Professional lobbying, since its makeover by the likes of Paul Manafort during the Reagan era, now carries a pretty bad rap. But talk to islander, author and former lobbyist Don Stuart and the notion of what, in general, a lobbyist does reveals another story.
Drawing on his 20 years of experience in Olympia lobbying for commercial fishermen, the Conservation District and the American Farmland Trust, Stuart has written a mystery set in the state’s capitol with a lobbyist as its protagonist. Stuart will read and sign his new novel, “Final Adjournment, A Washington State House Mystery,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Vashon Bookshop.
Sandy Dalton specializes in lobbying for natural resource issues, and some of his clients include commercial fishermen and their trade associations, which engage in never-ending battles with sport fishermen over declining salmon runs. When a six-term Democratic senator is stabbed mid-day in his legislative office, Dalton becomes the prime suspect as he was the last one to see the senator alive, and the two had engaged in a heated argument over a bill. To clear his name and because he doubts the effectiveness of the State Patrol — which has jurisdiction over the Capitol — in finding the murderer, Dalton begins to sleuth on his own.
Aside from the classic author adage to “write what you know,” Stuart said his intention for the book was to make the process of the legislature and the role of the lobbyist more accessible.
“I wanted to write about the legislature, and I wanted a lobbyist as protagonist because most people see lobbyists as bad guys, but they are at the core of what goes on in the legislature,” Stuart said. “My feeling is they should have influence because they represent us and unlike legislators, you know where they stand. It is clear who they represent and why. I think lobbyists provide a very important service, which is to provide information to legislators that they really can’t get.”
Why a mystery? Beyond being fond of mysteries himself, Stuart’s experience led him to believe the legislature is the perfect setting for a murder. With no forensic evidence and no eye witness, Stuart’s fictional murder comes down to motive, and understanding that motive is central to being a lobbyist, the author said.
“Olympia is a place with all these passions about issues that cut to the core of your values. It is happening everyday — there are thousands of bills. What a place for murder,” he said with a laugh. “Why a lobbyist? Because they think about what motivates people: What does a legislator care about, what would cause them to agree with you, what arguments can you make that will convince them. When you do that, it causes you to recognize there are other points of view besides your own and both might be relevant. The legislator is doing that same thing — and that is the process of expanding creative thinking and incorporating new perspectives. New facts come to light that maybe are more universally acceptable. That is the lobbyist’s skill, talking with different people, and that is all about motive.”
Stuart, who retired in 2011 and moved to the island with his wife a year ago January, said he enjoyed writing the book and, who knows, there may be future mysteries for his lobbyist detective to solve. One thing he does know is that he wanted to create a character who was “sufficiently intuitive and open.”
“I get tired of detectives who beat the truth out of people,” he said. “I wanted Sandy to be a more user-friendly detective who operates by appreciating other points of view, someone not threatening. That all struck me as worthy, and it was very fun to write the book.”