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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Legislature sees record diversity as majority Democrats pledge focus on equity

Austin Jenkins
NW News Network
Advocates for police accountability and racial justice rallied on the steps of the Washington Capitol in June. Now the Washington Legislature is taking up those issues as it welcomes a record number of lawmakers of color.

This year, the Washington State Legislature has welcomed a record number of lawmakers of color, including a record number of Black lawmakers who are all Democrats.

The increasing diversity comes in the wake of last year’s civil rights protests and amid ongoing demands for police accountability and racial justice.

It also comes as Gov. Jay Inslee and majority Democrats in the Legislature are pledging to apply an “equity lens” to their budgeting and policy making.

In December, Inslee unveiled what he called a “historic equity policy package” for the upcoming legislative session. Among his proposals was to create an independent office to investigate police excessive force, fund a new state office of equity, and establish Juneteenth as a state holiday to celebrate the end of American chattel slavery. 

Inslee is also championing a bill this year that would end the practice of using credit scores to set insurance rates – something the Democratic governor has compared to the historic practice of denying mortgages based on race and ethnicity, known as redlining. 

“It’s just wrong, it is just wrong to use that sort of discriminatory basis to jack up people’s insurance rates in the state of Washington,” Inslee said at a recent news conference. “It’s time for us to right that wrong.”

Inslee’s focus on equity coincides with the arrival of the most diverse Legislature in state history. While the Republican caucuses remain almost entirely white, Washington House Democrats now have 19 members of color, representing 33 percent of their caucus. And Democrats in the Washington Senate have eight members of color, which is nearly 30 percent of their caucus, also a highwater mark.

This year there are also nine Black members of the Legislature, a number not seen before, including T’wina Nobles who is the first Black state senator in a decade.

“What I love already about the increased diversity is even though I’m the only Black person on the Senate side, we …. have a bicameral Black Members Caucus,” Nobles said. “It’s all the Black House members, plus they invited me.”

Historically, the Washington Legislature has been predominantly white and male – from statehood to 2013 there were only 17 Black Washington lawmakers, according to the Secretary of State’s office

Over the decades, more and more women ran for the Legislature and were elected bringing gender diversity to the Capitol. Today, women make up 41.5 percent of the Legislature placing Washington among the top 10 of states, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. 

But racial diversity – in a state that is predominantly white -- has come slowly. Until recently.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Nguyen, who’s the state’s first Vietnamese American senator, said when he arrived in Olympia in 2019, there were “very, very few people of color in the Legislature.”

Now, as he begins his third session, Nguyen said there’s enough diversity to hear a diversity of opinions among the members of color.

“It’s a good problem to have, having so many members that are in this caucus now where we can have these robust conversations,” Nguyen said.

This year, Nguyen is focused on rolling back Great Recession-era restrictions on programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which he said have resulted in Black families being disproportionately terminated from the program.

The increasing diversity in the Legislature isn’t limited to Washington. This year, the Wisconsin Legislature is also seeing a historic level of Black representation

However, nationally, Black people still make up less than 10 percent of the nation’s nearly 7,500 state lawmakers, according to Governing Magazine

But even as the Washington Legislature diversifies, myriad challenges remain. Nobles, for instance, has already observed a lack of diversity among the members of the public who participate in the legislative process.

“I do see a lot of gaps, a lot of folks missing,” Nobles said. To address this, Nobles said she’s proactively looking for ways to engage a more diverse group of constituents.

Just three weeks into her term, Nobles is also already identifying cultural norms in the Legislature that she finds concerning. For instance, she said, she’s discovered there’s a stigma about accepting legislator per diem, especially now that lawmakers are mostly working from home. But Nobles said she’s had to hire someone to help her nine-year-old son navigate the school day while she legislates from home.

“Folks should not have to worry about [whether] people going to talk about me if I legit ask for a reimbursement of expenses associated with doing this work,” Nobles said.

Another newly elected Black member of the Legislature, state Rep. Jamila Taylor, said she feels an urgency to address police accountability, as well as the disparities – both health-related and economic – that the pandemic has revealed.

“We are at an inflection point and the moment is now, the urgency is now,” Taylor said.

Besides championing issues like police reform and “just cause” eviction policies, Taylor said she’s also focused on ensuring that all of the talk about applying an “equity lens” to the work of the Legislature translates into actual action.

“It’s a new muscle that some of our legislators are exercising and it’s going to take some time to really get that into action and solidified as part of our body of work,” Taylor said.

Nguyen, the Vietnamese American state senator, has a similar concern that the lawmakers will “do just enough to make ourselves feel good, but not actually solve the problem.”

Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins, the state’s first woman and openly gay speaker, acknowledges the hard work ahead. She said her goal is to make the legislative process itself -- not just the laws that are passed -- more equitable.

“It’s about a sense of belonging for every single person and every voice,” Jinkins said at Seattle City Club’s Legislative Preview in early January.

To that end, Jinkins said, she’s convened a Speaker’s Equity Council to advise her.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."