Sequim-born teenager Peter Silliman, 16, recently was able to enjoy a unique experience: serving as a legislative page for the Washington State House of Representatives.
“It was an awesome experience,” Silliman said. “I’m really, really happy I did it.”
Silliman first learned about the program four years ago on a Boys & Girls Club trip to the capitol, and last year spent time talking to a friend who was considering applying (ultimately, his friend did’t apply). That process inspired Silliman to apply this year — getting a boost from Mary Budke, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula.
“She really encouraged me to go for it, and supported me after I applied,” Silliman said.
For his application to be accepted, Silliman had to get a recommendation from one of his local representatives. Through Budke, Silliman sought out the 24th district legislators, and it was former Sequim resident Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-Port Townsend) who quickly gave the OK for the Sequim High School teen to serve in Olympia.
Aiding the legislation
After several weeks of preparation — with Budke helping make sure the teen had everything he needed, such as updated, professional clothing — Silliman arrived at the state capitol on Feb. 9 for orientation.
“It was a lot to take in,” he said. “But they did a good job of getting us prepared.”
The first two days, Silliman and other pages serving that week worked mostly from the House of Representatives’ Page Room, delivering messages and supplies to offices around the House of Representatives building and occasionally elsewhere on the capitol campus.
“Learning how to navigate the capitol was tricky,” he said. “We’d get notes that room numbers that we had to learn how to interpret and a task to do, be it to pick something up there and go elsewhere, or bring them something from supply, or take them a message or whatever.
“I was really glad that I took some time to study the campus map before I went down; that helped a lot.”
When pages were finally allowed onto the House floor on Feb. 12, Silliman was given a distinct honor: carrying the Washington state flag onto the floor for display.
“That was an incredible moment, getting to do that,” Silliman said. “I won’t forget that.”
That started three days of frantic activity, he said.
“Those were three days that we were told were going to be very busy,” Silliman said. “There were a lot of hearings, and a lot of amendments going out during sessions. As soon as an amendment was made, we had to take paper copies of them to every representative, and to the lobbyists waiting outside the chamber. We were also taking a lot of messages back and forth between representatives and their staff or to lobbyists.”
The pages didn’t just spend their days running around the state capitol, however — they also went to school. At least two hours of each day were spent in “page school” that included lessons on the legislative process. Pages were instructed on the process of a bill being drafted and becoming a law.
“It definitely wasn’t ‘Schoolhouse Rock,’” Silliman said with a laugh.
As part of their education, the pages were instructed on the technical details on how to draft the bill, including the proper language and formatting to use for a bill proposal. With that information in hand, each page was asked to draft their own bill for their peers to consider and potentially vote on in a mock version of the legislative process.
Silliman and fellow page Jacob Sevilla drafted a bill on a subject important to him: reducing opioid overdose deaths. Silliman and Sevilla would accomplish this by making NARCAN — a high dose over overdose-slowing medication Naloxone — more widely available at pharmacies, with a requirement that it be offered alongside any opioid prescriptions that are filled.
According to Silliman, that bill was generally supported in the early phases of the legislative process, getting through “committee” cleanly and not seeing opposition during general discussion.
When it came to the vote, though, things were different.
“It was probably the most divisive bill we had,” Silliman said. “It only passed by three votes, which surprised me since it had been looking good before. No other bill was anywhere near that close.”
Still, Silliman said he was proud of the work that he and Sevilla put in to writing their bill and getting it passed, and said it was an illuminating look at the legislative process.
Looking to the future
During a quiet moment, Silliman had a chance to sit down with Tharinger on the House floor and talk to him.
“It was a good conversation,” he said. “We talked about what had been going on in the week and how I was enjoying everything.”
Silliman also admitted that while he’s never been the biggest fan of what he understood of the political process before, serving as a page helped open his eyes and gave him a new appreciation for what they do.
“Being in that chamber around 99 people who are working to make Washington state better was really powerful,” he said. “That energy and that feeling was very empowering.”
While Silliman said he isn’t sure that he wants to get into national or even necessarily state-level politics, the experience of serving as a page dramatically increased his interest in pursuing more local politics, like a city council or county commissioner’s seat.
“I definitely want to be able to give back and help build things like that,” said Silliman, who is also eyeing a career in engineering. “It’s important to contribute to the community around you.”
Support from all corners
The journey wasn’t one taken by Silliman on his own — he had a whole system of support to help him have this experience.
That support started first and foremost from Budke, who encouraged Silliman through the process from the moment she found out he was interested, and had been hoping he would step up for some time.
“I talked to (state Rep.) Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles) last year and asked him if there was anything the clubs could do to help him and the legislature, since he’s done so much for us over the years,” Budke said. “The first thing he said was, ‘We need pages from the 24th (district) in Olympia.’
“It’s easy for Olympia-area legislators to fill up the page spots,” Budke explained. “They don’t need housing or transportation. But it’s important to have representation from around the state in that program.”
Budke said that Silliman was one of the first potential candidates she thought of after that conversation — “I’ve wanted him to do this for a long time,” she added — and that she was thrilled when he approached her about it.
“This kind of opportunity is very educational and provides personal growth and educational opportunities for students,” she said.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to watch the government in action and learn about it.”
In addition to helping get Silliman the clothing and supplies he’d need for the trip, Budke said she wound up having to help with his housing last-second as well.
“I was down in Olympia anyways advocating for the Boys & Girls Clubs, and got a text from Peter,” Budke said. “He told me his housing plan had fallen through and he didn’t know what to do.”
Budke quickly got to work, contacting the family of a colleague she was working with in town and arranging for him to stay there.
“I didn’t want him to have to miss the chance because of that,” she said. “Especially since he told me afterwards that the whole week was so amazing.”
When asked about what such a journey had meant to Silliman, Budke had just three words to say: “Life-changing experience.”