Legislators of color will have impact on 2021 session | Roegner

The 2021 session of the Legislature has kicked off with virtual participation in deference to the coronavirus.

Leadership of each legislative session usually comes from the four corners, which are the leaders of each house and party. Democrats include Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) and Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-Covington), and their Republican counterparts, Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) and Deputy Leader Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda).

In the Democratic Senate, the Majority Leader is Andy Billig (D-Spokane), and replacing Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) as Republican Minority Leader is John Braun (R-Centralia).

The State Capitol is about power and who sets the agenda. Right now, the Democrats have most of the power as they control both houses and the governor’s office. But everything comes down to money. In addition to Republican leadership, other Republicans to watch are Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver), who is on the Senate budget committee, and Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn), who is on the House budget committee. Democrats have a list of problems they want to solve, and Republicans want to avoid taxes and help business.

The four corners, along with Gov. Jay Inslee, will still set the tone and negotiate how the session unfolds — and what gets passed or scheduled for a hearing. It appears this may be a session where new leaders emerge around issues of equity and inclusion that will manifest themselves in different ways, but police reform proposals will be a high priority.

For many years, it was rare to see Black representation in the Legislature, and then primarily from Seattle or Tacoma. It has been a decade since Rosa Franklin (D-Tacoma) served in the Senate, and longer since former Husky star football player George Fleming represented Seattle as Democrat in the Senate.

But the past few elections have provided enough people of color from different cultures to fill Color Caucuses in both the House and the Senate. In the House, there are 19 members, which is about one-third of the Democratic caucus, and that gives them a major voice in shaping legislation. In the Senate, there are eight members, with half being women. Several of these legislators also hold other positions of influence. House Members of Color Caucus Chair Melanie Morgan (D-Parkland) is also Deputy Floor Leader, and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) chairs the transportation committee. And it’s not Seattle or Tacoma leading the change, as minority members represent many different areas of the state, as Morgan and Hobbs reflect.

The Members of Color Caucus members see strength in their diversity and want to create coalitions, remove barriers and stop systemic racism. The dominant topics of this session will be the coronavirus and police reform. Both areas show a disproportionate share of impact on people of color. By working as a group, the Members of Color Caucus in each chamber can influence much of the final legislation that passes. After years of patience, without change, it took the killing of George Floyd half a continent away and the deaths of other minorities (some local) to give Black Lives Matter the momentum it needed to help focus on policy changes needed at the state level.

In addition to Hobbs, other members of the Senate Members of Color Caucus to watch as leaders are Sen. Mona Das (D-Kent) from the 47th District, who will be on the housing and local government committee, and Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) from the 45th District who is on the ways and means committee. Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11th District) is a veteran legislator and chairs behavioral health. A newcomer to watch is Sen. T’wina Nobles (D-28th District) who is on the University Place School Board and head of the Tacoma Urban League and will be vice chair of two committees.

In the House, Color Caucus member John Lovick (D-Everett) is a veteran to watch, and look for leaders to emerge from the following group: Debra Entenman (D-Kent) from the 47th District; Jesse Johnson (D-Federal Way) along with seatmate Jamila Taylor (D-Federal Way) from the 30th District; April Berg (D-Mill Creek) in the 44th District; and Kirsten Harris Talley (D-Rainier Valley) of the 37th District.

Much of the campaign season and many of the pre-session debates have been devoted to education, transportation and taxes to fund projects. But much more is going on in the State Capitol. In addition to the coronavirus creating a new approach to passing laws, there have been confrontations between different citizen groups and at least one involved gunfire, and recently the media reported a militia group, the Three Percenters, was planning to occupy the legislative building as a protest against the remote nature of the session.

The governor’s mansion was the site of another confrontation, and Inslee recently called up the National Guard to be prepared in case the legislative building situation got out of hand. However, I have confidence that our local leaders will avoid the embarrassing display from our nation’s Capitol from last week. But as I said before, this session will be like none we have seen before.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.