Monday, November 9, 2009

Jolene Unsoeld and Citizen Activism: "What Are You Going To Do About It?"

Above: Former U.S. Congresswoman and citizen activist Jolene Unsoeld.

by Janine Gates

Former Washington State Third District U.S. Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld still won't be told what to do as she fought valiant attempts by Shanna Stevenson, Director of the Women's History Consortium, to attach a corded microphone onto her blouse. Unsoeld, telling Stevenson that she needed freedom to move around when she speaks, of course, got her way.

Not only does Unsoeld move around when she speaks, she gestures with animated excitement and passion. Her trademark smile and energetic spunk was warmly welcomed by a roomful of community members and local activists seeking her insight, guidance and advice in a freewheeling one hour conversation of current topics.

Unsoeld, 77, who lives in Olympia, was an unpaid, independent citizen lobbyist from 1971 to 1984, served in the Washington State Legislature from 1985 to 1989 and in the U.S. Congress from 1989 to 1995.

Unsoeld was the guest speaker today at the Washington State Capital Museum in a program coordinated by the Women’s History Consortium. The Consortium, an initiative of the Washington State Historical Society, recently funded the processing of Unsoeld's papers at The Evergreen State College. In 2008, Unsoeld received the Washington Coalition for Open Government's James Madison Award for her lifetime work protecting open government.

Unsoeld explained the beginnings of her activism, which, for many mothers, often begins with their children's interest in political affairs. "I got married young and had four children while my husband was in graduate school...then we went to Nepal with the Peace Corps....When we came back, we were really thrown off center. Our family was exposed to television for the first time - starving children in Biafra and the Vietnam War."

Unsoeld described the pivotal moment that led to her future political activism: "My eldest son, then 16, was so (emotionally) decimated by world's affairs, and had many discussions with his parents about what he could do. His queries were usually answered, 'No, I don't think that will work; no, going to jail won't stop the war...' "Finally, out of absolute disgust, he asked at the dinner table one night, "Well, Mom and Dad, what are you going to do about it?"

When they moved to Olympia in 1970, Unsoeld says she literally wandered into the state Capitol Building out of curiosity and it wasn't long before she got involved in the political process.

From her first hand experiences, Unsoeld says the lesson she learned, one that will remain constant despite the era or issue, is for activists to learn to follow the money in political campaigns.

Unsoeld's early work included helping successfully spearhead I-276, the Public Disclosure Act, which later resulted in the establishment of the Public Disclosure Commission, which monitors candidate fundraising activities.

Describing her research work in pre-computer days during the election cycles of 1974 and 1976, Unsoeld monitored and tabulated about 400 candidates on a daily basis as reports came in, using card files and large notebooks.

"I was learning a lot as I looked at these reports coming in," as Unsoeld noticed significant conflict of interest connections in an Eastern Washington race. The local newspaper ignored her information, but Unsoeld says she appreciated the fact that KING-TV and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer took notice of her work.

Almost singlehandedly, Unsoeld then created a grassroots booklet on her Underwood typewriter called, "Who Gave, Who Got, How Much?" which summarized her findings. Many names and addresses of contributors were, at first glance, seemingly unconnected, but were discovered, through Unsoeld's research, to be directly connected. "What I learned is that the grassroots efforts that is represented by lots of small individual contributions could overcome the mass of high contributions by vested interest groups."

Audience member Alan Mountjoy-Venning asked Unsoeld about the impact of Glenn Beck forcing certain candidates forward when more reasonable candidates are available who are actually interested in true dialogue. Unsoeld responded, "I think the liberal wing of the media and the public is not fully recognizing the danger here. There is just enough of the extreme element to stomp on the majority...."

Unsoeld said that the Democrats need catchy slogans like those created by Republican wordsmith and strategist Frank Luntz, whom she described as "a genius the Democrats have never had." Luntz creates small focus groups and finds out what phrases people will respond to, "although they have nothing to do with reality," like "death tax," "public option," and "government takeover."

"Words are words, and they can be positive ones, but Democrats have not found their words to make their message on healthcare, or Wall Street or any of those issues, to find a solution."

Speaking of Tim Eyman and the initiative process, Unsoeld said, "The initiative process used to be a process of the people rising up and speaking out on an issue. Do you think it is anymore? No....We are all interest groups, but I'm talking about monied, vested interest groups that have the wherewithall to take over the process...Eyman is making a permanent living off of it - I think it's a real fluke, fortunately, that he didn't succeed this time, but there is a real danger there, and there is a lesser ability for people to make more of a difference...."

Unsoeld asked the audience to ask themselves, "What is it that's coming up this next session? The money is already flowing...there are those forces at work....We must follow the money ahead of time, before the issue arises...(but) with the lack of investigative reporting, the news media can't do it right now...the people need to lead. There isn't any shortcut...."

An audience member asked what are the sources of truth. Unsoeld, who had read passages from the New York Times, the Washington Spectator and quoted "her hero" public affairs commentator Bill Moyers, said, "The problem is that there are a lot of good public interest groups that do good, but when an issue gets too hot and costs them membership and contributions from good government types, they back off...."

"There is no substitute for an informed, participatory public. It just takes dogged, dogged work, and we're all tired, our age group particularly, so we've got to get those youngsters going. They were out in the last campaign but they've got to stay's a long haul. Those are the battles that have to be fought for social justice and they are so important. If you try to stay on the sidelines, you're just deceiving you have to find that that inner strength to keep going."

"We have to be willing to get muddy to understand how it all long as you have people on all sides who have (gotten muddy), then things will be fairly balanced and honest...There is no absolute right or wrong on any issue. You have to struggle with every step to keep your values and goals in your mind...."

And as people left the room and went out into the blustery weather that left some areas without power this afternoon, Unsoeld, whose talk was punctuated by applause several times, had clearly succeeded in delivering the challenge to her audience to get muddy and make a difference.

To learn about the Women's History Consortium, contact the Washington State Historical Society at or for more information.

To "follow the money" and see who contributes to candidates and how much, go to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission at

Above: Former U.S. Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld speaks with audience members at the Washington State Capital Museum today.