In late March, a video of state Rep. Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, began circulating on the internet. The video shows Santos, who chairs the House Education Committee, speaking during a town hall about a controversial sex education bill that had drawn hundreds to Olympia in opposition.
In the video, posted by The Stranger, Santos said she agreed with the bill’s policy to mandate that school districts across the state teach sex education. But Santos added that “the politics of this bill were it’s undoing and failing” describing how she and school districts weren’t happy with the process.
Santos didn’t schedule a hearing for the bill, which died before a legislative cutoff. The bill’s demise was perhaps the biggest victory for social conservatives, who have played defense in the last two sessions after Democrats took full control of the Legislature.
During the 2019 legislative session, slated to wrap up Sunday, lawmakers have waded into culture wars on sex education, school bullying and more, drawing crowds to hearing rooms and outside the Capitol to protest bills they said would undermine religious freedom and parental authority.
Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, has been involved with efforts to oppose these bills.
“She’s been one of the contact points telling us what’s been going on and helping us,” said Mark Miloscia, a former Republican state senator who now heads the Lynnwood-based Family Policy Institute of Washington. “She’s been wonderful.”
During this session, Kraft has called attention to bills she’s found troublesome, in some cases defying legislative convention.
“Legislators should be listening to their constituents,” Kraft said. “As concerns rise to the level they did, legislators need to listen.”
Kraft, a second-term legislator who narrowly won re-election last year, also teamed up with a legislator, who’s come under fire, to co-sponsor a bill to outlaw abortion in Washington.
But Kraft has adopted softer messaging than her allies, acknowledging the challenges of transgender students and calling for dialogue. She’s also sponsored bi-partisan legislation on mosquito districts, taxes and sex trafficking. However, as of the Friday before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn, all of her bills appeared stalled, and it remains unclear why.
Battle Ground to Olympia
In Washington, school districts aren’t required to teach sex education but can opt for the curriculum as long as it meets certain requirements: It’s age-appropriate and medically accurate, among others.
Last summer, the Battle Ground Public Schools Board of Directors considered adopting the High School FLASH, or “Family Life and Sexual Health” curriculum but dropped it after it drew criticism from the Family Policy Institute of Washington, as well as parents and others concerned that its content on gender and sexual identity was inappropriate.
Kenny Smith, a former chair of the Clark County Republican Party, was involved with opposing the curriculum. He said he and others became interested in how curriculums are developed. When the Legislature convened earlier this year, he became aware of the sex education bill and found it similarly alarming. He traveled to Olympia, along with a group of other Clark County residents, in February to testify against the bill.
Critics of the bill, Senate Bill 5395, argued it was too graphic for young children, promoted sexual confusion, and undercut local control and parental rights. Supporters — including Planned Parenthood, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal and many students — said the bill would provide badly needed education on healthy relationships and sexual experiences.
Miloscia, with Family Policy Institute of Washington, said he came down to Vancouver to help build a grassroots campaign against the bill, visiting a Ukrainian church and meeting with local leaders. He said Kraft was “along every step of the way” and helped facilitate the efforts of activists.
On Feb. 13, legislators, opponents and supporters of the sex education bill packed a hearing room for the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. The committee also heard from Kraft, who, in an unusual move, spoke against the sex education bill.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said Kraft testifying against the bill was “not the norm.”
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he also had issues with the sex education bill. But as for testifying against another legislator’s bill, he said, “I don’t know if I would ever do that.”
When asked why she testified in the Senate, Kraft said she wanted to make sure that not only the voice of concerned citizens was heard but also her own.
“It takes a lot of leadership to come over to the Senate and articulate her position,” Miloscia said.
After the bill died, Reykdal expressed his disappointment to MyNorthwest, saying Democrats couldn’t move an “essential bill to protect kids by bringing them greater education.”
“I continue to be dumbfounded as to the lack of movement,” he said.
Other bills, controversies
In March, Kraft issued a press release calling attention to the sex education bill, as well as Senate Bill 5082, which would create a committee to promote “social and emotional learning” for students. Kraft was concerned that SB 5082 would teach “family norms and values” to children that didn’t align with their families.
She also took issue with Senate Bill 5689, which required school districts to adopt policies to curb bullying, harassment and intimidation of students. Speaking on the House floor in April, Kraft said the bill was unnecessary and could create a situation where a student could face discipline for refusing to recognize the pronouns of a transgender student. She said the bill is a violation of students’ free speech rights.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, responded by saying LGBTQ students are six times more likely to be depressed, eight times more likely to be involved with or addicted to drugs, and three times more likely to be sexually assaulted.
“This data shows that the Legislature needs to respond to the needs of those students who are not gaining access to fair, equitable and free education as we are committed to doing in this Legislature,” she said.
Though opponents packed hearing rooms wearing fluorescent green scarves to signal their numbers, both bills passed the Legislature.
Miloscia said his group and allies were overwhelmed with bills as Democrats have sought to push through pent-up legislation after retaking the Senate in 2017. Kraft said she hopes to continue dialogue about the bills.
‘Behind closed doors’
Of the bills sponsored by Kraft, one was intended to close a loophole less-scrupulous massage parlors in Clark County have used to avoid scrutiny. The bill was backed by the city of Vancouver, as well as Clark County’s delegation. However, the bill languished in the Senate Rules Committee after passing out of the House.
Kraft said she didn’t get any direct blowback from testifying in the Senate. When asked why the bill didn’t advance, Kraft said, “I don’t candidly know.”
“I never know what happens behind closed doors,” she said.
Cleveland said she works with Kraft as part of the delegation and that the bill didn’t advance in time because of other activities on the Senate floor. When asked if Kraft’s testimony in the Senate affected it, Cleveland said, “I don’t think so.”
“I will say that relationships are so important here,” Cleveland added. Building respect on both sides of the aisle ensures legislators can accomplish their goals, she said.
Kraft also co-sponsored a bill that would abolish abortion in Washington, which hasn’t budged.
“In principle, I value life,” Kraft said. “Yours, mine, unborn kids, elderly.”
The prime sponsor of the bill is Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, a controversial lawmaker who has come under scrutiny after a report in The Guardian found he had participated in online chats with right-wing figures discussing surveillance and violence against opponents.
When asked about Shea, Kraft said her understanding is that the lawmaker had “some pretty serious threats made against his family.”
“I think that the whole political environment we are living in needs to change and that takes all of us,” Kraft said.