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July 01, 2005

Interview with a Newbie State Rep - Mike Sells

“There’s not a thing in life that’s not affected by politics.”  So says new Washington State legislator Mike Sells, now a Representative from the 38th LD which includes most of Everett, Marysville and Tulalip.  I interviewed Sells, whom I knew through a friend and had talked to several times over the last six months.  I asked him how he became interested in politics, what prompted him to run for the state legislature and what it was like to serve in the State House for the first time during this highly successful year. 

What struck me after interviewing Mike was just how dedicated he is about serving his constituents and all of us in the State of Washington.  I’m sure that most representatives do just that – represent their constituents.  It’s a lesson in how important it is to make our views known to our representatives at all levels. 

“I think my interest in politics goes back to a very early age,” Sells says. “I have always been interested in History and Biography, and have read voraciously even in elementary school. I think it was fueled later in life for what constituted good leadership. With that perspective, you couldn’t live through the Civil rights era and Vietnam without connecting to politics in some way. My first job in education, however, moved me closer to activism through the labor movement. Eventually, I found myself the President of union, and it went from there”.

Aside from his life experiences, he says it was satire that instilled his interest in politics – watching Pat Paulsen, “That Was the Week that Was” and later, “Saturday Night Live.”  (A good way for all you Jon Stewart fans to get started.) 

During this, his first session, Mike has been on the go constantly.  Now that the session is over, he can feel how tired he got but at the time, he just put his head down and worked from 8:00 in the morning until 10:00 or later at night.  He continues to focus on constituent interests and issues and says that there is always someone who wants his time.  Still, he said it surprised him sometimes to look up at the vaulted dome of the Capitol Building and realize that he was really there, doing this work.  We should be grateful that he is.

The interview is after the fold. 

Q: What did you do before running for the House?

I was a teacher in Everett for many years.  I could see there was a need to impact what happened in the classroom, particularly how education is funded and teachers are paid. 

I served as President of the Everett Education Association and then went on to serve as the President of the Everett Education Association and most recently as Secretary-Treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council.  So, for many years, everything I’ve done has involved politics. 

Q: What prompted you to run for the Legislature?

MS: There were issues I cared deeply about (especially education) and I didn’t think the district was getting the quality of representation that I thought it deserved.  Plus, the polls said I’d win if I ran.  I worked hard to win, doorbelling constantly, and pulled 58% in both the primary and in the general.

Q: What’s your District like? Who are your constituents?

MS: It’s a strong Democratic district with a high density of working class and labor families. I'd say from the door-belling I've done that their #1 concern is keeping their jobs.  The 38th includes most of downtown Everett, Boeing Field, part of downtown Marysville and the Tulalip reservation.  The other representative for this district, John McCoy, is native American.

Q: What did you want to accomplish going into the session?

MS:  I was focused on education, transportation and infrastructure issues.  As a newbie, I knew I wanted to impact the State Budget.  There are terrible traffic issues in my district so I asked to be on the Transportation Committee.  I also served as Vice Chair of the House Higher Education Committee, where one of my goals was to create more access to higher education for young people in Washington State.  And I knew I would be supporting Labor and stem cell research and the environmental issues that came up.

Q: And what were you able to accomplish?

MS: We, and I really like to think in terms of we, because of the help particularly from the Capital Budget chair, Hans Dunshee, and my seatmate, John McCoy, were able to get $38 million in the capital budget for local improvements which included $25 million for community college buildings. With the new transporation budget we were able to get over $75 million in projects dealing with safety and congestion issues for the district. It was helpful to have a guy like Ed Murray as Transportation, who was bold enough to exercise leadership on the gas tax issue so we could begin to take of many of those issues that had been languishing due to a lack of revenue.

On I-5 there has been terrible traffic congestion from Eastmont to Marysville. It is some, if not the worst, in the State at commute time. Marysville is becoming so urbanized the State DOT lowered the speed limit to 60 due to the fatal crashes on I-5.  We were able to get $41 million of that transportation budget money to change a left off-ramp that adds substantially to the congestion heading toward Highway 2.  I also worked with my colleagues on gaining a four year institution of higher education for this area. Next to southwest Washington, it is the most underserved area for baccalaureate degree programs. In an area in which aerospace is the prime industry, and a biotech sector which is in one of the top ten in the country, access to higher education is extremely important.  I was also active in working on apprenticeship utilization on public projects. The number of skilled building trades people set to retire in the next several years is astounding, and we need to have the programs to help replace those people.  I also worked a tuition waiver issue which leveled the playing field among regional universities in the state. 

Q: Any disappointments or issues you struggle with?

MS: The greatest struggle is around peoples’ beliefs regarding revenue.  They get their mind made up and say “We have to cut something else” besides their favorite item, even though they aren’t seeing the larger picture.  That is happening with the transportation package. They quite often want the changes in the package, but will tell you that you can get the revenue from elsewhere. If they do give you an “elsewhere” it always hits something vital to someone else, or doesn’t raise a tenth of percent of what is needed to fix the problem. I understand the frustration around tax issues and the frustration that the Republicans have about the question of sustainability in the budget.  We aren’t sure if the economic growth will be enough to deal with revenue issues.  We know that raising “sin taxes” isn’t necessarily a sustainable way to deal with funding issues.  We have structural tax issues and we will have to address that.

Mike added the following by email after the interview:

After a little reflection on your question after we hung up, watching HB 1515 go down on the Senate side by one vote was a disappointment. Many of us had gone over and stood in the foyers on the floor to watch the debate in the Senate. It was sort of a message of support for its passage. It added definitions of sexual orientation and creed to the Law Against Discrimination. So many have worked years on this piece of legislation. It will get through eventually, but should have passed this time.

Q: What was it like being a first-termer?

MS: The demands on my time were ferocious.  I was really tired after the session when I got back home.  When I was there, I just put my head down and went about doing what I needed to do.  We’d start at 8:00 AM unless there was a breakfast meeting at 7:00 AM.  Early in the session there were a lot of receptions so I was out nearly every evening until 10:00 or later. Near the end of the session we were on the floor late, sometimes until midnight, and one time until 2 AM.  It’s important to meet with as many people as you can to hear what they have to say. Between committee meetings, there were meetings with constituents and lobbyists, returning emails, returning phone calls.  I wasn’t tired at the time; I was just so focused.  But afterwards, when I got back home, I was tired for weeks. After I got back to work here in the community, I would feel a sense of exhaustion shortly after the noon hour. I couldn’t figure it out, until I talked with some of my other colleagues and heard similar stories. 

Q: What do you want to focus on next year?

MS: I want to look at the structural issues around taxes.  I want to look at the effects of the WASL tests.  That is going to be a hotter issue as the high stakes nature of the test kicks in. A big priority for me is a 4 year institution of higher learning for this area. I want to continue to help the people in my district around the transportation issues. We did a lot with money around the southern portion of the district, but we will need to do vastly more with I-5 north of city on safety issues and east/west access. I will need to get those projects on the agenda and moved up the priority list for budget access. I will also be working on a couple constituent request issues around spraying of toxic chemicals in apartment/condo complexes, and full disclosure of condominium rules at the point of sale. 

This year we raised tuition on college students and mandated that 25% of the raise in tuition will go back into the general fund.  I want to make sure that the increased portion of the tuition goes directly to the schools where it is being collected.  It just doesn’t seem right to raise the tuition 6% and then “clawback” a fourth of it into the general fund. I have already indicated to the House Higher Education Chair and Appropriations chair that I want to see that issue worked and changed. 

Q: Any surprises?

MS: Well, I was sometimes surprised to look up at that gorgeous vaulted ceiling in the Capitol Building and realize that I was really there, doing this work.

Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on July 1, 2005 at 10:36 AM in Interviews | Permalink

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