At Washington’s Capitol Campus, a post-legislative session calm has settled in.
Gone are the State Patrol checkpoints and National Guard troops that were in place for the start of the session in January. A temporary chain-link fence surrounding the domed Legislative Building has also been removed.
Yet, security in the seat of state government is still a top-of-mind issue. So is the safety of elected leaders in these polarized times.
Even before the siege on the U.S. Capitol, things were getting violent in Olympia. On two successive weekends in December, far right and far left protesters clashed and guns were fired. One person was seriously hurt.
After that came threats to occupy the state Capitol during the legislative session, even though the building was closed to the public because of COVID. In Oregon, far right protesters did breach the state Capitol after a Republican lawmaker opened a door for them resulting in scuffles and arrests.
Then came the events of January 6. In Washington, D.C. pro-Trump supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol. That same day in Olympia, protesters – some of them armed -- breached a locked gate and spilled onto the lawn of the governor’s residence.
Before lawmakers convened on January 11, a fence went up around the Capitol and the governor called out the National Guard. That level of security for the start of a legislative session was unprecedented.
Today, visitors to the state Capitol encounter no obvious heightened security – other than the Legislative Building remains closed due to ongoing public health concerns. Even so, a “new normal” has settled in over the campus when it comes to security.
“It doesn’t look any different, but it’s different,” said Chris Loftis, a State Patrol spokesperson. “We’ve had to change our capacity so we can be ready for an escalated threat.”
Loftis won’t provide details on the additional, invisible security measures that have been taken. But visible changes are also in the works.
For instance, the new state budget spends nearly $5 million to fund an additional detachment of eight troopers and one sergeant to ensure the Capitol Campus is patrolled around the clock.
There’s also money in the state capital construction budget for security upgrades at the governor’s residence, including improved fencing, gates and bollards, as well as better video surveillance and lighting.
At the entrances to the Capitol Campus, the state will install a pair of hydraulic wedge barriers, similar to those used at the U.S. Capitol that can be deployed to stop traffic.
In all, the state plans to spend more than $6 million over the next two years on security upgrades to Capitol Campus.
State lawmakers, though, rejected proposals to permanently fence off the Capitol and to install guard posts at the entrances to the campus.
“There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for creating ‘Fortress Olympia’ around the state Capitol; there’s the need to want to balance security and also maintain access for the public,” said Democratic state Sen. David Frockt, the lead capital budget writer in the Senate.
Still, Frockt is in the camp that believes more security is probably prudent. To that end, he says the Legislature should continue to discuss the idea of installing guard shacks to monitor arriving vehicles. He also thinks it’s worth revisiting whether metal detectors at the Capitol are a good idea – something that was tried and quickly abandoned more than 15 years ago.
Other lawmakers are more wary. House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox agrees there are times when additional security is justified. But he doesn’t like the idea of those measures becoming the status quo. That’s why during the legislative session Wilcox pushed for the removal of the temporary security fence.
“It’s the longevity that bothers me,” he said referring to how long the fencing stayed up. “I think we should be anxious to get back the government that we remember.”
Wilcox is no stranger to the current, heightened security environment. Beginning in December 2019, Wilcox faced threats after he suspended then-state Representative Matt Shea from the House Republican Caucus. A House investigation had concluded that Shea was a leader in the Patriot Movement, had close ties to militia groups and had played a role in three armed standoffs, including the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Shea called the allegations a “flat out lie.”
One day in February 2020, a group of Shea supporters, including some who were armed and in tactical gear, sought out Wilcox outside the locked House Chamber. He wasn’t there, but reports at the time said one member of the group “yelled profanities” and made “an obscene gesture toward Wilcox’s office.”
After that, majority Democrats started talking about banning openly carried guns at the Capitol, but the idea was quickly tabled. Previously, openly-carried weapons had been banned from the House and Senate public viewing galleries. This year, though, Democratic state Sen. Patty Kuderer revived the issue.
“We are not a country that legislates at the tip of a gun barrel,” Kuderer said in a recent interview.
Kuderer said she was motivated to sponsor the legislation after observing the events of the past year, including armed groups showing up at Black Lives Matter protests, the shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin and an alleged militia-led kidnapping plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Kuderer said she was also alarmed by the spasms of violence in Olympia and the breach at the governor’s residence.
Kuderer’s bill not only prohibited the open carry of weapons at the Capitol, but also at or near demonstrations anywhere in the state. The response to her bill, she said, was indicative of the current, polarized times.
“I just noticed an increased level of anger, very personally insulting and trying to intimidate me and they walked right up to the line without coming out and saying I’m going to do X or Y,” said Kuderer.
Kuderer, who has previously sponsored gun-related measures, said she thinks there’s “particular venom” reserved for women legislators who sponsor gun control bills. She described some of the anger directed at her as having an “underlying misogyny.”
In the end, a version of Kuderer’s bill passed and is now the law. But the threatening emails and messages have continued, including one recently that included her home address. Kuderer said Senate security and her local police department are aware of the situation.
Kuderer said she’s not going to live her life in fear, but she does think about her safety. For example, she didn’t immediately evacuate when the fire alarm in her condominium building recently went off. Instead, she looked out the window to try to determine if it was a false alarm. Her concern was that if someone knew her address and wanted to shoot her, pulling a fire alarm would be a way to get her to come out of her unit.
“It’s unfortunate that we live in [a] world that someone who has been elected by the people to be a public servant has to worry about their personal safety for [introducing] a bill … but that’s where we are and we have to live in reality,” Kuderer said.
Kuderer added that while things seem to have settled down since January, she thinks the anger and discontent is still “simmering just below the surface.”
Frockt, the Senate capital budget writer, is also concerned about the current climate for public officials.
Earlier this year, he sponsored legislation to make it a felony to harass election workers. That followed an incident last December when the state’s elections director, Lori Augino, was featured on a website called “Enemies of the People” that threatened the lives of U.S. election officials. Augino was pictured in the crosshairs of a rifle. The website also included her home address and a photo of her house.
The FBI later determined that Iranian cyber actors were responsible for the website. Still, Frockt worries about what will happen during the next election cycle.
“As passions increase, if we continue to have this effort to delegitimize elections and election results, I think you could have a problem in 2022,” Frockt said.
Federal intelligence bulletins seem to support the concerns expressed by Frockt and Kuderer.
Even since the Washington Legislature adjourned at the end of April, the FBI has continued to warn that domestic violent extremists pose a heightened threat to local, state and federal elected officials.