistant my flyer and dove in with what it was about. I spoke pretty confidently, having organized my thoughts by writing that blog post. Everyone at the table seemed pretty impressed with the idea after my spiel. That was very encouraging!

Evergreen State Forest Trust FeeSo encouraging, that when I got tired of the rah-rah photo session on the capitol steps, I went back into the building and walked my girded loins into the Secretary of State’s Office and spoke my stuff to the aides there. They kept my flyer and were gracious. Emboldened, I walked across to the other corner and did the same at the Governor’s Office. They, too, cordially said they would pass on my idea and flyer to Gov. Jay Inslee. I saw it be stamped, so it is official.

Then I went downstairs where many representatives have their offices, and hit all the clusters of legislative assistants. I did not know who their bosses were, where their district was, or what committees they were on. I don’t care who picks up this idea and runs with it. I think it is good for everybody. I grabbed everybody’s card. Most asked for a digital copy of the flyer to be emailed to them, as it is policy now to reduce paper and filing.

Networkers R Us

I met up with Kim and a few of our group at the cafeteria in the Gov. Dan Evans Library. The place was packed. Definitely a happening place. Everybody either working in state government or lobbying for their issues or industry. Hobnobbing galore.

Later we split up our group because the appointments were too close together for us to actually make it to both. Funnily enough, the representative my contingent went to meet somehow didn’t have us on his agenda, but we were patient and he made time for us. He was the only legislator we spoke with directly. A very approachable guy.

Afterwards, I continued my lobbying at senators’ offices. Senators have much quieter floors. Bigger offices. It’s a step up in status, that’s for sure. As at the representatives’ offices, there were groups of people waiting for their meetings. But I just walked past them and approached the legislative assistants directly, with no expectation of getting any of their legislator’s time.

WA State Senator Karen Keiser

Towards the end of one floor, I was just about to start my pitch to the assistant when a woman, bearing a strong resemblance to Angela Lansbury, bustled out of the back office with a warm smile and said to me, “Hi! I’m Senator Karen Keiser! Lots of people here today! Welcome! What can I do for you?” She didn’t need to ask twice.

“Well, I have an idea on how we can generate funding for tree planting and forests…” I said, handing her the flyer. She scanned the flyer. Before I could say much more — she must be a speed reader — she held up her hand and said, “Say no more. I totally get it! Here, Jennifer, put this on my desk.” And away she bustled. My!

Her assistant Jennifer chuckled at my astonishment at my success and said, “Her district has Seatac Airport in it.”  Afterwards, looking at her card, I realized that my idea had just been given a very positive reception by the President Pro Tem of the Washington State Senate. Talk about the right place and time!

After that, I met up with Kim and we called it a very successful day and drove back to Poulsbo.

Follow Up Is Important

WA State Senator Christine Rolfes
Washington State Senator Christine Rolfes

Over the weekend, I emailed a digital copy of the flyer with a cover letter to every Washington State senator and representative, and I cc’d their legislative assistants, if the information was available. I have received responses from several gatekeepers who promise to bring it to their senator’s or representative’s attention.

I also heard from our own Senator Christine Rolfes. Thanks to my cover letter, she was able to make the connection between the clearcut she visited with our environmental group, the person (moi) who stood up at her meet’n’greet & said we need to find funding to preserve the forests we still have, and the brightly colored flyer she found in her inbox.

You see? Participation matters!

community meeting
This is also what democracy looks like. It’s not very exciting, but it is how things get done.