Diary of a Political Stalker

by Joel Smith

Eastern Washingtonians have always griped about how law-makers in Olympia care only about the West Side, leaving East Siders to fend for themselves. But there seems to have been precious little mention of the fact that, seemingly overnight, Sen. Lisa Brown of Spokane's 3rd District has become one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

Formerly an economics professor at Eastern Washington University (Spokane economic adviser Tom Reese and former state rep Jeff Gombosky were among her pupils), Brown served as a state representative from 1992-96 before moving to the state Senate, where she became the minority leader in 2003. Wildly liberal to her critics in Eastern Washington and surprisingly progressive to Seattle types, Brown has strong support in the 3rd District, which covers much of working-class Spokane (including the lower South Hill and much of the North Side). In fact, she pulled 63 percent of the vote in getting reelected back in November. In January, when Democrats regained control of the Senate, Brown became the Democratic majority leader, the first woman to ever hold the position. With a female governor and two female U.S. senators, Brown rounds out what may be the most matriarchal state in the nation.

Figuring she didn't have enough on her plate, The Inlander decided to follow her around Olympia for a day to find out what makes this soccer mom/power broker tick. So back on March 7, we put boots (well, sensible loafers) on the Capitol grounds for a sneak peek into the life of one of Washington's top dealmakers.

9:53 am

I arrive at the Capitol building and very quickly become lost in the labyrinth of the first floor. I understand that the state is experiencing budget problems, but it seems like a few signs would be a worthwhile investment.

10:03 am

Following directions from three different people, I finally find Sen. Brown's office, at the very end of the Senate chamber, and meet up with Neil Beaver, an Eastern Washington University grad and the senator's right-hand man. Minutes later, Brown emerges from her office in a black blazer and peach-colored blouse. She looks strong and bon vivant.

The senator leads me into her large office, which had been the office of the lieutenant governor until the Nisqually earthquake struck Olympia in 2001, forcing a $16 million remodel of the Capitol building. It's a huge and brightly lit corner room, with high ceilings and windows that look out toward the Temple of Justice and the Capitol campus. Under glass on her coffee table is a collection of old campaign buttons -- Kennedy, Ford-Dole, Nixon-Agnew. In a crate on a desk in the corner, next to an old 45-rpm record player, I spy Simon & amp; Garfunkel's Bookends. On the wall above, an autographed copy of Joni Mitchell's Blue. On vinyl. Nice.

"I'm a huge music fan," Brown explains. As the minority leader, she used to pick a record each week, something with a title or cover image that evoked the feeling of that week, and post it outside her office. I sift through the jackets. Blood Sweat & amp; Tears. Bob Dylan's Bringin' It All Back Home.

That last one must have a certain special significance. Brown is the single mother of a 13-year-old boy, Lucas, who lives with his father in Spokane when the Senate is in session. Until he was 8, Lucas traveled to Olympia with his mother, going in and out of daycare and kindergarten. During this part of the year, she only sees him on the weekends -- and even then, the occasional Saturday floor session gets in the way.

"It's the worst part of the job," Brown says.

10:05 am

Beaver escorts me to the gallery overlooking the Senate floor. The Senate is on its feet with heads bowed as someone opens the session with a prayer. Something about not being cowed by threatening voices, leaving personal problems aside. I'm told by a large, dark-suited man with a wire in his ear that if I'm going to stay in the gallery, I have to leave my laptop bag outside. So I pull out my computer, notebook, Palm Pilot, wallet and checkbook and take them with me. This place is crawling with politicians and lobbyists. No use tempting them to take any more of my stuff, right?

10:11 am

No sooner is my laptop fired up and my legislative meeting schedule opened to the appropriate page than Harriet Spanel (D-40th Dist.) calls a Democratic caucus meeting and Jim Honeyford (R-15th Dist.) calls a Republican one. Within seconds, the Senate floor, which looked so stately before with its dark suits and neatly arranged coiffures, has turned into something more akin to a cocktail party. Brown and half of the other senators make for the curtained arches at either side of the room while the other half lingers behind, leaning back in their chairs and shooting the breeze.

Within minutes, I'm one of only a dozen people left in the room, up here in the gallery by myself. At what other job can you show up to work and then call a recess to go hang out with your friends? I briefly consider jumping down to the floor, seizing Lt. Gov. Brad Owen's gavel and acting out the speech from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A large security guard dissuades me without speaking.

10:37 am

The senators are slowly starting to filter back from their respective caucuses (cauci?), all looking like they just polished off some Moons Over My Hammy at Denny's. Some, like Sen. Brown, amble from desk to desk, chatting up their colleagues. They look like a bunch of fifth-graders just returned from recess. I wonder if they're telling each other jokes. (When I e-mail Beaver later to confirm whether or not joke-telling takes place on the floor, I get a one-line reply: "Are you kidding me?")

Meanwhile a class of actual fifth-graders has filed into the upstairs gallery across the floor from me. They look bored out of their minds as a tour guide motions wanly at them with outstretched arms.

10:45 am

Lt. Gov. Owen brings the Senate back into order with a sharp rap of the gavel. He introduces the kids in the gallery, who are recognized by their senator, Jim Kastama (D-25th Dist.). A round of tepid applause from the Senate floor. This kind of thing will go on at intervals all day. A class of fifth-graders. Some high school basketball players. I wonder what it takes to get recognized? If I did 50 pushups in front of everyone, would they recognize me, too? (Who am I kidding? I can't do 50 pushups.)

Finally, some legislating: Sen. Pam Roach (R-31st Dist.) introduces an amendment to Senate Bill 5219, which would change the date of the primary election. She and Kastama face off on the issue for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, not a single senator appears to be listening, at least not actively. Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-24th Dist.) is leaning back in his chair, wheeling around in half-circles. Others are talking to their neighbors. Still others are talking on the phone, staring at their laptops or passing notes via maroon-coated Senate pages.

Owen asks that all in favor say "Aye" and the senators respond with the barking approval of a band of pirates. Some, like Sen. Luke Esser (R-48th Dist.), giggle at the ferocity of the call; so do the children in the gallery. The "Nos" appear to bark even more loudly, and the amendment is put to a hand count, with each side standing up in turn and the officials at the front squinting their eyes and poking toward the floor with their index fingers. Isn't there a better way to do this? Even Spokane's city council has a more sophisticated method for counting votes. Sen. Brown stands with the "Nos," and the amendment is defeated 24-23. A week later, the whole bill is defeated.

Brown says that unlike the House, which she describes as "more of a team sport," the Senate is always unpredictable. Here, "you can't take votes for granted" on either side of the aisle and even though both Dems and Republicans are briefed by their caucus leader before a bill hits the floor, she says you never know which way any one senator will vote until the "Ayes" and "Nos" are barked out.

11:08 am

Now nothing in particular is happening. Quiet chaos reigns. Sen. Brown sits on a leather couch at the back of the hall, chatting with a colleague. In the meantime, a small coterie of Mrs. Washington beauty contestants -- Mrs. Kirkland, Mrs. Tacoma, Mrs. Olympia -- has filed into my side of the gallery, tiaras, sashes and everything. They are the highest form of lobbyist. But even they are unable to elicit anything more than a begrudging recognition from the floor. What's the matter with these people?

12:27 pm

The floor session collapses after the recognition of a Pierce County high school basketball team. Most of the senators shuffle to the wings. The rest head downstairs for a meeting of the Rules Committee.

In a high-ceilinged, well-appointed meeting room, under huge light fixtures, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen presides over 20-some senators all looking to get certain bills heard on the Senate floor. Going around the table, each senator, starting with Brown, briskly summarizes a different bill -- one that would provide assistance to babies born with an addiction to meth, one that would encourage regional contracting, one that would fund a classroom unit on the role of women in World War II -- each beginning with the same phrase: "Thank you, Mr. President. A bill doing blah blah blah..." Only a very few receive a verbal "No" from the other senators.

Brown says that the remainder of the session will be dominated by budget talks (as is the case every other year), but that she still has a few bills which she hopes will see floor time. One, House Bill 1515, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, at the state level (a similar ordinance is already in place in Spokane). Another is Senate Bill 5397, which would align Washington's vehicle emissions standards with those of California and a handful of other states. She says both are still "up in the air" -- either way they go, there'll be a fight.

12:54 pm

Brown and I skip up the steps from the Rules Committee meeting downstairs, through the atrium under the massive rotunda and back to her office. I get my first sense of how the legislative cycle works when Randy Revelle, from the state's Mental Health Association, pops in to offer an update on the status of the mental health parity bill, which has been up at the top of the senator's priority list for years.

Brown says the bill would require insurance companies that "cover you from the neck down also cover you from the neck up," meaning that they would cover mental health treatment the same way they do physical ailments. As budget chair, Brown says she worked on phasing in mental health coverage for state employees, while the bill to provide coverage to all state citizens couldn't even get off the floor. Last year she private-sponsored the bill, and it passed in both the Senate and the House. It was a case, she says, in which the "[Democratic] majority made the difference."

Revelle informs her that Gov. Gregoire is all set to sign the bill into law (two days later she does). Brown looks thrilled. In five minutes, we have gone from just trying to get bills discussed to seeing one actually become the law of the state.

12:58 pm

Sen. Brown meets with a representative from the Washington State Council of Firefighters, who expresses his concern over whether his pet bill (which provides retirement funds for first responders) will get out of the Ways & amp; Means committee, the Senate's budgetary arm. Brown says that because the bill would have a notable impact on the yet-to-be-hammered-out budget, it probably will. Today is the deadline for all bills to make it out of Ways & amp; Means; any bill that doesn't make the cut today is declared dead. A television in the corner of the senator's office is broadcasting the proceedings, which are taking place just across the street. Everyone expects that the hearings will go late into the night.

The firefighters' lobbyist leaves. Later, I ask Brown how her job has changed since becoming the Senate Democrats' leader. Now, she says, "Everybody's problem is my problem." With a smile she adds, "But that's OK."

1:02 pm

The senator heads to lunch in the basement of the legislative building; I'm not invited.

2:58 pm

Ten Gonzaga University students on spring break drop in to talk to the senator. They're accompanied by two cameramen from MTV, who are working on a series about young people trying to make a difference in the world. The difference this bunch is trying to effect has to do with the Supreme Court case being heard the next day, which could ultimately make gay marriage legal in Washington. The students thank Sen. Brown for being one of the few legislators, back in 1998, to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (the law to be questioned in court the next day). They also urge her to support House Bill 1515, the bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Brown, leaning against her desk, says that HB 1515 "is a bill I support very much." She says she hopes the rights granted in Spokane will extend to the rest of the state. Gonzaga student Ryan Brown whispers in my ear, "I love this woman so much."

One of the students wraps it up by saying, "This means the world to people like us. I hope you think of people like us who just want to fall in love with somebody." Another adds: "To deny us our ability to marry is to deny us our humanity."

The students file out (though not before ogling the record collection in the corner), and the cameramen thrust video release forms at the two of us left in the office.

I ask Brown if she'll be out in front of the Temple of Justice tomorrow, protest sign in hand. She says "No," but adds that 20 years ago, she would've been there. In fact, it was through activism that the senator first got into politics.

She tells me, over pastries at Rockwood Bakery a few weeks later, that it was a combination of a good Catholic upbringing and an inspiring high school teacher that got her involved in grassroots politics. She was particularly involved in issues surrounding the U.S. presence in Latin America in the late 1970s. Jumping into mainstream politics in 1992, after 20 years of teaching at Eastern, was almost an afterthought. She and her friends didn't decide that she should run for office until the last week of filing.

How is it different? "I've been getting more accustomed to incremental change," she says. Still, she insists that close contact between grassroots organizations and mainstream politicians is essential to good government.

3:20 pm

Sen. Brown meets with officials from the Washington Education Association, then with Rep. Timm Ormsby, also of the 3rd District. I'm not invited to these, either, though Brown tells me afterward that she and Ormsby talked about finding money for restoring the Fox Theater downtown, among other things.

Being both the head of the Senate Democrats and an ordinary senator representing Spokane is not without its challenges. Besides fielding calls from concerned Spokanites, says Brown, "I get contacted from just about everybody for just about anything in Washington state."

To keep in touch with the 3rd District and the needs of the larger region, she says she tries to "foster a team mentality" with other regional legislators, hosting lunch meetings with the likes of Ormsby and Rep. Alex Wood, and even Republicans like Rep. Brad Benson, Sen. Bob McCaslin and others.

Besides, she says being in such a position of authority gives her a larger "bird's-eye view" of the state issues affecting Spokane.

4:01 pm

Finally, a meeting I can sit in on -- though 10 minutes later, I'm wishing I was still out in the hall playing Minesweeper on the laptop. Brown is strategizing with the Dems' deputy chief of staff, Peter Rex, about making appointments to various committees and boards -- the Commission on Aging, the National Conference of State Legislators in Seattle. This is another of her newer responsibilities as Democratic leader. But I don't know any of these people they're talking about, nor what any of these commissions do. While I pretend to listen, I jot down "Sen. Brown: shiny black pumps, mid-length black skirt." Political journalism at its best.

4:21 pm

I'm shooed out of the office again.

4:26 pm

I spot the senator with one of her aides, walking briskly out on the Capitol campus and wearing bright white running shoes. Aides and secretaries -- even some of the Gonzaga students -- have been insisting all day that she get out for a walk. Twelve-hour days are routine for her, as business and pleasure blend without boundaries. Lunch isn't just lunch; it's another meeting. So's dinner. So is this walk, no doubt. When she finally crashes tonight, in her little one-bedroom houseboat on the Sound, thinking of her kid back in Spokane, it will almost be time to wake up again.

In that light, I guess I'll let her walk. I had briefly considered dropping out of a tree in front of her and snapping one of those "candid" photos the readers love, but I suspect that might make me even less popular than I already am.

4:48 pm

I run out of questions for Neil Beaver, the senator's iron-jawed legislative aide, and decide to bother Democratic caucus leader Harriet Spanel for a while. I tell her that she used to be my senator, that I have some questions for her, does she have a moment? She recoils a little, with panic in her eyes, and I realize I never actually introduced myself.

I ask her about Brown's strengths as the Democratic leader. "She's very bright and thinks very quickly on her feet," she says. "And those are important skills around here." But what else is she going to say?

5:06 pm

Weekly meetings with business and labor leaders (I'm not invited), then another with a tall bald press director named Johan. I'm invited to this one, but after eight hours of waiting, watching and waiting some more, I'm too tired to care what Johan has to say.

5:21 pm

Press call to Warren Cornwall of the Seattle Times. I gather they're talking about SB 5397, the vehicle emissions bill. Brown says she's very interested in bio-diesel technology.

5:36 pm

I'm getting tired of the Capitol, and I can tell that Brown is getting tired of having a reporter following her every move, stalking her on the Capitol campus, filling her every spare moment with inane questions, pestering her about private meetings. Before I leave, I thank her for everything -- you know, looking for some kind of closure. I tell her I'll call her later with some follow-up questions. "OK, yes," she says, and turns quickly around, back into her office, into yet another private meeting, another appointment in her seemingly endless day, tilting toward another day in the life of one of the most powerful Democrats in the state.

5:38 pm

I need directions from two different people just to get out of the building and find my rental car.


THE INLANDER: What are the three biggest issues facing Washington right now?

SEN. LISA BROWN: 1. We must create sustainable economic development that results in good jobs with benefits. 2. Our students and families deserve excellent education from preschool through graduate school and more opportunities for training for trades and professions. 3. Even in the face of federal budget cuts, we need to move forward on affordable, accessible health care and a morally responsible social safety net.

INLANDER: How about the 3rd District?

BROWN: As our region recovers from structural job losses in mining, agriculture and aluminum, we are creating a vision of a new economy that will generate jobs in research and technology, health care, energy and recreation. I want our state policies to support this vision. We have to stand up for our share of state resources in education, and critical health and human services, such as mental health and child care. Our river, lakes and air must be cleaned up and protected for our health, for our children and for our future as a destination for outdoor activities and recreation.

INLANDER: How would you characterize the state of Washington's economy today?

BROWN: Our economy is definitely on the rebound, as evidenced by [the latest] revenue forecast, which jumped up $739 million -- the largest quarterly increase our state has ever seen. However, we still face challenges from federal budget cuts, jobs being outsourced and our non-competitive tax structure.

INLANDER: Split the state in two, or keep it as is?

BROWN: The fact that we have the diversity of the West side and the East side, as well as the urban and the rural, makes Washington a stronger state. It would be a disservice to people on both sides of the state to split Washington in two.

INLANDER: How is Gov. Gregoire doing so far?

BROWN: I am pleased with how willing she has been to work with the Legislature and ask for our input. She has acted quickly to prepare the state for the BRAC process and for the drought emergency.

INLANDER: What's your opinion on HB 1515 (which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation)? On the Defense of Marriage Act?

BROWN: I support HB 1515. The citizens of Spokane have already voted to affirm non-discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation. These protections should be extended to everyone in Washington state.

I do not support DOMA. I respect the fact that marriage is viewed differently within different religious traditions. I believe in strongly upholding religious freedom and personal freedoms as spelled out in the Bill of Rights. I do not believe, however, that the institution of marriage, as a civil contract administered by the state, is under attack or needs to be defended by state law or constitutional amendment.

INLANDER: What can aquifer users on the Washington side do to protect it?

BROWN: To protect the aquifer from the refueling depot or any activities that could threaten the quality of region's drinking water, Washington residents need to try to work more closely with Idaho residents.

Regarding water quantity, people in Spokane can safeguard our future by reducing water use, especially on lawns. According to studies done by the county, urban irrigation by Spokane residents makes up between 35 [percent] to 40 percent of water used from the aquifer. Currently, I am working on securing funding to continue the bi-state aquifer study.

Comments? Send them totheeditor@inlander.com

Publication date: 03/31/05

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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs Inlander.com and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...