A sitdown with Lisa Brown


by Alyssa MacKay, Steering Committee Member Tuesday, May 23, 2017 | 7:19pm | Comment on this

I had the privilege of sitting down and interviewing former Washington State Senate majority leader, and our keynote speaker for our Head, Heart & Hands luncheon, Lisa Brown.

You’ve been a champion of vulnerable populations for quite some time and in your past work in the legislature. How did you get started down the path of wanting to help people?

“I would have to say that it probably related to growing up Catholic and being exposed to the social justice aspect of Catholicism. I think in many ways that was the root. I would add that I also had an amazing high school teacher. My hometown in rural Illinois appeared to me to be all white and I was growing up, in essence, during the civil rights movement, so I decided to do an independent study on civil rights. My teacher gave me an amazing reading list. I started reading  an autobiography on Malcom X and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver so it really covered a wide spectrum. I think that the combination of my education and the religious piece is what first got me on that path. Where it really came together even more is when I started being a part of a study group on Central America in graduate school. We were studying what was happening in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and what was happening to Bishop Oscar Romero and the nuns that were killed there, etc. So, those pieces sort of came together and it’s always been an interest of mine since then.”

How did you end up in politics? Was there a defining moment that you remember?

 “I saw myself more of an activist and an advocate and not as an elected official when I moved to Spokane. When I came here and started teaching part-time at Eastern, I was still working on my dissertation on women in the workforce issues. I got involved with a group of women who helped organized the first Take Back the Night march in Spokane for women to speak up about domestic violence and became engaged in a variety of other things. People started to say, ‘You should run for office’ and I would sort of shake my head like, ‘No, that doesn’t make sense; I don’t see myself doing that.’ Now there is literature which shows, particularly for women, that they have to be asked to run for office an average of three times and I think that actually happened! People started to suggest it and that’s when it started to seem more like a possibility for me. Then, during filing week in 1992, the week before candidates filed for office, my friends and I were notified that the state Senator at the time, Lois Stratton, who is the mother of Karen Stratton, was going to step down. We knew that one of the two House members were going to run for the Senate seat and there would be an open House seat. And so literally, my friends and I decided the week before filing that we would do this as a project and that I would be the candidate. As we sat around my dining room table and I had my 6 month old son, Lucas, I said, ‘Should we do this? Could we do this? How would we do this?’ and that’s how it happened.”

When you won, how did you feel?

 “We didn’t have any polls, and we knew that the 3rd district tended to vote Democrat as it does today, although the year I won a Republican was elected to the Senate in the 3rd district. We knew that, for the most part, the primary was going to be the race. I was not the party’s choice so the local party had another person in mind that they favored. In those days it was a party primary, not like it is today. It wasn’t the top two; it was the top Democrat and the top Republican that advanced to the general. If they met certain criteria the third parties could go, too, like a Libertarian, and/or someone from a Green party. The whole primary system has changed, so now you could get two Democrats as the top two, but back then that wasn’t going to be the case. The night of the primary we were at the hotel, which probably would have been the Ridpath, and we were standing around, waiting for the results, and we had no idea what was going to happen. Then they announced that I had won the primary, which pretty much meant I was very, very likely to win the general election. So that’s when we knew. It was a very exciting moment for me and for all of my friends because we had sort of put this thing together on a shoe string. We did it with signs and making copies of pamphlets. This was somewhat pre-current technologies. We didn’t have social media. We went door to door. We would do yard sign Saturdays where we would meet together, often with our kids in strollers, and pick arterials and neighborhoods to go doorbell, then get back together and have ice cream at the end of the morning. It was very grassroots.”

Having gone through the journey to where you are now, and with our political climate being so dark, how do you find the light and stay grounded?

 “That is a really great question and it’s really important to me. I am a little bit of a natural optimist so that could just be personality and temperament that I was born with. But, I also have a sense of hope about how we make progress in social justice. I believe that it comes from the movements and the movements have to connect with elected leaders who can then move things forward in their realm. But the elected leaders, so to speak, don’t really lead, in a sense because in a two party system, they are pulled like a black hole to the middle and when they capture the middle they get to move their agenda under certain circumstances. But, where the political center is, is all about the grassroots movement. The political center on the women’s movement changed because of women’s movements. The political center on marriage equality has changed so much over 20 years (and obviously elections and laws were a part of that), but

a lot of it was a movement that re-defined the way people think about LGBT issues, and re-defined that space. Then I, as an elected official, was able to sponsor bills, and we were able to create legislation. So, I think it’s all about social movements. If you look at social movements, there is a history of them, and they ebb and flow. They change the possibility, not just in the United States, but all over the world, for democratic processes, and they change the possibility within the electoral system for laws and policies to pass. What I love about the state level of politics is that we have been able to do things in the health care arena and in the human service arena that aren’t true around the country. States can be laboratories of change. We have initiatives and referenda. I grew up in Illinois and they don’t have the same kind of process where you can just direct vote for something, like legalization of cannabis or raising the minimum wage. That can be directly voted on by the people here. Now, when I was in the legislature, a lot of times initiatives would pass that I didn’t agree with, and that would eventually get modified, but the first few years after an initiative passes, it takes a supermajority to change it. After a period of time, it’s just like any other law and you can modify it with a simple majority. So, it’s kind of ironic that when I was in the legislature I ended up modifying certain initiatives. For example: much of my time in the legislature we worked under a Tim Eyeman sponsored initiative which required a supermajority to raise taxes. I felt that was unconstitutional. I tried to challenge its constitutionality but we didn’t succeed with the Supreme Court when I was there. After I left it was challenged again, and the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. Much of my time I was under a whole different set of rules, but that’s our process. It’s that balance with the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and the executive branch, and then we actually have, in some ways, a fourth branch of government. It’s the direct initiative referendum process.”

 Has your approach and strategy to advocacy changed with time?

“When I first came into the legislature, I found it difficult to believe that I could work with people from other parties. I really saw what we differed on more than I saw anything we had in common. I thought, ‘Whoa, we are in such different universes of paradigms of understanding.’ But I learned over time that there were many people on the other side of the aisle that I could work on certain issues with, and that it could be a very productive thing. You don’t move forward in Washington State on a transportation package without people from the House, the Senate, the Democrats, and the Republicans, all working on things. For example, one of my first bills was a bill on bicycle and pedestrian safety. It ended up being called the Cooper Jones bill named after Cooper who was a boy that died in bike accident in Cheney. I met his parents and we worked on this together, and we named the bill after him. That bill is not inherently about Democrats or Republicans. You can work on both sides of the aisle to make things happen. I learned during my time in the legislature to try really hard not to burn bridges with people even though we might very stridently disagree on many other issues, because there might be some issue that we can work on together. I learned this by observing as well as personal experience. I’d like to give another example: former Senator Bob McCaslin, not the current representative, but his father, worked with Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles who represented Queen Anne, Seattle, and they worked together on creating options for universities to study cannabis and it’s potential health benefits for cancer and people who had cancer. They didn’t agree on much of anything, but they came together on that issue. Senator McCaslin’s wife had died of cancer and Senator Kohl-Welles had the University of Washington in her district, a research university, so they worked together. I watched this happen and I realized that you might disagree on eight or nine out of ten things, but if you keep a bridge open for at least dialogue and respectful conversation, you might find some common ground that you can work together on.”

What was your greatest fear when you started?

 “Honestly, because I was a single mom with an infant child, I was worried that I was going to be out of the loop. I worked a normal schedule and then I would go pick up Lucas at childcare. The first few weeks my mom was there with me but after that he was in a childcare situation and I would go home and pick him up after work. There were all these breakfast meetings, dinners, receptions, and in those days, a fair amount of that going on with lobbyists and interest groups. I thought, ‘I’m really going to be out of the loop if I’m not at all of those extracurricular meetings.’ It actually turned out to be one of the best things because I would go home at night with my son and I got to think about what happened during the day. There is a way in which when you are elected to office, people start to treat you differently, that you are special, kind of like, ‘Hello Representative Brown, how are you today?’ and you start to think, ‘Oh, I guess I am kind of special!’ But I think I had an opportunity. You don’t feel quite as special when you’re at home and your child is spitting up on you. It keeps you more grounded, and I think that actually ended up being a good thing for me. I didn’t need to worry. It didn’t hold me back from being effective, like I worried about in the beginning.

There was a late night session that was called at the last minute and especially in those days without a lot of warning; it was quite common. I went across the street to the childcare center, picked up Lucas, brought him back and was just hanging out with him in the wings outside the House floor while the debate was going on, and on, and on. I sat at my desk, in my chair, and in the House you just push a button to vote yes or no (the green or the red button) and I was sitting there, waiting for the debate to conclude and to vote. There was a phone light at my desk and this lit up which I thought was weird, so I pick it up and it’s the chief clerk. He said, ‘nobody is allowed on the House floor when we’re in session except members.’ (They also had a special little table for the press.) He told me nobody else was allowed so my son would have to leave. Lucas wasn’t crying or anything, but someone had come and taken a picture of us. I had heard a little flurry, and I think there were legislators concerned that somehow I was going to get some good press coverage out of it or something. But I heard that someone had complained to the chief clerk and asked him to enforce the rule. I told my leadership I would have to leave with Lucas and they called the previous question, which is the parliamentary maneuver to force the vote, and we voted, and then they called an end to the evening. But, one of my good friends, Julia Patterson, who was a representative from SeaTac, went out and told the press what had happened and they started calling me. It got to be a big statewide story: ‘Representative kicked off the floor’ and headlines like, ‘Leave Lucas alone’ It didn’t turn out the way they had thought. In fact, because of that incident, the House created a Children’s Day where once a year they invite everyone to bring children and grandchildren on the floor and they conduct a morning session with all of the kids running around. I think they wanted to make it a point to commemorate this by actually doing it, and it was done in a positive light. I believe next year will be the 25th anniversary of when Lucas got kicked off the House floor! People still say, ‘Are you that kid that got kicked out of the House?’”

What is one thing you’ve never forgotten and what is one thing we should never forget?

“There are two things that I’ve never forgotten, which kind of connects back to feeling good in dark times. My first year in the legislature I voted for a bill that said we shouldn’t have discrimination based on sexual orientation. It passed the House overwhelmingly, but it didn’t get brought up for a vote in the Senate. Year after year that bill did not pass the legislature. When I got to the Senate, it was my goal to help bring it forward for a vote, and the first time we brought it forward it lost by one vote. Over the summer a Republican changed his mind and announced that he was going to vote yes on the issue, and then the next year it passed by one vote. I will never forget that. It’s kind of that thing that everybody always says, but you wonder about: one vote matters. One vote absolutely matters. It’s also a testament to how long sometimes it takes. To make this relevant specifically to the Peace and Justice Action League: I know that it’s been a core tenant of their work as long as I have known the organization to be opposed to the death penalty. You know, it could be that people could get discouraged and say, ‘that’s just never going to happen.’ But, look at what did happen. We now have a governor that signed an executive order so we’re not implementing the death penalty right now in Washington State. I think there’s actually bi-partisan conversation about making changes to it. If and when that happens, it would have been a 30 year journey. So, you don’t get to the end of that journey without the steps along the way. To me that’s hopeful. To some people that might be a discouraging message that it can take so long to make the change happen when it’s obvious to them that it should. Change often happens more slowly than that. I haven’t forgotten this and I hope people connected to PJALS don’t forget it, either. “

What is one piece of advice that you were once given, and what is one piece of advice that you would give to young people starting in activism?

 “One piece of advice I was given fairly early on was to not be too quick to respond, but to listen. Like, people would come up to you and ask you to do this or to do that, and this leader in the legislature that I sat by when we went into the minority (we had a lot of time on our hands) said, ‘Just listen. Just listen. Keep listening. Let the person keep talking. They may tell you both the reasons why you want to do this and they may start to tell you the reasons you might not.’ It cautioned me to keep listening which is really important. It’s easy to feel like you understand that issue, especially in the legislature, where you’ve dealt with something five times in a row, and it’s easy to think ‘Oh we’ve already tried that’ or ‘that can’t happen’ but it’s important to keep listening.

A piece of advice that I would give to young people in particular is the lyrics of a folk song I like by the Indigo girls. One of their lyrics goes, ‘every five years or so I look back on my life and I have a good laugh.’ I think that’s very appropriate because when I first got elected to the legislature, if I would have looked at my life five years earlier that would have seemed hilarious. At different points in my life I certainly had no idea what I was going to do five years from then and so, to me, some of the decisions you have to make when you’re young seem like, ‘Oh my God, if I do this, everything will be changed forever. If I choose this over that, then THAT will never be an option again.’ That has not been my experience. My experience has been that if it’s an important part of who you are, or something you want, or something you need to be part of, it will come back around as an option to you at a certain point. Keep open. It’s always good to have a game plan, but don’t be so attached to it that you don’t take advantage of opportunities that come along, to maybe be moved to do something different. Sometimes, and this can be hard to believe when it’s happening to you, the really bad things which happen become very positive over time in terms of the lessons learned. When I had Lucas I didn’t plan that I was going to be a single parent. His dad lives in Spokane and we’re good friends, and Lucas has a good relationship with both of us, but when I initially understood, ‘Oh wow, I’m not living that dream, that married life’ it was pretty devastating information. And, as it turned out, it was very instrumental to me understanding my strengths as a person. For women, and I’m sure it’s true for men too, that whole thing about what you decide to do for your child– It really brings out the best of you. It also helps you understand who you want to be for yourself, too, which is very important. That’s why I always felt so sad about the substance abuse issues that can really disrupt the parent-child bond, and wanted to work in the legislature on things that could help try to preserve that bond because it’s just a strong, powerful bond for healing someone.”

Did you see any progress with those issues when you were there?

“We created some great programs, most of which were pilots and insufficiently funded, but we created something called the Parent Child Assistance Program. There were some home visiting programs and a lot of the early work on early learning. You know, I’m really proud of the person who took my place in the Senate, Andy Billig, because he’s really been a champion for early learning, and as he puts it, ‘going more and more upstream to understand how you can have a big impact on life the earlier you’re engaged.’ I agree with that. I think a lot of the progress in that arena started to build momentum right as I was leaving the legislature. But, I’m still really proud of being a part of laying the groundwork for the early parts of it.”

Who is the greatest hero we have never heard of?

 “Well, a lot of people have heard of her, but they may not know the Spokane connection and that is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was also known as the Rebel Girl. She was a labor agitator and an activist. In the early part of the 1900s across Washington and the West, there were a lot of movements going on for workers in the mines. This time was also known for the free speech movement. The Spokane City Council actually passed a resolution against speaking on the street to try to calm down some of the agitating that was going on. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn came to Spokane and spoke on behalf on the workers and the free speech movement. It was an interesting story in labor history. People got arrested, they filled up the jails, and the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, were involved in it. I would say that I’ve always been inspired by people who stood up and said what they thought was right and made a difference. Imagine, you wouldn’t pass a bill now, you hope, saying you that you can’t speak or speak out publicly.”

Have you heard about the anti-free speech bills popping up all over the country? What do you think about this?

“I know a little bit about it and it’s a fascinating issue on college campuses. I just tend to come down very much on the side of civil liberties, and utilizing them to the maximum extent possible as educational opportunities versus trying to keep people from saying what they say. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I was at the University of Colorado they brought Gordon Liddy, who had been one of the Watergate co-conspirators. I definitely stood outside the building protesting him, but my goal wasn’t actually to make him not speak. My goal was to help people understand the controversial nature of his speech. I think it’s really interesting what’s going on now with those issues. There were some students at WSU that built a Trump wall and there were some students who said the university should have prevented them from building it. I thought the President handled it appropriately when he said that we should hear from everybody who disagrees with it, and let’s have a dialogue about it.”

If someone were to promise you that whatever you wanted to change in the world would happen the next day, what would it be?

 “The thing that’s pretty close to me is this issue of providing the maximum positive environment for children and their parents from the moment they are born. I feel like there’s so much potential. One of the things we’re learning is that kids who have these adverse childhood experiences of trauma in their early years have a disruption to their learning capacity and their physical health in later years. So, I really support the movement to the upstream, you know. We should be supporting the parents, married or not, and giving them options to provide a safe, nurturing environment for their children. I think that’s the most significant thing we could invest. It would have the biggest payoff over time in all of those downstream things that happen, such as crime, etc.

I’m also really torn on the issue of thinking differently about substance abuse. I think there’s a lot of criminalization of drug use, etc, but we’re learning about what it means in your brain to become addicted or dependent on a substance and to be able to figure out how to create strategies for really disrupting that. Sending someone to jail isn’t really a strategy, and I have a lot of admiration for the Smart Justice projects that are currently going on.”

What made you want to go from politics to Chancellor at WSU?

“I had the great opportunity to be the Senate majority leader and to be the Chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, but it just seemed like it was time for another chapter. I felt very connected to what could happen with the university. The university had just said Spokane was going to be the health science campus for the university, and it seemed like a great opportunity to be home. I spent 20 years going back and forth between Spokane and Olympia. As a leader I was also spending a lot of time in Seattle, as you can imagine, talking to interest groups, so it seemed like a great opportunity to focus on one thing. And, I figured it would also help me figure out if I did want to go back into politics at some point. It would be easier to do that from a position of having worked on other projects.”

Any plans to go back into politics?

 “Stay tuned! Medical school starts in August and we’re going to have what’s called the White Coat ceremony which is a big deal. Students will be initiated into their field as a physician and get their white coat. We’re going to do that downtown at the Fox Theater for 60 students and their families, with community leaders. I will be staying on until then. After that stay tuned for future developments!”

What is the legacy you want to leave or something you are most proud of?

“Legacy is too big of a word for me. I really like being a part of things that make other things happen. It’s never really done without a lot of people, many whose actions are never known or recorded. I feel very strongly not just about the people whose names are known but about it being more than that. To that extent it was being apart of many good things that happened, particularly for Spokane, this region and seeking our identity. I would say when I came to Spokane in the 1980’s it felt like there was a lot of defensiveness around what Spokane wasn’t and not a lot of what we are or what we can be. And I’m starting to feel a bigger sense of our own identity as a place, and I like it. It’s great. I feel like I have been a part of it—as an activist, as a university professor, and being in the legislature.”

What one word describes you?

“I don’t know what my friends would say. I think probably optimistic.”

It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes, especially in our current situation.

“It’s kind of grounded in the long view. Because I study economics and business cycles where things go up and down, I guess I tend to be a little bit like that, thinking about those cycles. I think ultimately things go in the right direction. It’s like what Martin Luther King Jr said: the arch of justice bends towards justice. The arch of history bends toward justice.”

So you’re optimistic that all of this is going to turn out good?

“I think so, I do! Crazy, but I really do!”

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