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Excerpt: “Getting Elected Is the Easy Part”

The Washington State Capitol

“Although an overt threat is never clearly articulated, the potential for serious political consequences makes it all the more trepidatious to consider crossing the aisle on a big bill where every vote is counted and closely watched.”

Editor’s note: The following chapter on working across the aisle is an excerpt taken from Washington state senator Karen Keiser’s book Getting Elected is the Easy Part: Working and Winning in the State Legislature, which was published in July. 

“It is not only important but mentally invigorating to discuss political matters with people whose opinions differ radically from one’s own.” —Eleanor Roosevelt

When I first got to the legislature in 1995, most moderate Republican women were still pro-choice. There was no formal women’s caucus, but we did gather occasionally, Democrats and Republicans alike, to share drinks and stories and strategies.

The women who had been in the legislature before or shortly after the 1992 Year of the Woman called themselves the MOB—which stood for Mean Old Bitches. They were tough, strong, amazing women. Ida Ballasiotes, Maryann Mitchell, and Shirley Winsley were some of the Republican members who were part of the pro-choice MOB, along with amazingly able Democratic lawmakers like Helen Sommers, Ruth Fisher, Mary Margaret Haugen, and Valoria Loveland. In the parlance of the day, they proudly considered themselves “tough old broads.”

That was then, and I confess I am rather nostalgic about those times and those women. The ground has shifted since, and it is dogma now for Republican women to be strictly anti-abortion and anti-choice.

The Washington State House of Representatives has 98 members, the Senate 49, and each chamber has a distinct culture. Both chambers have a wide center aisle, with the bulk of each caucus sitting on one side or the other, depending on which side holds the majority of seats. In the wings off the side of each chamber is a room for caucusing—the party in the majority has the larger caucus room to accommodate its larger membership.

Working across the aisle, though less frequent than it once was, is a long valued practice in the Senate. In the House, it is much rarer, and party-line votes on major bills are common.

While there is a world of difference between our United States Senate and House of Representatives in Washington D.C. and our state Senate and House in Olympia, they enjoy many of the same conceits. George Washington is said to have told Thomas Jefferson, “We pour our legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it,” and a similar approach can be found in our state Senate. In contrast to the stodgy and dull upper chamber, meanwhile, both the United States House of Representatives and state House are common havens for bold and brash ideologues. With twice as many members, the House caucus leadership on both sides of the aisle has traditionally been paternalistic, sending clear messages to members to stick with the caucus position on bills—or else. Although an overt threat is never clearly articulated, the potential for serious political consequences makes it all the more trepidatious to consider crossing the aisle on a big bill where every vote is counted and closely watched. When a member from the House is appointed or elected to a seat in the Senate, he or she is often referred to as “House-broken.” It is not meant as a compliment.

Nevertheless, most bills in a legislative session are not strictly partisan. Dozens of “good little bills” that often amount to housekeeping or updating existing laws can provide opportunities to build bridges across the aisle. Bridges that build trust and respect are necessary for a successful legislative career. To pass major legislation you hope will stand the test of time, bipartisan support is usually needed.

For example, when I started on my quest to achieve paid family and medical leave, it was considered a fairly radical proposal. Eventually, I persuaded two Republicans to vote for the bill in the Senate on the first version that passed in 2007, only to see it amended into a dead-end “study bill” in the House. It took nearly another decade for the landmark legislation to pass into law. Senate Democrats were in the minority at the time, so they were dependent on Republican support and leadership to negotiate an agreed-to bill that won solid bipartisan backing. The Washington State Family and Medical Leave Act has been successfully implemented and today offers a template on how to achieve significant change and provide true improvement for the people of the state. But it took intense negotiations and weeks of back-and forth bargaining to get it done. A huge amount of groundwork by advocates and the threat to take the issue to the ballot as an initiative helped too.

When we were working on health care reform, the issue became very partisan. Once the Affordable Care Act (colloquially known as Obamacare) was passed in 2009, the effort to implement it fully in Washington state eventually led to the creation of the Washington State Health Exchange. It was a difficult fight. In 2011, we finally passed SB 5445, establishing the exchange, but only by a slim 27 to 22 vote in the Senate, where 25 votes are necessary for passage. It would not have made it without the help of Senator Cheryl Pflug, a registered nurse and a Republican member on the Senate Health Care Committee. Pflug later voted for marriage equality as well, and faced with an increasingly hostile Republican caucus, she left the Senate not long afterward.

Sadly, extreme partisanship is a growing divide that threatens constructive legislative solutions. It is less glaring in state legislatures than in Congress, but, unfortunately, the divide on ideological issues, such as reproductive rights and climate change, seems to be growing wider. I have heard a Republican state legislator from West Virginia say they get their party-line talking points every morning from Washington D.C.

Despite the sense of frustration and resignation that settles on a caucus when struggling with partisan disputes, it pays to try to forge agreement. Every member brings his or her own special expertise, life experiences, and interests that can inspire new energies for bipartisan effort. But it takes reaching out, building trust, and good-faith efforts, sometimes over many years. It does not always work. But sometimes it does.

In 2016, Senate Democrats were again in the minority, and I was assigned to the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee as its ranking member. (That means you are the lead committee member from the minority party, the much less powerful counterpart to the committee chair from the majority party who controls the committee and its agenda.)

In this case, the chair was a bright and profoundly conservative Republican and so anti-labor that he introduced a so-called “right-to-work” bill to undercut severely union rights in workplaces across the state. His bill provoked one of the biggest protest rallies from union members in years, which I suspect  was his goal; perhaps he wanted the attention more than the bill, which had precious little chance of passage.

Meanwhile, I introduced a bill to accommodate pregnant women in the workplace by according to them the right to sit while at work, to take needed restroom breaks, and to be assigned lighter-duty tasks as appropriate. As a father of several children, the chair had at least some knowledge of the temporary physical issues faced by some pregnant women, including his wife, and he recognized the merits of my bill.

Working together, we were able to negotiate a Pregnancy Accommodation Act. The sweetener came when I accepted the Republicans’ opposition to having the act enforced by the state agency that monitors labor standards. We agreed instead that the state Attorney General would be the enforcement agency. Well guess what? The Attorney General’s Office is a very proactive and strong enforcement agency, and the first few years of the law’s existence have seen dozens of cases resolved in favor of pregnant employees. Pregnancy accommodation is now an accepted workplace standard and employer obligation in our state. This “Healthy Starts Act” had its first trial victory in January of 2021, when FedEx contractor Sarai Alhasawi asked to be relieved of the requirement to lift 50-pound boxes because of her pregnancy. Her manager refused and fired her. Alhasawi’s case was prosecuted by the Attorney General in court, and the judge ordered her employer not only to pay all back wages and expenses but also $25,000 for emotional distress.

Another good example of bipartisan negotiations came during our efforts, over several years, on ways to curb cost increases for prescription drugs. In 2014, we passed the All Payer Claims Database as a first step to get real cost data on what we are paying for in health care. In 2019, we passed the Prescription Transparency Act, which requires disclosure of prescription drug costs at every step of the way to the patient. But, still, the price of insulin—a drug hundreds of thousands of diabetics have relied on daily for their survival  for decades—continues to increase.

Working with the formidable House chair of health care, Representative Eileen Cody, we devised a strategy to get two key bills passed into law. Representative Cody is a master of working with her Republican health care committee members and winning their support. On this issue, she had developed legislation to curb the unwarranted price increases for insulin—but instead of sponsoring the bill herself, she invited a young Republican lawmaker with a son who had recently been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes to sponsor it. The issue resonated with Representative Jacquelin Maycumber, and she championed the legislation passionately in the House.

Meanwhile, I had two related bills moving through the Senate floor. One, to cap insulin out-of-pocket costs, passed on a vote of 34 to 14 with only Republicans voting in opposition. But when Representative Maycumber’s insulin bill came over to the Senate, it passed unanimously. The difference? Legislators early in their careers need to build a record of effectiveness, and Republicans were willing to put aside their ideological reservations to give their young colleague a clear-cut accomplishment she could tout when running for reelection.

Here is another example. For decades, the legislature had been in an argument with itself—based not on partisan lines but on a constituent and personal level—about the future of the large institutional residential care system for a small part of the state’s intellectually and developmentally disabled (I/DD) community. While about 800 I/DD clients were receiving long-term residential care at our four large Residential Habilitation Center campuses, some 12,000 eligible I/DD clients were receiving no state-funded services. Complicating the dispute was a change in federal policy to support community-based care rather than institution-based care. Since the care is paid through a fifty-fifty share of state and federal funding, the loss of federal dollars would have decimated our residential centers. It was both a budget threat and a threat to the families and stakeholders who wanted to keep their loved ones in the familiar lodgings where they had lived for decades. Into this highly emotional and costly dispute, I worked with my Republican colleague, Senator John Braun, to engage in an 18-month dialogue with all parties to reach an agreement.

John and I worked together in good faith to pass a legislative seal of approval bill on the recommended solutions and to begin a funding shift in our operating budget to provide enhanced community care as well as more appropriate care for elderly clients who needed skilled nursing care. This was a long slog of a process, and ultimately we turned to the William D. Ruckelshaus Center—a mediation service through the University of Washington  and Washington State University named after Watergate hero and Washington state resident Bill Ruckelshaus—to help resolve decades of acrimony and disputes. In the end, the votes in both chambers were nearly unanimous.

In 2021, I was eager to work with the United Farmworkers Union to sponsor a new overtime pay law for farmworkers. When the original Fair Labor Standards Act, establishing overtime, was proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, Southern Senators refused to vote for it unless farm workers and domestic workers were exempted, and they were. Farmworkers in the South then were mostly African American, and now farmworkers are also Latina (o/x). When our state Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that dairy farms had to pay overtime to dairy employees, it opened the door to introduce a bill to extend overtime to all farmworkers in Washington state.

The hearings on SB 5172 had to be held virtually because of the pandemic, and hundreds of farmworkers, farmers, and lobbyists testified. The negotiations were long, difficult, and delicate. But by the end of the session, we were able to pass the bill with a three-year phase-in period to provide overtime pay for farmworkers. “SB 5172 will erase a racist legacy and correct an injustice that has existed for too long,” said Larry Brown, president of the Washington State Labor Council. President Joe Biden sent a statement of congratulations to the Legislature and Governor, saying this bill would help more than 100,000 farmworkers secure the overtime pay they deserved.

In keeping with my favorite baseball analogy, “you gotta have heart,” hope springs eternal in every training camp and new legislative session. It is not easy to hit a grand slam in a legislative chamber, but there have been times when it has seemed possible. Usually, one can at least get to second base. And at the beginning of every session, it is not uncommon for lawmakers to think, “This bill will be the one. This session will be the one.”

Hope is a wonderful thing.

Karen Keiser is the President pro tempore of the Washington Senate. She has served in the Washington State Legislature since 1996, in the Washington House of Representatives from 1996 to 2001 and in the Washington Senate from December, 2001 to the present. 

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