By Patric Haerle, The Seattle Medium
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019 the five Black lawmakers of the state Legislature formed the Black Members Caucus.
Now, the all-Democratic caucus is up to a record nine members and is bicameral, with eight members in the House and one in the Senate. The group represents nine of the 25 Black lawmakers in Washington’s legislative history—the first dating to Washington’s inaugural Legislature in 1889.
“There is a lot of responsibility that people have imposed on us, because for so long, there haven’t been voices in the African American community that have been represented in the Legislature,” said Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent. “We feel the weight of the worries, so it’s nice to have it spread around between nine members as opposed to five.”
Entenman is one of three current caucus members who were part of the founding group in 2019. Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, and Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, are the other two.
“It’s an honor being a new kid this year, to now have a legislative Black caucus that has a size where our presence can’t be ignored and we have a solidarity that has impact,” said caucus vice chair Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley, D-Seattle. “It’s been beyond time.”
The lawmakers said their priorities will be similar to last year’s: COVID response, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change.
“Racial equity and racial justice is at the forefront of our minds and ensuring that all of our policies have a racial equity lens,” said caucus chair Rep. Jamila Taylor, D-Federal Way. “We absolutely must continue the fight there–economic recovery that’s inclusive for the Black community, in particular. COVID has hit the Black community in ways that have been unprecedented.”
Harris-Talley also highlighted other priorities, including measures to reduce housing instability, such as property-tax exemptions and a renter’s rights bill, and measures to address health inequities specifically for Black citizens. She also said legislators intend to shift the focus of law-enforcement reform to the court system.
“The issues that we are working on, while they may disproportionately affect African American people, they’re going to improve the lives for all people in Washington state” Entenman said.
The Legislative session that begins on Jan.10, is just 60 days long rather than the 105-day budget session held every other year. Instead of building an entirely new budget, legislators will only be making adjustments.
A silver-lining to the short session is that the 2021 legislative session ended with a balanced budget because of federal COVID recovery assistance.
“That is a good position to be in going into 2022,” Harris-Talley said. “ What supplemental budget requests will look like and how those dollars will be prioritized for the Black community will be one of the biggest priorities as we’re looking at budget considerations.”
Despite being made up of nine Democrats from western Washington, the group will be leveraging a diverse set of views and experiences to pass their legislative agenda.
“I am an abolitionist who’s part of our legislative Black Caucus, and Representative Lovick, who’s the longest serving amongst our body, has in his career been a police officer,” Harris-Talley said. “That doesn’t create animosity, but rather an expansion of the conversation within our caucus.”
In addition to the strong budgetary position and productive results in their various committee assignments, the group was vital in the passage of a bill that made Juneteenth a state holiday starting in 2022. Members also brought forward key pieces in a package of bills regulating police use-of-force tactics, including the establishment of an Office of Independent Investigation, and restrictions on the use of chokeholds, no-knock warrants and militarized equipment.
Entenman quoted radio host and activist Joe Madision in relation to the caucus’s ongoing work. “We can have a moment or we can have a movement,” Entenman said. “The reforms in the civil rights work that we are doing is a part of a longer movement.”
She added: “Some of the folks in the caucus are young enough to be my children. So, there is a continuum of civil rights. Some of us have lived it. Some of us have studied it. I think we inform each other. But I think that there is a movement that we are committed to moving things forward for civil rights in Washington state.”
The use-of-force bills have been met with resistance from some city officials and law-enforcement departments, Taylor said, but the group is confident in the package of bills signed into law in July.
“In any major legislation, there’s going to be clarifications needed, and that’s what we’re going with now–meeting with law enforcement, families, and the community to find where those tweaks are needed for this session,” said Rep. Jesse Johnson, D-Federal Way. “But I don’t believe there should or will be any substantive policy changes.”
Johnson has taken the lead within the caucus on the set of bills meant to reform police accountability and use of force. He met with law enforcement and concerned citizens across the state as the policies were being crafted and implemented. He said this push for police reform differed from previous attempts because it came directly from voters.
“We finally had community leading the process around police reform,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t law enforcement reforming the system from within itself as it had done in the past. We had a community willing to speak truth to power and demand for substantive, concrete policy change.”
“The goal the entire time was to save lives and that’s still the goal.”
With a more broad-based focus on racial equity, a larger than ever caucus, and several recent legislative victories, the Black Members Caucus has reason to celebrate, but Taylor and her colleagues are more focused on carrying the same energy into future sessions.
“You cannot undo 400 years of oppression, systematic exclusion in one legislative session,” Taylor said. “There’s so much work to be done.
“While we can congratulate ourselves in the moment, we are focused on service to the community. And it’s when you’re addressing the needs of marginalized communities, then you’re really improving the whole community and ensuring that we have a brighter future for all.”