Washington State Capitol in Olympia
Washington State Capitol in Olympia

As last month drew to a close, Seat­tle Times colum­nist Dan­ny West­neat penned a col­umn siz­ing up the recent­ly-con­clud­ed 2021 leg­isla­tive ses­sion titled: “It’s Seattle’s state now in pol­i­tics, and every­body else is liv­ing in it.” While an edi­tor pre­sum­ably wrote or approved that head­line, it does seem to gen­uine­ly sum up the colum­n’s premise, as evi­denced by its open­ing paragraphs:

“We all live in Seat­tle now.”

That was one con­ser­v­a­tive state senator’s lament over the just-con­clud­ed leg­isla­tive ses­sion in Olympia. It reflects the view — voiced here by Sen. Doug Erick­sen, R‑Ferndale — that Seattle’s brand of activist, pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics has final­ly, after years of try­ing, tak­en over the state.

“The most rad­i­cal Leg­is­la­ture in the his­to­ry of Wash­ing­ton state is forc­ing every­one to live like Seat­tle,” was how Erick­sen framed it.

I’ll get into how accu­rate this is in a minute. But there’s no ques­tion that what just went down at the state­house marked a polit­i­cal break­through of sorts — for the pro­gres­sive left.

… and the colum­n’s con­clud­ing paragraphs:

The GOP crit­ics cit­ed above are not wrong about the over­all gist of what just hap­pened, though. Seat­tle has long been the big polit­i­cal pow­er in the state, but the more mod­er­ate Leg­is­la­ture oper­at­ed for decades as its check and balance.

Many lefty ideas hatched in Seat­tle went down to the state­house, only to die or get blender­ized beyond all recognition.

Not this time. Ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, it real­ly is Seattle’s state right now. Every­body else is, for the moment, liv­ing in it.

I con­sid­er Dan­ny West­neat a thought­ful colum­nist and com­men­ta­tor who often has good insights, but the sup­po­si­tion expressed above does­n’t accu­rate­ly describe the cur­rent dynam­ics in our state­house at all.

The rea­son the 2021 leg­isla­tive ses­sion was so con­se­quen­tial and packed with pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy wins is not because Seat­tle became polit­i­cal­ly dom­i­nant in the state­house, or expe­ri­enced some sort of polit­i­cal breakthrough.

It’s because last year, vot­ers across the state elect­ed a Leg­is­la­ture that is more diverse, inclu­sive, and rep­re­sen­ta­tive than any we have ever seen before… a Leg­is­la­ture with majori­ties in each cham­ber that sup­port val­ues, prin­ci­ples, and pol­i­cy direc­tions already sup­port­ed by majori­ties of vot­ers statewide.

This Leg­is­la­ture has new mem­bers like Tar­ra Sim­mons from Kit­sap Coun­ty, the first state leg­is­la­tor to have been once incar­cer­at­ed. And T’wina Nobles from Pierce Coun­ty, whose vic­to­ry over Steve O’Ban last autumn brought rep­re­sen­ta­tion for Black women back to the Sen­ate after a mul­ti-year absence.

And Ali­cia Rule, a small busi­ness own­er from What­com Coun­ty, who took the place of an ardent Trump boost­ing Repub­li­can up in the 42nd District.

Plus leg­is­la­tors like Jami­la Tay­lor from King Coun­ty and April Berg from Sno­homish Coun­ty — two incred­i­ble women of col­or who suc­cess­ful­ly defend­ed open House seats in swing dis­tricts for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

These leg­is­la­tors joined an out­stand­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Class of 2018 that includ­ed lead­ers like My-Linh Thai (D‑41st Dis­trict), Debra Lekanoff (D‑42nd Dis­trict), Lisa Callan and Bill Ramos (D‑5th Dis­trict), Emi­ly Ran­dall (D‑26th Dis­trict), Mona Das (D‑47th Dis­trict) and Claire Wil­son (D‑30th District).

In 2017, when my state Sen­a­tor Man­ka Dhin­gra (anoth­er trail­blaz­ing leg­is­la­tor who serves as a North­west Pro­gres­sive Foun­da­tion board­mem­ber) was elect­ed in the 45th, she said in her Elec­tion Night vic­to­ry speech: “I hope to build a state gov­ern­ment that empow­ers every sin­gle per­son in Wash­ing­ton to feel like they have a voice, like they have a role to play in mak­ing our democ­ra­cy thrive.”

That is exact­ly what she and her col­leagues in the Leg­is­la­ture have been doing these past few years. Begin­ning with Sen­a­tor Dhin­gra’s arrival in the Sen­ate almost four years ago, the flood­gates of the Leg­is­la­ture opened, and out poured waves of pro­gres­sive bills that have strength­ened our communities.

In four ses­sions (2018, 2019, 2020, 2021) the Leg­is­la­ture has — to name just a few areas of progress — strength­ened vot­ing rights, advanced envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and racial jus­tice, improved our upside down tax code, bol­stered police account­abil­i­ty, made col­lege more acces­si­ble and afford­able, expand­ed health­care, and added much need­ed pro­tec­tions for work­ers and tenants.

These are pri­or­i­ties shared by peo­ple all over Wash­ing­ton, not just folks in Seat­tle. Look at the make­up of our state’s exec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship. Look at who’s prime spon­sor­ing the bills and shep­herd­ing them through the leg­isla­tive process. Look at all of the sup­port­ive tes­ti­mo­ny for the bills.

As Lisa Brown point­ed out after she read West­neat’s col­umn, we have a geo­graph­i­cal­ly diverse leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship team: A House Speak­er from Taco­ma, a Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader from Spokane, and five out of six bud­get chairs who aren’t from Seat­tle. Brown could have added that we have Demo­c­ra­t­ic floor lead­ers from Van­cou­ver and Muk­il­teo along with whips from Spokane and Bremerton.

Sev­en out of nine mem­bers of the state’s exec­u­tive depart­ment do not live in King Coun­ty. Seat­tle may feel in many ways like the state’s polit­i­cal pow­er cen­ter, espe­cial­ly with respect to the move­ment of mon­ey to and through campaigns.

But the real­i­ty is this: Ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, Wash­ing­ton is as much Pouls­bo and Spokane and Lake­wood and Red­mond’s state right now as it is Seattle’s.

Seat­tle vot­ers did­n’t elect any of the law­mak­ers I named above. They were all elect­ed in dis­tricts that don’t have a sin­gle Emer­ald City neigh­bor­hood in them. And their con­tri­bu­tions have been absolute­ly pro­found, as any­one who has been inter­act­ing with the Leg­is­la­ture in recent years can sure­ly attest.

I wrote above that recent leg­isla­tive elec­tions (in 2017, 2018, and 2020) have giv­en us a Leg­is­la­ture with majori­ties in each cham­ber that sup­port val­ues, prin­ci­ples, and pol­i­cy direc­tions already sup­port­ed by majori­ties of vot­ers statewide.

I know this to be true because of NPI’s research.

For many years now, includ­ing dur­ing the entire­ty of the times­pan I referred to, NPI has been ask­ing Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers about their views on issue after issue after issue, from levy­ing a cap­i­tal gains tax to abol­ish­ing the death penal­ty to pass­ing com­pre­hen­sive sex ed. And con­sis­tent­ly, we have found sup­port for pro­gres­sive poli­cies, typ­i­cal­ly rang­ing from around 57% to 75% or more.

For exam­ple, here’s where vot­ers stood on school fund­ing after ses­sion last year:

School funding poll finding (May of 2020)

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree with the fol­low­ing state­ment: Wash­ing­ton’s pub­lic schools are under­fund­ed, and we need to raise state rev­enue to ful­ly fund them?


  • Agree: 60%
    • Strong­ly agree: 35%
    • Some­what agree: 25%
  • Dis­agree: 31% 
    • Some­what dis­agree: 15%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 16%
  • Not Sure: 9%

Asked May 19th-20th, 2020 (1,070 like­ly vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling; MoE +/- 3.0% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval)

And here’s where they stood on cap­i­tal gains at the same juncture:

Capital gains tax poll finding (May of 2020)

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose, or strong­ly oppose tax­ing the cap­i­tal gains of wealthy indi­vid­u­als to help pay for pub­lic schools, col­leges and universities?


  • Sup­port: 59% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 42%
    • Some­what sup­port: 17%
  • Oppose: 32%
    • Some­what oppose: 11%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 21%
  • Not Sure: 9%

Asked May 19th-20th, 2020 (1,070 like­ly vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling; MoE +/- 3.0% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval)

And here’s how vot­ers felt about just cause evic­tion (requir­ing land­lords to state a rea­son pri­or to evict­ing some­one from a home):

Just cause eviction poll finding (May of 2020)

QUESTION: Under cur­rent state law, land­lords may evict ten­ants with­out pro­vid­ing a rea­son. Do you strong­ly agree, some­what agree, some­what dis­agree, or strong­ly dis­agree that the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture should improve land­lord-ten­ant rela­tion­ships by requir­ing land­lords to give a rea­son when attempt­ing to move some­one out of a home?


  • Agree: 60%
    • Strong­ly agree: 36%
    • Some­what agree: 24%
  • Oppose: 34%
    • Some­what dis­agree: 14%
    • Strong­ly dis­agree: 20%
  • Not Sure: 6%

Asked May 19th-20th, 2020 (1,070 like­ly vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling; MoE +/- 3.0% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval)

And here’s an old­er poll find­ing from 2016 about putting a price on pollution:

Cap and trade poll finding (June of 2016)

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose imple­ment­ing a cap-and-trade sys­tem, where pol­luters would be charged a fee to reduce car­bon diox­ide emis­sions and fund pub­lic schools and trans­porta­tion projects?


  • Sup­port: 59% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 37%
    • Some­what sup­port: 22%
  • Oppose: 36%
    • Some­what oppose: 13%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 23%
  • Not Sure: 4%

Asked June 14th-15th, 2016 (679 like­ly vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling; MoE +/- 3.8% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval)

Now, you might be think­ing, wait a minute… that last poll find­ing is from 2016! That’s five years ago! And yes, that’s true… this is a five year old poll find­ing. That speaks to how long a major­i­ty of vot­ers have been ready for cli­mate action!

We ask about views on leg­is­la­tion to address cli­mate jus­tice every year and always find a major­i­ty of like­ly Wash­ing­ton vot­ers in sup­port of putting a price in pol­lu­tion, whether through a Green New Deal at the fed­er­al lev­el, or a pol­lu­tion tax at the state lev­el, or cap and invest/cap and trade at the state level.

This par­tic­u­lar ques­tion specif­i­cal­ly men­tions cap and trade and was asked before Don­ald Trump was installed in the White House by the Elec­toral Col­lege, so it makes sense to cir­cle back to in light of the Leg­is­la­ture’s pas­sage of E2SSB 5126.

Let’s con­sid­er anoth­er issue, one very recent­ly on the ballot.

Last year, when the Leg­is­la­ture passed a bill requir­ing schools to pro­vide com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al edu­ca­tion, Repub­li­can law­mak­ers threw a giant tem­per tantrum on the floor of the House and Sen­ate. After the bill passed, they and their allies insti­gat­ed a sig­na­ture dri­ve to force the leg­is­la­tion onto the bal­lot for a pub­lic vote, con­fi­dent it would be over­turned, and con­fi­dent they would ben­e­fit elec­toral­ly from a pub­lic back­lash to the bill. But there was­n’t one.

We antic­i­pat­ed that there would not be any back­lash based on our polling, which found two out of three vot­ers (a super­ma­jor­i­ty) in sup­port of the bill.

Comprehensive sex ed poll finding (October of 2019)

QUESTION: The Wash­ing­ton State Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion has asked the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture to adopt leg­is­la­tion requir­ing all Wash­ing­ton state schools to teach inclu­sive, evi­dence-informed, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly accu­rate, com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al health edu­ca­tion, which must include “affir­ma­tive con­sent” cur­ricu­lum. Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose this legislation?


  • Sup­port: 67% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 49%
    • Some­what sup­port: 18%
  • Oppose: 22%
    • Some­what oppose: 7%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 15%
  • Not sure: 11%

Asked Octo­ber 22nd-23rd, 2019 (900 like­ly vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling; MoE +/- 3.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval)

A year lat­er, as bal­lots were about to drop, we checked back in with voters.

Referendum 90 poll finding (October of 2020)

QUESTION: Ref­er­en­dum 90, on the cur­rent statewide bal­lot, con­cerns com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al health edu­ca­tion. The offi­cial descrip­tion is as fol­lows: This bill would require school dis­tricts to adopt or devel­op, con­sis­tent with state stan­dards, com­pre­hen­sive age-appro­pri­ate sex­u­al health edu­ca­tion, as defined, for all stu­dents, and excuse stu­dents if their par­ents request. Are you vot­ing Approved or Reject­ed on this referendum?


  • Vot­ing Approved: 56%
  • Vot­ing Reject­ed: 33%
  • Not sure: 11%

Asked Octo­ber 14th-15th, 2020 (610 like­ly vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling; MoE +/-4.0% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval)

A few weeks lat­er, the actu­al elec­tion results were certified:

Ref­er­en­dum 90

  • Approved: 57.82% (2,283,630 votes)
  • Reject­ed: 42.18% (1,665,906 votes)

Most of the vot­ers who weren’t sure evi­dent­ly decid­ed to vote to reject R‑90, but some joined the Approved camp, pro­pelling it to an even high­er per­cent­age in the actu­al elec­tion. Our polling was cor­rect and the returns in the Novem­ber 2020 elec­tion proved it — to the shock of quite a few Repub­li­cans.

At NPI, we love data. We believe in research-dri­ven advo­ca­cy. That’s why we reg­u­lar­ly take the pulse of the elec­torate through sur­veys con­duct­ed by trust­ed part­ners. We learn a lot from check­ing in reg­u­lar­ly with voters.

Those “lib­er­al dreams that have been bol­lixed up in Olympia for­ev­er” (to use West­neat’s words) sim­ply need­ed a more diverse, inclu­sive, and rep­re­sen­ta­tive Leg­is­la­ture to get due con­sid­er­a­tion and pas­sage. In 2020, vot­ers tipped the scales and gave the Leg­is­la­ture work­ing majori­ties that are more in align­ment with their own views on a long, long, long list of issues.

As West­neat acknowl­edged a lit­tle lat­er in his col­umn: “A lot of this stuff is plain over­due.” Pre­cise­ly! Vot­ers have been ready for the pro­gres­sive wins we saw this ses­sion for a long time. We just did­n’t have a tru­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive Leg­is­la­ture capa­ble of act­ing on many of them. That is the key fac­tor explain­ing why this ses­sion was dif­fer­ent than so many that came before. That is what’s changing.

And thank goodness!

It’s under­stand­able that Trump-lov­ing Repub­li­cans like Doug Erick­sen don’t like this one bit. But it def­i­nite­ly does­n’t mean that “we all live in Seat­tle now.”

What it actu­al­ly means is that we have a respon­sive state gov­ern­ment attuned to the needs and wish­es of the peo­ple: a state gov­ern­ment that is more pol­i­cy-ori­ent­ed than pol­i­tics-ori­ent­ed. We’re get­ting action instead of theater.

That’s some­thing I have want­ed to see for pret­ty much all of my life, for as long as I’ve been old enough to under­stand what gov­ern­ment is, and can do.

It’s a beau­ti­ful thing.

While there is much more work that needs to be done to build a bet­ter Wash­ing­ton, we are unques­tion­ably mak­ing progress, and that is what con­scious pro­gres­sive lead­er­ship from across our state can do for us.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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