OLYMPIA — Washington's 2021 Legislature kicked off Monday inside a state Capitol that felt eerily unpopulated and nearly silent.
There were no families of new lawmakers celebrating oaths of office. Gone were the usual throngs of chattering lobbyists. The pledge of allegiance and opening prayer were piped in on video screens.
With COVID-19 and security concerns front of mind, demonstrators and the public at large were kept physically distanced from their elected representatives by a wall of chain-link fence backed by hundreds of National Guard soldiers and state troopers.
"My No. 1 impression is, where are the people?" said state Sen. T'wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, standing outside the Senate chambers. Nobles was sworn in last week for her first legislative session, and is the only Black senator.
As CEO of the Tacoma Urban League, Nobles has seen previous sessions. But for her first time as a lawmaker, she said, "It is very different being so quiet."
In the coming weeks, lawmakers are expected to focus on COVID-19 relief, including a package of aid for employers, workers and renters struggling due to the pandemic and Gov. Jay Inslee's emergency restrictions on in-person business activities.
In the longer term, the session is also expected to grapple with the lagging vaccine rollout, look to bolster public health funding and debate a capital-gains tax and clean-fuels bill. They'll also consider an independent office to investigate killings by police, as well as broader issues of racial equity.
Monday's order of business was more mundane, as lawmakers adopted rules governing the 105-day legislative session, setting up a framework of remote voting and video testimony for the coming months.
Outside the security fence, small clusters of protesters were soaked by morning rain as they shouted through bullhorns, objecting to being shut out.
Inside the marble Capitol dome, Republican lawmakers also dissented, and proposed series of amendments to open the Legislature to in-person testimony and access.
They were overruled on party-line votes by Democrats, who hold majorities in the state House and Senate.
State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, called the precautions "overkill" and pointed to the fencing keeping demonstrators away.
"Governor Inslee, tear down this wall," Padden said, echoing President Ronald Reagan's famous denouncement of the Berlin Wall.
In the House, Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, talked about his experience contracting the virus. He was in the hospital for eight days, four of them in the intensive care unit. But, he said, he's hearing from people in his district concerned about the remote session.
"I get it, I get COVID, I know what it is, I know how hard it is," Dent said. He said he was wearing a mask and staying socially distant. "I got it anyway and so I don't know that we can hide from it... I think we need to think about how we can manage this session do the people's work."
Democrats countered that they have worked to make the session as transparent as possible — even televising the meetings of the powerful Rules Committee for the first time. But they said they were following advice from public health experts on physical distancing.
"I wish we were not in the middle of a global pandemic, but we are," said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.
"This mask is really uncomfortable," Liias added, pointing to the KN95 masks distributed to lawmakers. "We hope that we reach a point where we can return to normal operations as quickly as possible."
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, vowed an "extremely transparent session," pointing to video linkups allowing people around the state to testify on bills.
"My constituents, instead of having to drive 10 hours over a snowy mountain pass to testify for a minute or two, can safely do that from the safety of their kitchen tables," he said.
The state Senate was gaveled to order at 11:13 a.m. by Senate president pro tempore Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines. The House followed at noon, led by Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
In both the House and Senate legislators sat in their chambers and the galleries above, and voted in shifts to ensure they remained socially distant.
In the Senate, those not seated on the floor streamed in one by one to vote "aye" or "no" at a microphone in the back of the chamber and then walked in a line to exit near the front of the chamber.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, repeatedly bleated like a sheep as he walked past a desk where reporters sat, making fun of the procession.
The first day's in-person voting will largely be replaced by remote tallies aided by secure computer linkups in future weeks, a process some Republicans said could lead to confusion.
Prompted by threats that some demonstrators might seek to occupy the Capitol — as well as the shocking assault on Congress last week — Inslee called up as many as 750 National Guard members ahead of the session.
For the first day of the Legislature, at least, that show of force stood in contrast to the relatively small number of demonstrators on hand.
Nobles said she had worried about safety going in to her first day of the session. But the security measures put her at ease. "It looks like a good job is being done," she said. "I absolutely feel safe with my colleagues."
Seattle Times staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.
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