Public Policy: Bringing a stronger voice to Olympia
By Aimee Simpson
This article was originally published in May 2020
From protecting farmland to keeping organic standards strong, PCC Community Markets has been advocating for smart public policy for decades. We carefully develop a set of policy priorities each year and work to effect change on a local and national level. Although we advocated strongly at the national level, we realized that we could be more effective in Washington state by having a steady, reliable presence in Olympia. That’s why last year,we brought our state-level advocacy to new levels by hiring Joanna Grist, a former executive director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, as our voice in Olympia. Joanna has been a member of PCC for over 30 years, shares our values, and is known for her advocacy for conservation and sustainability. Over the past year, as PCC’s lobbyist, she has helped make the voice of fellow PCC members heard on issues from orca recovery to toxic pollution. We have found her work makes a significant difference in achieving our priority goals for supporting food and agriculture. I sat down with Grist, to shine a little light on what it means to be a lobbyist in Olympia, representing PCC.
I’m assuming you didn’t wake up one day as a child and say, “I want to be a lobbyist!”
No. I didn’t grow up in a political family or even know this world existed. I learned about lobbying and advocacy in my first job out of college with a nonprofit that focused on growth management and land-use issues. Over my five years with the organization, I worked with the organization’s lobbyist and he became a sort of mentor. I became fascinated with the process. I then went on to become the executive director of Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition and worked with the coalition lobbyist for 15 years. During my time there we were able to about double the state budget for state and local parks, trails and wildlife habitat through our lobbying efforts.
The political process was appealing to you?
Absolutely. I like watching the political process (the way other people) like watching baseball. Not that there aren’t frustrating parts of the process—it is designed to water things down to a compromise, but whether the issue I am working on passes or fails, I still enjoy being a part of the process.
But what is a lobbyist’s role in that process?
In its simplest form—I stand in the lobby (that is actually where the job gets its name), but in reality there is a lot more to it. We are there to support the legislature and make sure they are educated on the issues and want them to hear from the many perspectives that could be impacted by legislation. We are also there to draft legislation; develop, support, and form coalitions; and help move forward legislation on the issues that matter to our clients. During the session, this means reviewing the thousands of proposed bills, tracking the bill’s progress through the various committees, negotiating and proposing amendments, setting up meetings with legislators, sitting in on committee hearings, testifying, and finding as many opportunities as possible to speak with legislators during the decision-making process.
What is the strangest way you find opportunities to speak with legislators?
Not sure it is strange, but in Olympia there are four main doors behind which legislators deliberate, and lobbyists will often wait by these doors—sometimes sending notes into the legislators asking for a minute when they leave. We call it “working the doors.”
Lobbyists don’t have the greatest reputations, why do you think that is?
Money. Unfortunately, there are a lot of lobbyists in Olympia funded by large business interests that don’t always have legislative priorities in the best interest of the public or the environment. There also used to be a lot of “entertaining”—taking legislators out to dinners and drinks. There was a lot of state reform to address the problem. There are still some loopholes, but overall it is a lot better.
Is it only business interests that hire lobbyists?
Not at all! Of the probably 500 lobbyists that are in Olympia during the session, there are a lot of representatives for government agencies, nonprofits, trade organizations, unions—you name it. I think that is one of the biggest misperceptions—that lobbyists only work for business and not in the public interest. Don’t get me wrong, some businesses, like PCC, truly place a priority on supporting legislation in the interest of the public good—such as orca recovery, climate change, organic farming and toxics reduction—but it is the work of all of these non-business entities that also have big impacts and play an important part of the lobbying landscape.
Do you think that lobbyists are necessary?
It probably sounds self-serving, but absolutely. Washington state has a part-time legislature. Lobbyists provide institutional memory, help support staff, develop legislation, and work to find solutions for all interests. During the session, which is 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years, the job is usually a 90-hour-a-week job. There can be many unintended consequences to legislation and it is important to have all interests represented—you get better policy if both sides and as many perspectives as possible are engaged in the process. I don’t think that could happen with our current structure without lobbyists. And as more and more businesses and organizations like PCC begin to recognize the necessity of participating in the process, it is really exciting to see the change that is happening.