If there’s one thing you could use after winning election to the state Legislature, it’s a copy of a captivating new book, Karen Keiser’s Getting Elected is the Easy Part. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal calls it a “roadmap of how to navigate.”
Keiser, now Washington’s Senate President Pro Tem, started her journey growing up in a small Iowa farming town, spending days behind an old-fashioned fountain making hot fudge sundaes and malted milk shakes. She reached the University of California, Berkeley, just as the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, and women’s lib movements were erupting on tear-gas scented streets. As she says, “I was lucky to get through my studies (poly sci and journalism) without being arrested.”
Her professional career first took her to TV reporting jobs in Portland, Denver, and Tacoma. She switched to a job as AFL-CIO communications director after she and her husband started a family. Then when her state representative resigned, Keiser agonized (“what am I thinking?”) but threw her hat into the ring anyway. Three rounds of PCO voting gave her – self-described as “a middle-aged woman with three children and a rocky marriage” — the appointment.
She started as a member of the House minority, Democrats having suffered nationally and locally after Newt Gingrich took over Congress. Following her first session, Keiser had to learn how to run a campaign. Helped along by seatmate Julia Patterson, she set out doorbelling for the first time since selling Girl Scout cookies back in Iowa. She narrowly won that first election and hasn’t lost even tough ones since.
Thinking to share her decades of experiences and observations – things she wished she’d known – Sen. Keiser sat down during the pandemic lull and wrote the first draft of her memoir-laced guidebook. The project took shape through four succeeding drafts with a helping hand from volunteer editor Rick Manugian, a Democratic communication specialist, along with advice from elected colleagues like Rep. Eileen Cody.
Her book, published in July, weaves humor and personal experiences, hers and others, into lessons learned. She tells neophytes to treat their first legislative session as mostly a learning experience. She says that she herself was slow, serving three years before managing to pass her first “good little bill.” But those early years were spent on basics, getting to know the legislative staff, establishing credibility, and determining the right pathway forward.
As Keiser points out Washington’s Legislature remained a mostly male bastion almost to the end of the 20th century. She quotes the late Rep. Helen Sommers who recalled it was “largely an old boys club” when she was elected in 1972. There were eight women in the House and no women in the Senate. By 1992 (the year of the woman), women briefly swelled to 41 percent of Washington’s Legislature. Election losses and retirements have since taken their toll, and sexism, racism, and misogyny continue to surface. Ten years ago, an angry male senator threw a tantrum and called Keiser the “C” word and a “bitch” on the Senate floor.
Keiser, who has been responsible for much progressive legislation including mandatory paid sick leave and expanded health care protection, stresses the need to build pipelines to help women and people of color run and win so they can help pass landmark laws. Among her takeaways are enlisting bipartisan support whenever possible and never being afraid to walk away if you can’t reach a satisfactory agreement.
One of her book’s chapters covers “making sausage,” explaining the body’s arcane process of translating proposals into law. It typically starts with introducing a bill in caucus and advances through first, second, and third readings. Keiser strongly recommends “reading your own bills” and guarding against hostile amendments. As she says, “I had a colleague who was highly successful amending bills to her liking simply by relying on other lawmakers’ disinclination to read bills.”
The book concludes with a glossary of legislative jargon. It decodes terms like “boost” (a rare procedure to move a bill directly from introduction without the normal hearing process), “bump” (slang for suspending the rules to move a bill without having it revert to Rules), “division” (voting on a motion by standing on the floor to avert a roll-call vote), and “striking amendment” (removes everything after the title and inserts a whole new bill.)
Keiser’s handbook is valuable for state legislators, but it’s equally useful for those in other offices such as county and city councils. What could be more basic for new lawmakers than an emphasis on careful listening, paying attention to constituent concerns, and learning which lobbyists you can trust and which ones you can’t? Keiser is convinced that states (and other jurisdictions) cannot afford to afford to wait for Congress to pass progressive laws. She promises: “You can change the world.”