Editorials

Unsoeld led the charge for public access to campaign finance and lobbying records

Jolene Unsoeld in 2016
Jolene Unsoeld in 2016 Courtesy of John Hughes

Today marks the end of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information sponsored by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Freedom of the Press Committee. And March is Women’s History Month. Herewith, we multi-task with a story about both.

In 1971, the Washington state legislature passed the Open Public Meetings Act, modeled on a similar act passed in California in 1967. In fact, its often-quoted statement of intent is lifted word for word from the California law: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

However, as important as that was, it was only third of a loaf. Open public meetings let the light into those infamously smoke-filled rooms, but the effort left the world of campaign financing and lobbying expenditures in the dark. And it didn’t make records of public agencies available to the public.

Jolene Unsoeld and the League of Women Voters had a problem with that. So did the American Association of University Women, and a broad, bipartisan coalition of other good-government groups, who joined to create the Coalition for Open Government. They drafted Initiative 276, which required full reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures, and the expenditures of paid lobbyists. The initiative created the Public Disclosure Commission to track and publish those reports, and to hold candidates and lobbyists accountable for producing them. It also specified that records of public agencies and governments should be available to the public.

Unsoeld, along with a small army of League members and other activists, gathered the signatures to get the initiative on the ballot. The League provided child care at their meetings, and members babysat each others’ kids while they were out persuading people to sign the initiative petitions.

In the summer of 1972, the Watergate scandal was just heating up. In the voters’ pamphlet, the proponents of Initiative 276 noted that “trust in governmental institutions is at an all-time low,” and that “high on the list of causes . . . are secrecy in government and the influence of private money on governmental decision making.”

Opponents of the initiative claimed that it would violate the privacy of political donors and thus their freedom of choice, discourage candidates from running for office, and cost too much to enforce. The legislature put two competing, and much weaker, referenda on the same 1972 ballot. One was described in the statement against it in the state voter’s guide as “a shiny new car – without an engine.”

Nonetheless, 72 percent of voters supported Initiative 276. One might think such an overwhelming majority would end the debate, but what followed was a furious backlash.

In a marvelous book called “Jolene Unsoeld Un-sold,” author John Hughes details Unsoeld’s leadership of the battle to implement the new law and protect it from the onslaught of proposed amendments. In addition to testifying against these proposals to weaken the law, she volunteered to help the fledgling Public Disclosure Commission staff track and record the reports lobbyists and campaigns were producing. In an era long before desktop computers and Excel spreadsheets, this was an arduous, painstaking process that required ledgers, an Underwood typewriter, and many bleary-eyed late nights.

Then Unsoeld did something that was considered truly audacious: She published a book called “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?” Reporters found it invaluable. The stories they wrote using this book helped change our political culture. In Hughes’ book, Unsoeld is quoted as describing the book as “a first approximation of the kind of summary which must be produced in the future if Initiative 276 is eventually to do the job for which it was designed.”

Today, we take for granted that comprehensive information about local campaign financing and lobbyists’ expenditures are available on the Public Disclosure Commission’s website.

Unsoeld quickly became a beloved state celebrity, and went on to serve in the state legislature and in the U. S. Congress. She still lives here in Olympia. The generation of women who worked alongside her includes her neighbor Cherie Davidson, who was unavailable for an interview about the PDC last week because she was busy celebrating her 90th birthday with her family.

But even now, Unsoeld’s achievements, like all the achievements of the movements for open government and women’s equality, are neither final nor secure. In both cases, the backlash persists, and the work is unfinished.

That work is now ours to do.

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