by Hanna Brooks Olsen
Wrapping up her second session, the community organizer-turned-lawmaker is getting bills passed at breakneck speed. Her secret? Active-listening.
In her sunny office on the State Capitol’s campus, State Senator Rebecca Saldaña has a perfectly-framed view of the Legislative Building’s iconic dome. Inside that building, Saldaña, who’s been in the legislature less than two years, has achieved important, difficult policy wins, including bills which protect farm workers, increase access to voting, and reduce barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records.
“This has been a historically progressive session,” she says.
But it’s not the rotunda behind her that tells visitors what she’s there for; it’s her walls and window sill, decorated with images of her kids, her wedding, and her constituents. Photos of her holding a bullhorn. Posters and notes in Spanish and English.
Saldaña, a Rainier View resident, is as local to her district and the region as they come. A graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, in Burien, and Seattle University, she has spent most of her life in the Pacific Northwest, working to support labor unions and workers.
Before her appointment and subsequent run for her seat in the 37th legislative district, she was an organizer for a farm workers union, and later, SEIU Local 6, which represents stadium and airport workers. In these roles, she frequently met with lawmakers and “often advanced policies and campaigns by employing strategies that included a balance of inside/outside strategy.” Now, she sits on the other side of the table.
“I feel like I am still doing the same thing,” she says. “I just happen to be playing an inside position right now.”
Saldaña joined the State Senate at a tumultuous time and had big shoes to step into; she was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Pramila Jayapal, who was elected to the United States Congress on the same night that Donald Trump was elected President. Jayapal had been the only woman of color in the Washington State Senate; as her replacement, Saldaña took on the same title.
During the 2017 Legislative session, lawmakers in Olympia spent months at loggerheads over school funding; at that time, the Senate majority was still narrowly held by Republicans. But with the special election of Manka Dhingra, the dynamic changed. And with it, came a landslide of bills.
“The Senate has cleared a backlog of great, bipartisan policy that the people of Washington want to see become law,” she says. She passed six significant bills through both chambers, including the Washington Voting Rights Act.
On a whiteboard in her office, Senator Saldaña monitors them all. She can recite them each by number so that when lobbyists or concerned citizens pop into her office for a meeting, she’s immediately ready to jump into their world.
With a pen in hand, writing down notes and nodding, part of her job is taking a seemingly endless string of meetings on topics ranging from housing to small businesses to the needs of retired residents. When an advocate for Puget Sound wildlife comes in to visit, she admits she hears about these issues more than most.
“I have an orca-lover at home,” she says, referencing her daughter. Saldaña and her husband, David, have been married for more than 10 years and have two children.
The role of a citizen legislature isn’t easy; for just a few months out of each year, the lawmakers meet in Olympia, a city which temporarily becomes a bit like a policy-focused summer camp. Some drive back and forth every day; others take up residence during the week. This means sacrifices for the elected officials who do this work—Saldaña admits that she misses playing on her community softball team—but it also means that there’s a lot of different interests at play.
And regardless of who you talk to—fellow lawmakers, staffers, and members of the public—they all seem to have the same feedback about Saldaña: She can talk to anyone, about anything. She can meet you where you are. She’s a good listener. And it’s a big reason why she’s been such a productive member of the legislature.
“I am so grateful for the advocates who elevate the voices of our public workers, our students, our environment, and our community,” she explains. “To me, their input is invaluable in crafting policy because they have an understanding of how it will affect individuals.”
The Senator demonstrated this when, in 2016, as the Executive Director of Puget Sound Sage, she and the organization rejected the carbon tax that was put before voters.
“Maintaining the status quo is not enough,” she stated in a joint op-ed with OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stoltz at the time. “Carbon Washington’s proposal fails to address the needs of workers who will require assistance in the transition from a carbon-based economy to one that is greener and more renewable.”
Her long roots in the region are helpful in this regard as well. Upon arriving in her office and being reminded that she’s meeting with one particular organizer, who worked with her when she was a liaison for then-Representative Jim McDermott, her eyes get wide and she reaches into her bag.
“Don’t let me forget, I’ve got his books!”
She removes two parenting books that bear the design aesthetic of manuals published during the Johnson administration.
“He gave them to me when I was pregnant with my first kid,” she smiles. “She’s nine.”
When he comes in with his group, everyone hugs. He calls her “Becca,” and they catch up briefly before diving into the policy. When she gives him the books, he laughs.
“Oh wow,” he says, surprised that she remembered—or still had them at all. “She’s great,” he says of her.
Saldaña’s next meeting is with an organization that represents business interests, who often have a prickly relationship with Democrats. But as the two lobbyists enter the office and offer warm handshakes, one of them laughs and notes that “she’s even willing to listen to us.”
Active listening, absorbing and note-taking all seem to be integral parts of Saldaña’s process, and a major component to her especially productive work as a legislator. In working groups, in the wings of the Legislative building, and certainly in her office, she says that it’s the willingness to meet people where they are that makes the difference.
“One thing I’ve learned is that the legislative process works best when all stakeholders have a seat at the table. You have to listen and work with all of the advocates, constituents, and groups—even the ones you disagree with—to get it right.”