May 31, 2022
On this midweek show, Crystal chats with Leah Griffin about her campaign for State Representative in the 34th Legislative District - why she decided to run, how the last legislative session went, her priorities, and her thoughts on addressing issues such as housing affordability and zoning, homelessness, drug decriminalization, public safety, climate change, and COVID response and recovery.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Find the host, Crystal, on Twitter at @finchfrii and find Leah at @voteleahgriffin.
Campaign Website - Leah Griffin: https://www.voteleahgriffin.com/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Today, I am very happy to welcome a candidate for the 34th legislative district to the program, Leah Griffin. Welcome to the show.
[00:00:47] Leah Griffin: Thank you so much for having me, Crystal.
[00:00:49] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for coming on. So starting out, what motivated you to run?
[00:00:55] Leah Griffin: Well, I am somebody who never thought that she would run for public office. I am a school librarian - I love being a librarian - getting the right books into the hands of kids at the right time is a really wonderful thing to do with your life. And then in 2014, I was sexually assaulted and what I encountered was a healthcare and legal justice system that was fundamentally broken. Everything about the system that I encountered was flawed. I went to the closest emergency room and they shrugged their shoulders and said - we don't do rape kits here. The police refused to investigate or test the rape kit that I did eventually get, the prosecutors victim-blamed and threatened me if I continued to push. It was really a horrible experience, and so I knew that if the system didn't work for me - a white educated person with access to transportation, no kids, access to information - and I couldn't make this work, then it was absolutely broken and nobody was making it work. It wasn't working.
And I knew that I couldn't let it persist, so I reached out to every single lawmaker that I thought would be able to make a difference - hundreds and hundreds of emails, and very few people responded. This is 2014, this is before the Me Too movement. This is a problem that has persisted from the beginning of time until now. And the first person that got back in touch with me was Senator Patty Murray, and I went into her office and told my story, and she was appalled that there were hospitals in the state that were turning survivors away without being able to care for them. So she commissioned a Government Accountability Office report and we found that only one in five hospitals in the United States were fully equipped to provide sexual assault exams to survivors who came to the emergency room. So together we wrote the Survivors' Access to Supportive Care Act, I traveled to DC a couple of times to lobby for the bill, I ended up getting bi-partisan co-sponsorship with Lisa Murkowski, and after eight years of work we passed the Survivors' Access to Supportive Care Act as part of VAWA [Violence Against Women Act] just this March. So that was pretty incredible. We got $150 million to train and pay sexual assault nurse examiners around the country.
At the same time, I had been working with Representative Tina Orwall and Senator Dhingra on the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Best Practices taskforce, and we have passed about a dozen reforms, more than a dozen reforms, to transform how survivors interact with the systems that failed me. Police wouldn't test my rape kit, so I made them test all 11,000 of the untested rape kits in Washington. We got trauma-informed training for police officers. We got survivors' rights, the first-in-the-nation rape kit tracking system, so we've been really making transformation. At the same time I worked to organize every Democratic organization in the state, the county, and the LDs for Referendum 90 to ensure that we had comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically accurate sexual health education in Washington.
So this has really become my full-time unpaid job in addition to my full-time job as a librarian. When we passed the Survivors' Access to Supportive Care Act in March, the very next day I got an email from Representative Eileen Cody letting me know that she was retiring. And that timing to me felt like purpose, so I called the consultant that I've been talking to over at Upper Left and we launched a couple of days later. And running this campaign as somebody who just is a real person, who has led with vulnerability and passion and drive to make substantive change is, feels correct, right now.
[00:05:16] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and the timing was right there. And I just want to say thank you for working so hard and for willing to put yourself and your trauma out there to help so many other people. It is - I wish so many people weren't surprised by how the system can revictimize survivors of sexual assault, and it's absolutely traumatic. It prevents so many people from coming forward and seeking justice in the first place, which just makes us all less safe because there's no accountability for folks who do this. And people know that odds are - it's not going to be pursued if you do violate someone, and to be part of turning that tide and changing that is just so important to so many men and women. I just really appreciate all the work that you've done for all that time.
Just looking more at your campaign, just starting with how this legislative session, this past legislative session shaped up - there were great things that happened, there were some not so great things that happened. What was your evaluation of this past session?
[00:06:36] Leah Griffin: It was short, and I think there were some real disappointments. Paramount for me was the un-passage of the Keep Our Care Act because we knew, the people that are in this work knew, that Roe was going to fall. And it - likely, it is. And we have this, I think, misconception that we're safe here in Washington. And I do not think that that is true. And we have a situation right now where religiously affiliated hospitals are taking over our hospital beds here in Washington State. And those religiously affiliated hospitals are limiting access to abortion care, they're limiting access to end-of-life care, and they're limiting access to gender affirming care. And that is dangerous for so many people and tragic for so many people. And this law would have - and I think it was no money either, there wasn't a massive budget implication even - would've given the Attorney General oversight into these mergers so we could prevent more of them from happening. So I think that bill not passing is a tragedy.
The other bill - there's two others that I was really disappointed not passing - was the unionization of Legislature staff. I think that if we're going to have strong government that is working and functioning to make our communities' lives better, those people need to be paid and compensated and treated fairly. And to have our legislative staff making less than minimum wage is just wrong. So I was disappointed in that. And then the third thing that really was a disappointment was the Lorraine Loomis Act didn't pass. Salmon recovery is so important to our ecosystem, to our orcas, to the whole Puget Sound. And to have a bill like that not pass because of a 10% disagreement where farmers didn't want to pay the 10% of the total funding that was going to go into this bill - and I understand that - farmers are struggling too, and it disappoints me that lawmakers couldn't find that extra 10% and move that across the finish line, because I think that's the kind of compromise that we need to do to address the urgency of our environmental problems.
[00:09:14] Crystal Fincher: It makes sense. And I should note that that staffer unionization bill died, but then was resurrected and it came back, and passed - and in a different iteration than was originally there. I think a lot of us definitely preferred the original bill and wish that would have been what passed out. Looking at, just what you're looking to do - what are your priorities?
[00:09:42] Leah Griffin: So my number one priority is access to behavioral health care. When I look at the problems that our society faces with everything - with public safety, with homelessness, with education - so much of our challenges boil down to trauma. And we are not addressing that trauma in a meaningful and substantive way. So in my conversations with community, what I'm finding is that so many people are touched by behavioral health care needs. When I've talked to union reps - the number one issue of the firefighters union, without hesitation when I asked, was mental health care. And so my number one priority is making sure that people have access to the care that they need at the point of need. I know - I'm a school librarian - I see kids in school, especially after this pandemic, really struggling with their mental health. The isolation was hard, what we've experienced is a national trauma. When we look at kids - I saw you tweeted just the other day that Black students are much more likely to die by suicide than white students in our school systems locally, and we have to do something to address that.
So part of the solution is making sure that we're incentivizing education and mental health care practitioners, because we simply do not have enough of them. The other part of that is that we need to embed those mental health care practitioners at the point of need. So one, make sure that they're in schools. In 2014, the people passed by initiative increased staffing, educational support staff and the Legislature never funded it. And we owe it to our kids to make sure that we're funding the support staff that is going to help them succeed. And right now, we - of course, need more librarians - but right now that really means mental health care practitioners. So we need that. I want to embed mental health care practitioners in unions. The suicide rate among labor is massively high - we have to address trauma, or we're going to keep perpetuating the same problems over and over and over until we do. So, that's number one.
The other thing that I really want to lead on is access to abortion care. Like I said before, Roe's falling - talking to Planned Parenthood, we know that we're going to have a 385% increase in pregnant people coming to Washington to receive care. And we have to be ready for that. We have to be ready for that by limiting the acquisition of religiously affiliated hospitals, we have to make sure that we're funding abortions for people who come here - because as the increase happens, it's going to get more expensive because that's how our for-profit healthcare system works. So we need to make sure people can afford it until we can get a single-payer universal healthcare system, which is also absolutely a priority of mine. And we need to make sure that we're training doctors because other states are going to cease training in abortion procedures and we have to pick up that slack here. We have to. So I am fortunate that I've spent the last almost decade working in this space of training for healthcare practitioners and really excited to get in there and make sure that we get that done.
Third, housing. We absolutely need to build more housing. That is the solution to our housing crisis. One of the areas that I particularly care a lot about is the missing middle housing, and it was a shame that that also didn't pass this year. But I'm really fortunate that I was able to purchase my house in 2015 via a HUD program that no longer does it - it's a stagnant program now, but it was a program that took government foreclosures and sold to first-time home buyers who are going to live in that home. So it cut out all of the foreign investors, all of the flippers, other investors and said that this is available for people in the community. So I was able to purchase a house for $225,000 in 2015. And that is the only reason that I, as a school librarian, am able to live in the City of Seattle. And I want that opportunity for more of my neighbors. And the state could be doing more in that regard.
[00:14:48] Crystal Fincher: So should we be increasing density in single-family neighborhoods?
[00:14:53] Leah Griffin: Yes, we have to. The days of - we have to increase density because we are so far behind in having the number of available units that we need in order to house people that if we're not increasing density, we're creating sprawl. And the impact on the environment, the impact on emissions, the impact on the quality of people's lives - is not fair to ask people who are lower income than the high-wage tech workers who live in Seattle to have to have an entirely different type of life because they can't afford to live where they work. I work in the service industry or have - I'm a school librarian, but I don't make enough to support my family. So during the summer, I waitress and bartend every summer until the summer before the pandemic, to earn enough money to be able to afford to live in this city. And my colleagues who waitress full-time or bartended full-time - it was so much harder to be able to make it here. And they should not be having to drive hours away in order to make a living to support their families. And the only way that we can make sure that people don't have to live that lifestyle is to build more housing.
[00:16:39] Crystal Fincher: It makes sense. Related to housing is homelessness and the homeless crisis that we have. A lot of policy regarding homelessness is determined at the local level. What can you do in your capacity as a legislator to reduce the amount of people who are living outside?
[00:17:00] Leah Griffin: At the state level, what I think that we need to do is make sure that we are reforming our tax structure so that we can have a more equitable society. Everything is - every policy is every other kind of policy. That makes sense, so every housing policy is also an education policy is also a climate policy is also a transit policy. So what we can do at the state level is make sure that our infrastructure, that our education system, that our healthcare system is funded and robust. Our for-profit healthcare system is bankrupting families, and that leads to homelessness. So we need to make sure that people can get healthcare without losing their homes. People don't have jobs that pay enough in order to afford housing, so we need to make sure that we have strong apprenticeship programs and strong education. Our number one priority in the Legislature is fully funding public education. That is anti-homelessness policy. And then for the less than a third of people experiencing homelessness who have substance abuse disorder, funding the behavioral health care access is homelessness policy. And those are all things that the state can do.
[00:18:32] Crystal Fincher: Certainly agree with and appreciate you engaging with just the reality that behavioral health care is critically important, substance use disorder treatment is really important. Should possessing drugs be a crime, or is it more of a public health problem than a criminal problem?
[00:18:54] Leah Griffin: I think possessing drugs should absolutely not be a crime. I think that it is absolutely a public health issue and it goes back to what I talked about at the beginning - is addressing trauma. And when we are punishing people for seeking respite from trauma, and we are compounding that trauma, we are compounding that behavior. So I am somebody who has been working in this criminal justice space as a survivor of violent crime. And I think that gives me a lot of privilege and leeway to say that our criminal legal system is horrendous. I know that we both did the IDF program - and as part of the Institute for Democratic Future program, I had an opportunity to tour the Monroe Correctional Facility and it shook me to my absolute core when I walked into that facility. Seeing these men in cages, with their faces through a small glass square just looking out into an empty room, was devastating for me to see. And then to learn that these men were laboring for 32 cents an hour in those facilities is devastating and wrong. So I think that when we think about our criminal justice or legal system, a lot of people want to see people punished and what I would really love, as a survivor of violent crime, is if we could shift the narrative from punishing people for misdeeds to giving people the tools and resources that they need to be better neighbors. And especially when it comes to drug use, that is an area where we can provide people with the tools to meet their needs.
I would love to focus on a system that is less based on a carceral model and more based in the therapeutic model. If we're going to put people and separate people from society, then we need to be giving them the mental health treatment that they need to be better neighbors, the education that they need in order to come back out into our community and get a job, the access to community support that they need to maintain healthy relationships and learn relationship skills. Our neighbors deserve all of those things. And we, the victims of violent crime, deserve a system that is going to actually solve a problem and not just spend a ton of money to inhumanely house somebody for a couple of years and then put them right back on the street no better than they were when they went in. That doesn't serve anybody. So, I forgot where we were going with that, what the original question is, but - no, I don't think that we should be putting people in prison for possessing drugs.
[00:22:27] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, I'm with you. And I think you get to the heart of the matter in that what we're doing isn't working right now. It's not working for anyone - you speak so eloquently about how the system is failing survivors of violence of all types, and of crime of all types really. And right now, there is a lot of angst among people looking around and going - okay, well, I'm not feeling very safe right now, I feel like crime is increasing. I can see cops on the street and that seems like something even if I know maybe that is not the perfect solution. What would you tell someone who is saying - yeah, I recognize that what we're doing isn't working, it's not ideal. But how do we transition to a model that does - how do you make them safer?
[00:23:28] Leah Griffin: It is so big, right? It is a monumental task, and that requires so many people in so many agencies and so many governing bodies working together to try to make this change. What I would say is that we have to fund our services and we can only fund our services through tax reform. And I am fully supportive of the Wealth Tax that people are talking, that Noel Frame is talking about. And I am one who is really hopeful about the future possibility of an income tax in Washington State - let me tell you why. What I've learned over the last eight years is that culture and policymaking have to move in tandem together in order to be effective. And how I know this is that I fought for years to end the rape kit backlog in Washington. And it was pushing against a wall for several years because sexual assault victims were not the priority. People did not care - tina Orwall cared, Senator Dhingra cared, Pramila Jayapal cared, Patty Murray cared - but there were people who didn't prioritize it at all. And this is an issue that is not super controversial. Most people would agree - yes, we should test the rape kits of sexual assault survivors. And then the Me Too movement happened, and we were able to pass that bill, we passed other reforms, really make a dent in how survivors interact with our systems.
Right now, I think what the pandemic has done is shown us - us, the people, real working people - that we can have it better. It has shown us that there is opportunity to change systems in meaningful ways if we have the desire to do so. And I think that we see this in the push to unionize in the private sector - we're seeing huge gains there. And I think if we start talking to people, real working people, about what it actually looks like to have a progressive income tax, but also be able to roll back some of our other regressive taxes, like sales tax, like B & O tax. How would that look for people's lives? And I think that we can get enough people in business, that we can get enough people across our society to say - yes, that really makes sense. And we can have the votes to do the constitutional amendment to have a progressive income tax. I think that is possible. I think that is possible sooner than later, because I think people realize that we deserve better and we can have better. And if we work together and we tell our stories - that's my campaign theme - because I know that stories is how you change hearts and minds, connection is how you've changed hearts and minds - that we can have it. So that's what I think that we can do.
[00:26:55] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, no that completely makes sense. And I really appreciate you speaking on your perspective as a survivor. So many times people try and speak for them, and you've spoken eloquently about this before. And really a lot of times what people characterize or try and score political points with by saying - well, think about the survivors - does not match what survivors are actually saying themselves and there are so many.
[00:27:22] Leah Griffin: No, and it drives me - it drives me bonkers when people try to say - we can't have reformed systems because what about rapists? And I think to myself, the rapists are fine. They're not the ones going to jail. It's Black and Brown people possessing drugs, not rapists, and that's wrong.
[00:27:49] Crystal Fincher: It is. Well, another thing that's wrong is our Earth hurdling towards a future that is in jeopardy because of how we're not taking action to address our climate. What should we be doing? What more should we be doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet our climate goals?
[00:28:15] Leah Griffin: We got to cap carbon. We got to stop big polluters from polluting - because we can recycle as many plastic bags as we can as individual consumers, but if we have corporations pumping CO₂ into the atmosphere at monstrous levels, then my plastic bag isn't going to save us. So one, we need to stop polluters. Two, we need to really speed up the shift to clean energy. And that's what's really exciting for me in the 34th, is that we just got in redistricting the whole manufacturing industrial area into the 34th LD. And that to me is a huge opportunity to invest in infrastructure for clean products, for solar production, for wind energy production. There's so much potential there for the shift that I'm really excited to talk with business leaders and look at the potential for that. I think that we need to be working towards a just transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. We need to be training people to work in that industry. We have an opportunity in Washington to really invest in tidal energy which is really exciting. And I think that we should be doing more - more of all of it.
I grew up in the nineties, I'm a nineties kid, and I remember watching Fern Gully. I don't know if you remember Fern Gully - it was terrifying, absolutely a terrifying children's film - and being really scared and angry about what the polluters were doing to our environment. And now I'm 36 and I teach high school and I see that same anger in the faces of the teenagers that I teach. And I think to myself, where were the adults that were supposed to take care of this over the last 20 years? And this is part of why I'm running is because I'm that adult. And let's get it done. Let's stop not passing laws that are going to help restore salmon habitat over a 10% funding shortfall. Let's find that money and do it. Let's invest in energy production. Let's find ways to increase credits for electric cars. Let's increase density 'cause like I said before, every issue is every other issue. Let's increase density so that we have walkable neighborhoods so that people can get out of their cars. Let's invest in transit. I'm honored to have the endorsement of the local Amalgamated Transit Union. Let's get people on bikes, on transit, on buses, trains because good public transit is good climate policy. So many things that we can be doing and should be doing - really impressed with the transportation package last session. That's a highlight that the Legislature did before, so there's so many opportunities to help our planet and I'm excited to pitch in.
[00:31:40] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, there are. You mentioned the transportation package, which did include record investments in transit, in non-car transportation, in building the infrastructure to support that and make it accessible and attractive to people which was really exciting. Some folks were not excited - I'm actually one of those folks who was not that excited - to see more highway expansion also included in that, just because our transportation sector is responsible for so much of our greenhouse gas emissions and it feels taking two steps forward with the transit investments and then taking a step back with - the highway expansion is a step back that we can't afford given the urgency of the action that is needed to mitigate the impacts that are coming. Would you support a package that included further highway expansion? Do you think we should be accelerating advancement and limiting it to our transportation investments into things that do reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
[00:32:55] Leah Griffin: Yeah, I'm with you. But it's also really easy for me to sit here in the 34th legislative district in the City and say - of course, I don't want any highway expansion. Because I don't - there's no need for that here, anywhere close to here. I mean, I think about really rural areas and safety. And as we - unfortunately I do think that there is going to be climate refugees coming to the Northwest. This is one of the best places in the country to live. And, if Washington - Washington can't solve our climate crisis on our own, right? So no matter how much work we do, it is possible that things continue to get worse and people are going to come here. And I think there are universes where there are cities, more cities, more towns in what are now rural areas of Washington, where somebody could make an argument for a highway for safety purposes - being able to get to hospitals - but that's, I think that's like a hundred years out. So I think I can safely say with certainty that I would not support any highway expansions. And wish that that hadn't happened.
[00:34:22] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and it does seem like there's so much, as you alluded to before, just opportunity to build more resilient communities, support communities to upgrade to more resilient infrastructure that reduces emissions, that is healthier for everyone. That that can be a transition that does create so many jobs and so much opportunity there. One conversation that a lot of people are still in right now is about the pandemic and that COVID is still spreading. A lot of people in society are over it and wanting to move forward and get on with it. And - hey, let's just live with it. A lot of other people are saying - I don't think we quite understand yet what living with COVID truly is, and that's a very risky proposition and just preventable. And seems to be having negative impacts on the supply chain, on companies' ability to hire, and just kind of our regional capacity to get things done in the way that we used to. Do you think we're doing enough to mitigate COVID, should more be happening as we work through this and try to move forward in what this new normal is, should the Legislature be doing more?
[00:35:55] Leah Griffin: Yes, there's definitely more to do. I think that there are business owners that are still suffering and struggling because of the impacts of the pandemic. Schools, certainly, are still struggling and suffering because of the impact of the pandemic. Our hospitals, our nurses - my best friend is a nurse down in Burien, and I know that they're still struggling with being able to have sometimes even basic PPE still, which is ridiculous. So I think that - absolutely, we need to be funding our infrastructure. We also need to make sure that that our public health system is fully funded and supported by the Legislature. And this is all going to go back to our tax structure, right? Things cost money. If we want to have nice things, if we want to have systems that function, if we want to have public services that meet the needs of our community, that all costs money. And we need to transform our - we're the worst in the country, it's so embarrassing. Washington State is the absolute last in the country for fair tax structures, and that is priority number one. We have to change that so that we can have the things we deserve. And that includes fully funding education, that includes fully funding public health, that includes making sure that people have access to healthcare in a meaningful way that doesn't bankrupt them - which is why I support single-payer universal health care and think that we're gonna get there. And we need more people that believe that that's possible to get into the Legislature so that we can make it happen, because we deserve it, we can have it. I think what the pandemic also showed us is that when we need to provide every single person in this country with a free vaccine, we can do it. So let's keep doing that.
[00:38:07] Crystal Fincher: I am with you. I'm with you right there. As we wrap up today, what would you tell voters who are considering you, your opponent in trying to make their decision about how to vote? What would you tell them about how their lives would be different with you as their legislator?
[00:38:27] Leah Griffin: I don't know much about my opponent. I know that she's a lawyer and was Jenny Durkan's housing director. But what I know about me is that one, I'm a librarian. And the thing about being a librarian - I think we need a librarian in the Legislature and this is why. We have plenty of lawyers. Librarians, I always say to my students - if you ask me a question, there's a chance I'll know the answer to that question, but there's a chance that I might not, but I know where to find the answer to that question. So when you hire a librarian to work in the Legislature, what you're getting is somebody who knows how to research, who knows how to leverage connections with community and with experts, somebody who is able to bring people together to come to a solution that prioritizes the voices of people most impacted by the problem. You get somebody who is thoughtful, who is empathetic, who cares about you and your story and making sure that your story is represented in the policy that we produce. I am somebody who has put in thousands of hours of unpaid labor to make substantive change just because it's the right thing to do. I have no lofty intentions of moving on to other political office.
I'm running for State Legislature because I love passing laws in the State Legislature. I'm really good at it. I think the other thing to think about is that we had so many people retire this year from the State Leg that - there's a lot of institutional knowledge that is walking out the door this year. And I would urge my neighbors in the 34th to vote for me because you know that I know how this works. I've been involved in the process from the first idea for a bill, to drafting the bill, to working through committees, to testifying, to building coalitions, to looking at what happens to the policy after we pass legislation and making sure that things are working correctly. I know how this works, and so I'm ready to get in there Day One and start passing laws - let's go. So I'm really excited - not only for this campaign that is, has so much momentum - the amount of momentum is overwhelming, the community support has been huge, the support from lawmakers at all levels - state all the way down to the Port of Seattle, who I see huge opportunities to collaborate with. I have relationships from the federal government to the King Conservation District Board, and I value all of those relationships and am excited to work with everybody, including you listener, to make real change.
[00:41:39] Crystal Fincher: Well, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate you taking this time and we'll certainly be following along as you continue on the campaign trail.
[00:41:48] Leah Griffin: Thank you so much for having me, Crystal.
[00:41:50] Crystal Fincher: Thank you. I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in - we'll talk to you next time.