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Safety protocols reign in the other Washington Capitol

Protesters stand across from members of the National Guard on Monday, January 11, 2021, on the first day of the legislative session at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
Protesters stand across from members of the National Guard on Monday, January 11, 2021, on the first day of the legislative session at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.

Under very tight security, the 2021 legislative session got underway in Olympia today. KUOW’s Austin Jenkins was there. He joins us now to tell us what happened.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

There was a large law enforcement presence at the state Capitol today, after last week's insurrection in D.C. and the breaching of the gate at the governor's mansion in Olympia last week as well. What happened today on the security front?

I would say this place was like a fortress. In fact, one state senator told me he had not experienced security like this since he crossed through the Berlin Wall in the 1960s. Although, he said the guards here were nicer.

When lawmakers arrived, they went through a state patrol checkpoint, and then through a gate in a perimeter fence that now surrounds the Capitol. It's a temporary fence, but it's a fence. That fence is guarded by the National Guard.

If you get through that, then you get up to the door of the Capitol. There's another security check at the Capitol. So, very thorough security, many layers of it. A couple of arrests today. This is my 17th year covering this place. I've never seen anything like this.

We got word today that the FBI is warning law enforcement agencies across the country about armed protests at state Capitols starting on January 16. How concerned are lawmakers about their safety and the safety of others?

I asked Senator Joe Nguyen, a Democrat from the Seattle area about this. He said he had a conversation this morning, before driving down to Olympia, with his wife, who was concerned about his safety. He said, you don't want to be thinking about that when you're starting a legislative session, you want to be thinking about all the things you want to do, the reason that you run for office, and try to get elected, and then serve in public life. Security should not be the thing you're worrying about, or that is worrying your family. That said, he told me that once he was inside the Capitol he felt quite safe today.

I will say there wasn't a lot of talk about what comes next. Frankly, after today, most lawmakers will be working remotely. But, the Capitol building will remain close to the public, even as some lawmakers and staff continue to work inside. Security will continue to be an issue. The big question is, how long will the fencing, how long will the National Guard be here, how long will the heightened state patrol presence last? When asked about that today, the State Patrol said as long as necessary.

We are now looking at what happens for the rest of the session. Today, the discussion mostly was about how the session is actually going to work. What happened?

This was all about adopting the rules that will allow for an unprecedented, remote or hybrid legislative session after today. The difficulty was that in order to adopt those rules, the lawmakers first had to come to Olympia to meet in person. That created security concerns, but all manner of public health concerns as well. It was really interesting to see how they staged things.

First, only a handful of senators were allowed on the floor. Others were up in the public galleries. The rest had to stage elsewhere in the building. When it came time to vote, the senators paraded single file out under the floor. It was like March of the Penguins. They would speak into the mic at the back of the chamber, vote aye, vote nay, and then file off the floor.

There was a lot of debate over the rules, with minority Republicans objecting to the rule changes and proposing to instead allow lawmakers to get to decide if they want to work at the Capitol or from home, and also wanting the public to be allowed into the building with distancing and masks. Majority Democrats, though, rejected that proposal and stuck with their plans to largely go remote.

Let's talk about the Capitol Building being closed to the public. Why are some Republicans so upset about that decision?

I think they don't like the optics of it. They don't like the idea that the people's house isn't accessible to the people while the legislature is deciding legislation. Democrats pushed back on that and said that this will be more accessible in many ways because people will be able to watch from the comfort of their homes, and even testify in public hearings via Zoom from home.

Then some Republicans came back and said not everybody has broadband, especially in rural areas. That won't work. So, a lot of back and forth about whether this is more transparent or less transparent, but Republicans seemed very troubled by the closure of the Capitol. One state senator called for the governor to tear down that fence, the second reference to the Berlin Wall in one day here.

Today is a day that people are going to remember at the Capitol. What else happened inside the chamber today that you think we should know about?

State Senator T’wina Nobles took office. She is the first Black state senator in a decade in Washington State. I talked with her briefly. She said this is my first time here. This is my first time meeting many of my colleagues. She has never done a first day of session before, and was certainly startled and taking in all of the security, but also saying, look, this is my first time here. I don't know what it's supposed to be like.

And really, her election is a reflection of growing diversity in the state legislature. This will probably be the most diverse legislature in state history.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

Copyright 2021 KUOW

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."