OLYMPIA — Security fencing at the state Capitol was defended by National Guard members Monday as the Legislature convened amid concerns that armed groups might try to occupy the building, which is closed to the public because of the pandemic.
Some lawmakers returned as authorities reassessed security at state capitols across the country after the violence that occurred last week at the U.S. Capitol.
A right-wing militia initially encouraged its members to occupy the Capitol as the state Legislature started its 105-day legislative session.
Last Wednesday, people broke a gate outside the governor’s mansion and made it to the porch and front yard. That breach came hours after the siege of the nation’s Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
An organizer of the planned state occupation in Olympia canceled Monday’s event but said he expected some people might show up to try to disrupt proceedings.
At least two people were arrested Monday. The State Patrol said one was a woman who used a recreational vehicle to block a roadway and refused to comply with orders to move.
Later, about 20 people gathered outside security fencing near the Capitol, including a man who tried to walk past authorities as lawmakers were to begin their session. He was taken into custody after shouting, “I have every right to witness this.”
The State Patrol, which oversees security of the Capitol campus, said there would be a robust police presence to ensure the safety of lawmakers, staff and journalists. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, activated 750 National Guard members last week to help maintain order.
Officials declined to say how many of the 750 National Guard troops were at the scene Monday, but State Patrol Sgt. Darren Wright told reporters that the potential for threatening behavior required the elevated security.
“The Washington State Patrol has been tasked with protecting the building and ensuring the Legislature is able to do their job and conduct their business,” Wright said. “We’re going to make sure we fulfill that mission.”
Lawmakers had to drive through an area gated off and guarded by National Guard to park outside the Capitol and arrive at the House and Senate chambers. The small group of protesters gathered in the morning, shouting that they should be let into the Capitol to observe lawmakers’ work. Some of the protesters were armed.
The Senate convened just after 11 a.m., and the House began its meeting around noon. The lawmakers’ agenda includes dealing with issues related to the pandemic — such as support for renters and businesses struggling under coronavirus restrictions — and police reform.
“It’s a sad day for our country, isn’t it, where you have to have that kind of security around the people who were elected to represent you,” Democratic Sen. Patty Kuderer said. “Unfortunately, we live in troubling times, and I do believe we’re going to get through it, but it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of effort.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that pandemic protocols, plus the security concerns, will make lawmakers’ work more difficult but added that “people are counting on us to pass budgets and laws that help them in their daily life.”
In both chambers, lawmakers will be spread out between the floor, public galleries, chamber wings and offices, with members being rotated in to vote on rules that must be adopted the first day in order to run a remote session.
Lawmakers met in person largely to adopt rules that will allow them to meet virtually for the rest of the session.
After that, regular Senate floor votes will be conducted in a hybrid format, with a mix of senators present in the chamber and others participating remotely.
The House has decided to do the rest of its work remotely, with some leadership in the main chamber during votes.
All committee hearings in both chambers will be held remotely, with public participation. As it was before the pandemic, hearings and floor votes will continue to be broadcast or live streamed by TVW, the state’s government affairs channel.
Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, said he worried that going online would restrict access to lawmakers for certain people and the Legislature should strive get input from as many as possible. He also said the rules would inhibit the actions of some members who wouldn’t be present to raise objections.
“Citizens have the right to engage legislation,” Young said. “An arbitrary barrier is put up to my constituents.”
Senate Republican Leader John Braun opposed the rules during debate in that chamber, saying that he believed the Democratic majority worked in good faith but that “I think we have a special role to ensure that we have the maximum transparency, the maximum access to our members and to the process.”
Democratic Sen. Marko Liias said that while everyone wants to return to a point where they can resume normal operations, “it is clear that today, in early January 2021, it is not safe for members of the public to gather at the Capitol, and it’s not safe for staff and members of the legislature to gather at the Capitol in person.”
Among the small crowd of protesters Monday was Katie Bauerof Vancouver, wielding an American flag umbrella against the rain. She said she was tired and frustrated with the lockdown and wanted to get back to her job in the travel industry.
“I want the legislators to come stand with us; I want them to hear us; I want them to know they work for us,” she said.
Bauer said it was wrong to keep the public out as the Legislature met and that the proceedings streamed online brought her little comfort.
“I’ve been in that building many times. I want to keep going in that building. It’s my building.”