Media & Culture

Book Review: Getting Elected is the Easy Part offers practical advice and political wisdom

Wash­ing­ton State Sen­a­tor Karen Keis­er, the author of Get­ting Elect­ed is the Easy Part: Work­ing and Win­ning in the State Leg­is­la­turehas had a high­ly suc­cess­ful tenure work­ing in the Wash­ing­ton State Legislature.

She was appoint­ed to a House seat in 1995, and then won elec­tion the fol­low­ing year. Sim­i­lar­ly, Keis­er was appoint­ed to the WA State Sen­ate in 2001 and has won re-elec­tion six times since. With near­ly three decades as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive and sen­a­tor, she is well-qual­i­fied to write knowl­edge­ably both about how to achieve suc­cess in a state leg­is­la­ture and why that’s important.

State leg­is­la­tures, Keis­er argues, are cru­cial venues for those work­ing to sup­port pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion. This is a dra­mat­ic change. For much of Amer­i­can his­to­ry (espe­cial­ly since the Con­fed­er­ate insur­rec­tion) states’ rights was the ral­ly­ing cry used by those oppos­ing gov­ern­ment efforts to expand civ­il and eco­nom­ic rights.

Get­ting Elect­ed is the Easy Part: Work­ing and Win­ning in the State Leg­is­la­ture, by Karen Keis­er (Paper­back, Basalt Books)

How­ev­er, with the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Keis­er explains, the role of the leg­is­la­ture in more pro­gres­sive states has changed.

State gov­ern­ments in many “blue” and “pur­ple” states – includ­ing Wash­ing­ton State– are now instru­ments to bring polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic rights to minori­ties, poor peo­ple, women, and work­ing peo­ple. State gov­ern­ments have not just the respon­si­bil­i­ty, Keis­er writes, but the oblig­a­tion to oppose the extreme right winglaws and man­dates orig­i­nat­ing at the fed­er­al level.

What is need­ed for states like Wash­ing­ton to be more effec­tive in the strug­gle for equal­i­ty of opportunity?

Keis­er cor­re­lates the gen­der of elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Wash­ing­ton state leg­is­la­ture with suc­cess with pro­gres­sive legislation.

In her expe­ri­ence, the more women rep­re­sen­ta­tives there, are the more sup­port there is for such leg­is­la­tion. Get­ting more women nom­i­nat­ed and elect­ed – in 2022, women were 20% to 25% of the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture — is a long-term project def­i­nite­ly worth the effort, time, and money.

From the book:

… we failed to build the kind of pipeline that’s been in place for so many male leg­is­la­tors. Cre­at­ing an infra­struc­ture of sup­port, men­tor­ing, net­work­ing, and fundrais­ing are all need­ed to build and main­tain an open pipeline for women – espe­cial­ly women of col­or and young women – to enter the fan­tas­tic career of pol­i­tics and law­mak­ing. (p. 59)

In addi­tion, Keis­er writes about sex­ism and racism among elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives (includ­ing from her per­son­al expe­ri­ence). It is ugly. And it’s a strug­gle worth engag­ing in. “Silence,” she says, “is the ene­my of justice.”

Why is it that so many rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture are old­er, white, male, and affluent?

Keis­er tells us it’s structural.

Work­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture is com­plex. It’s demand­ing of time and ener­gy. For most the pay is not suf­fi­cient to sup­port a fam­i­ly. Long hours, trav­el, impor­tant meet­ings often held in the after­noon and evening, are hard to over­come obsta­cles for those with chil­dren at home. This affects women, peo­ple of col­or, and less wealthy rep­re­sen­ta­tives more than men. The life expe­ri­ences of many white, male, afflu­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives leave them less able to empathize with prob­lems par­tic­u­lar to work­ing peo­ple, minori­ties, peo­ple of col­or, and women.

Despite all this – or because of it – the suc­cess­ful leg­is­la­tor must learn to work “across the aisle,” to use Keiser’s apt phrase.

And by this phrase, she does not mean only the polit­i­cal par­ty aisle.

Get­ting Elect­ed is the Easy Part is intend­ed as a primer, or beginner’s guide, for new­ly elect­ed leg­is­la­tors on how to be effec­tive as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive or state sen­a­tor. Work­ing as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive or sen­a­tor, she tells us, is a com­pli­cat­ed process. The leg­is­la­ture includes its own rules and norms that the begin­ner must mas­ter to be effec­tive for their constituents.

These are a few of the many how-to points that Keis­er discusses:

  • How to draft a bill that reflects your goals
  • How to devel­op men­tors, and as well as per­son­al rela­tion­ships with­in the legislature
  • How to work with advo­cates who will sup­port your bill
  • How to win assign­ment to com­mit­tees that focus on your pri­ma­ry leg­isla­tive interests
  • How to work with lob­by­ists who, although they are paid advo­cates for a spe­cif­ic client, have exten­sive knowl­edge and rela­tion­ships with­in the leg­is­la­ture that can be use­ful to you as a legislator

Get­ting Elect­ed also includes an exten­sive glos­sary of leg­isla­tive terms, and a bibliography.

Wash­ing­ton State Sen­a­tor Karen Keis­er has thought deeply about her exten­sive expe­ri­ence in the State Leg­is­la­ture. Get­ting Elect­ed is the Easy Part – although not a page turn­er – is worth the read, both for its prac­ti­cal advice and its polit­i­cal wisdom.

David Kobrin

David is a Literary Advocate for the Northwest Progressive Institute, reviewing books and drawing on his background as a historian to offer informed commentary about making sense of history. David has a Ph.D. and M.A. in history from the University of Pennsylvania and B.A. from Brown University. After dedicating several decades to working with youth as a teacher and professor on the East Coast, he retired to the Pacific Northwest and now resides in Redmond, Washington with his spouse.

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