Please enjoy the first article in a new series by OCDCC Contributor Jim Brennan: An Interview with Kirsten Williams.
Kirsten, first off let me thank you for taking the time to respond to this first in a series of interviews hoping to spotlight Democratic board and community outreach members here in Okanogan County. By way of introductions, would you mind telling us a bit of your personal story? Are you a native of Okanogan County? If not, how many years have you lived here and what brought you here to begin with? What are some of your educational and professional experiences that have shaped your life?
I grew up with a father in the Air Force. I was born in Waco, Texas and lived on both coasts by the time I was 3. We also lived in Germany for 3 years, which is where I learned to ride horses and probably started my love for country life. I attended UW and then worked in graphics and illustration for a few companies before landing at Microsoft. At that time, we lived outside of Index on the Skykomish River. Eventually I needed a break from the 90 inches of rain a year, so we bought a cabin in the sweet town of Loomis. After spending most of a summer here, we decided to make the move permanent 14 years ago, and converted the 1943 Loomis School House to the home we live in today. Both our children graduated from Tonasket and we have loved being a part of our community. As a military child, I have searched for my "home" and now consider Loomis the place "I am from."
I have volunteered for a number of organizations. While in Index, I was on the school board. Living here, I have served on the boards of the Tonasket Library, Loomis Community Club, Tonasket Booster Club and volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children. Recently I was appointed to the Fair Advisory Committee, and am excited to be a part of that team.
I think we all know Okanogan County is a big county. How would you describe your "neighborhood" and nearby communities? What have you found are the priorities of people you encounter on a day-to-day basis? Given your travels and connections, have you noticed different priorities being voiced in other communities?
Loomis is surrounded by Orchards, cattle ranches, logging operations, and recreational opportunities, while also being at “the end of the road." We have a number of migrant families, state DNR employees, retirees and long-established families. We are a tight knit group. Everyone knows their neighbors--and everyone helps their neighbors.
My Loomis friends and neighbors are a true political cross section, which I think is somewhat unusual for much of Okanogan County. My like-minded friends and neighbors are absolutely terrified and horrified by the Trump Administration/agenda. As a group we have connected with each other and become more comfortable with publicly expressing our political concerns and dissatisfaction. Our precinct usually has over an 80% voter turnout, so we like to vote.
For many of my conservative friends and neighbors, they feel they are over taxed and over regulated by state and federal agencies that don’t understand what it takes to run their operations and businesses successfully. Loomis has only had broadband for 5 years. Until then it was dial-up or slow satellite. We still don’t have any cell service. Most people did not do their paperwork or reporting online, leaving them behind, which leads to more frustration.
The orchards are required to follow more regulations and file more paperwork every year. The big guys (Gebbers) can hire people to take care of compliance issues for the entire company. The small independent growers have to add that on top of everything else they do. When hiring workers through the H2A Visa program, the migrant employees can only work for one grower and aren’t able to work for someone else while they wait for fruit to come on. Again, not a problem for the large operations. Unfortunately, these issues are fully blamed on state and federal Democrats, which I’m sure the Republicans are happy to do. Local business owners also don’t realize that their Republican electeds did little or nothing to build a communications infrastructure.
For all of us in Loomis, we worry about fire. Every year we will have a good fire in the mountains, or just across the border. During the Okanogan Complex fire, we spent nearly 2 weeks waiting for the fire to burn through the Sinlahekin Wildlife area and into Loomis. Because of a well-timed inversion and some forward thinking prescribed burning, they were able to hold the fire and we didn’t have to evacuate.
It seems that many of the same concerns are felt throughout the county. In addition to concerns about the future viability of farming and ranching, people have to deal with the limited educational and work opportunities for their children, the high rates of poverty and the impact of addiction on the community.
As Karen Hardy’s campaign manager in the 7th, I discovered that Ferry and Stevens Counties have some unique issues. They don’t have the economic anchor of agriculture; they are even further behind on communications infrastructure; and they are dealing with a disturbing white supremacist/secessionist movement that is trying to take over all local government. It should be noted that our 7th LD legislators have been happy to appease and consort with the movement and its leaders.
You've just been re-elected State Committee Person. Just what does that position entail? Is it tied to a particular District? In your capacity as State Committee Person, who are the other committee members that you meet or communicate with regularly and what are the issues and goals your committee is currently working on?
I am the female identified State Committee Member that represents Okanogan County. There are 39 counties and 49 legislative districts (LD) in the state. Each county and LD have 2 representatives as part of the Washington State Democratic Central Committee. There are multiple LD's within King County, whereas the 7th LD, which I live in, goes to the Idaho border and is the largest in the state. As State Committee Member I attend 3 state meetings a year. The first day of the meeting is spent in Caucus and Committee Meetings. I usually attend the Rural and Ag Caucus.
I am finishing serving as a co-chair on the new Communications and Training committee. I was focused on the Training side of the committee, and we produced an updated a PCO Handbook, and a new Spanish PCO Handbook. the committees are supposed to meet by phone or video conferencing once a month. Next session the committee will develop a list of press contacts from each LD and county organizations, and lists of all the news outlets throughout the state for the state party communications director. For training, I’d like to see a handbook developed for “beginning campaigns.” My committee assignment might change this next cycle, and my other preference would be for the Eastern Washington Committee
The final day of the state meeting is spent in the general session where the body handles internal elections, and passes any resolutions. This year, the central committee passed 5 resolutions from Okanogan County, including resolutions against the gerrymandering of the Colville Reservation and for the removal of the Enloe Dam.
Given your commitment to our local and state Democratic Party, you have to consider yourself an activist. Is there one person or event that inspired you to donate so much of your time and energy to politics? What do you find rewarding as you attend meetings and hash out policies and procedures? What are some of the recent accomplishments you can point to?
I would have been perfectly happy to being a reliable and quiet Democrat. I remember being at the county fair, and thinking I don’t want to join the county Dems, because I’d probably have to do booth duty--and then everyone would know I was a Democrat! November 2016 changed everything. I showed up with my 2 of my Loomis “D” friends to the reorg meeting in 2016, and wanted to immediately jump in. I am so happy I did, and have since worked hard to show my Republican friends that we are much more sensible, practical and grounded than they think we are. We are not to be vilified or feared. We want many of the same things for our families and communities, we just have different ways of getting there.
I have truly enjoyed being a part of our county team and how we have worked together to expand our base, increase turnout and find some amazing Democrats to run. As a state committee member, I had to learn a new language and culture (catch up on technology) and now feel that I actually have the hang of it. I continue to expand my contacts with other committee members, state party staff, and candidates. It is rewarding to see our county resolutions pass with little or no revision.
As a campaign manager, a whole new world opened up for me. I was so thankful that Karen Hardy gave me that opportunity, and I hope to continue helping rural candidates in their campaigns.
Being a Democrat in Eastern Washington can be challenging these days but, if nothing else, politics is dynamic. What are the positive trends for Democrats that you see across our region as we point to the 2020 election cycle?
The most positive trend is seeing Democrats run in every race and every place! This was a strategy implemented by our State Party Chair, Tina Podlodowski. (Tina was the manager of my group at Microsoft in the 90s, and was by far the best manager our group ever had. I knew why she needed to be our chair, and I think everyone else now knows why!)
I used to think it might make more sense for Democrats to run as Independents in Red Country—not anymore. For most rural Republicans, Independent is just code for Democrat. A Democrat running as an Independent doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have access to the party tools and infrastructure, and it does nothing to solve our rural losses. We have to have a long game which starts with joining community organizations, boards and committees. We have to keep building our bench, and continue building our local party infrastructure. After years of neglect, we have to rebuild a rural Democratic party from scratch, and I think we are moving in the right direction.
A group of Eastern Washington Candidates and key staff met in December to debrief and share what worked—what didn’t. We plan to meet quarterly to develop strategies for the next class of candidates. The candidates who stepped forward to run in these enormous districts are real heroes, and we need to support them in any way we can. As a group, we decided to act as if our candidates did win and work with Democratic legislators to get what our communities need.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see happen in Okanogan County over the next decade? How can we help change it for the better?
Currently we have no Democrats in county or state elected positions. I would like to see at least 30% of those positions accurately represented by Democrats.
Most of our Republican representatives have a shared mindset of “less government”, which in reality means they have no intention of doing much of anything. They vote “No,” and then reap the benefits of how the majority votes. Voters need to see this disconnect.
We need representatives who will actually work for the people. We also need representatives that believe in respecting and representing all their constituents--not just their narrow world view. Many of our representatives are extremists, and we need to vote them out. We also need to hold them accountable, and require that they actually improve the lives of their constituents.
Through better representation and collaboration, I’d like to see Okanogan County prosper. I’d like to see Okanogan county become an innovative leader in rural health, education and services.
Our current legislators lack the ambition, knowledge and ability to move us forward. We can’t wait for them to change. We need to move forward without them. And we need to let the people of Okanogan County know that it is Democrats doing the work.