Victor Minjares Is the Change We Need in the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office

I’m supporting Victor Minjares for Thurston County Prosecutor, and so should you.


Because business as usual at the County Courthouse has left us in a financial crisis. 75% of our tax dollars are spent on “Law and Justice.” Most of that goes to courts and jails. Our jail system is overcrowded and contains conditions that have in the past drawn the attention of the ACLU. Just last year The Olympian ran yet another article about inhumane conditions at our taxpayer-funded facility.

Most of the people in our jail have never been convicted of a crime yet they can be held for months because they can’t afford bail. Nearly half are afflicted with mental illness yet are incarcerated instead of being offered the treatment they need. We can be better.

Victor will work to end the expensive cycle of incarceration in Thurston County. Victor understands that we need to put people behind books not behind bars. That by ending cash bail and creating diversion programs for low-risk offenders we can end overcrowding and help good people, who just need a little jumpstart, get into education and training programs and get on track. That’s a much better use of our money than continuing to throw it away by imprisoning people who haven’t been convicted of anything.

A vote for Victor is a vote for justice. A vote for fiscal responsibility. A vote for proactive leadership. Please join me in voting for Victor Minjares for Thurston County Prosecutor on November 6th.

Spread Love, It’s the Veteran Way

Yesterday I attended a veteran services event at a local AmVets post. I met a bunch of new people and saw a few familiar faces as well. Mostly this was an information sharing meeting where folks from the VA and the WADAV came and presented on changes to their programs and systems.
At the end of the event, there was time for Q&A. Most folks asked technical questions about what they’d just heard.
There was a young man sitting just a couple of feet from where I was standing, behind me to my right. We had made eye contact at one point and he smiled big and nodded a hello. At one point he rose and raised his hand to ask a question. I could instantly see the urgency in his eyes. Urgency but with fear. It’s a look I’ve seen before in people who have a story to tell and are speaking up for the first time in a room full of strangers. Despite this, he patiently waited for the microphone before he began speaking. He told us he’s a combat veteran, multiple tours in different theaters of the Global War on Terror. He told us that he came home and started suffering from depression and anxiety and panic, that he called the VA for help and finally got in to see a doctor. He then waited. And waited. Eight months went by since that first appointment.
“I told the doctor I wanted to kill myself. I told him I had a gun and I was going to put it in my mouth and pull the trigger.”
He looked the officials from the VA in the eye and asked them why that happened. Why did he have to wait so long? How many other veterans like him were forced to wait and decided it wasn’t worth it?
The air in the room was thick. His questions hung there as he looked at them. The best they could muster at that moment was an apology and a promise to follow up. Being right next to him, I offered him my card and told him to call me, that I’d help him get answers.
I remember feeling disappointed that he didn’t get a better answer from the VA folks or some assurance that they’d help him, and do something to make sure that never happened to anyone again.
When the event wrapped up I did the usual rounds, the regular introducing myself to people and handing out business cards routine. At one point, from across the room, I noticed that young veteran. He was surrounded by about 10 people. All fellow vets. I saw a couple of hugs. Some laughter. Cards being handed to him. Instantly, he had a tribe that will have his back no matter what. All it took was a word and his fellow vets jumped up to embrace him, to bring him in.
That’s what veterans do. I see it everywhere I go and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. We take care of each other. When it comes down to it nothing else matters but you served and I served and we take care of our own because that’s just what you do. We don’t really know any other way to be.
It’s a little sad to me that we live in a time where a simple act of compassion comes as a surprise. Where a gesture of love to a stranger, borne out of a basic human connection, is an anomaly. Throughout my years in politics and community work, I’ve witnessed too many people speak out about the traumas they’ve endured, hardships they’ve experienced, and abuse they’ve been a victim of only to be gaslighted, pushed aside, and ignored. We can begin to change that by listening to each other a little more, by focusing on our similarities and not on our differences, by rejecting those who tell us that we should fear and hate each other, and by standing up to abusers and bullies.
Like those veterans in that room yesterday. There was no litmus test as a condition of their support. They didn’t ask who he voted for or where he prays. There were no conditions placed on their compassion. They saw one of their own in need and they rose. They stepped up, once again, to serve.
Let’s follow their lead.

On the Closure of the Artesian Commons Park

The closure of the Artesian Commons Park was sudden and that feels crummy when you care about the folks that hang out there and want a safe place for them.

We should also consider that the staff who worked there had been receiving threats of violence, and when those threats escalated to actual death threats, the city decided they had to act and ensure the safety of everyone by closing the space.

I don’t like that it’s closed. I worked for years on the Commons… back when Ruth Snyder was the Downtown liaison and Project for Public Spaces came to town and helped us create a design for the park… I was at the ribbon cutting when the park officially opened… Brian Wilson and I probably sat in a thousand hours of meetings about the Commons over the years… pushing hard for the “Power of 10” philosophy of public space… trying to get them to build in more recreation and a variety of uses to attract more people with different interests.

In the end, we weren’t successful in those efforts. Ultimately, I would have spent the budget differently, designed it better from the start, and really invest in it to ensure its success. But being righteous is pretty easy in hindsight.

There were direct and specific threats of violence made against city staff by at least one person with a history of violence against others. I just can’t second-guess the decision to close the park knowing that. City Manager Steve Hall did the right thing. Any of us would probably make the same decision if it came down to keeping people out of harm’s way. I can’t fathom if they’d kept it open and the threats had been acted upon. I don’t even want to imagine that.

We’ve got to do something about the drugs. It’s worse than it’s ever been. The drug gangs are here and they’re not leaving. We don’t have the resources as a community to spend the kind of money required to deal with it. We need federal help…

[EDIT 8/27] It was rightfully pointed out that saying, “we need federal help…” is ambiguous and could sound like I want federal law enforcement intervention. In fact, I’m very much against that. That sort of intervention would require us to comply with DHS/ICE and that’s not something I’d ever want to see. By federal help I mean a declared National Public Health Emergency under the Public Health Service Act that would allow us to ensure that opioid-addicted individuals get the help they need.

What we CAN do is rally together. We can stand with our neighbors who are the most vulnerable and offer them a place where they aren’t preyed on by drug gangs. We can ask our city council to make sure these folks aren’t just displaced and forgotten, but pulled in and lifted up.

Let’s not let this divide us more. It’s a setback, but sometimes you gotta take a step back before you push forward.

On the Race for Thurston County Prosecutor

[Full disclosure: I have endorsed and donated to Victor’s campaign, and I hope you do too.]

One race locally that promises to be interesting is the race for Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney. So I thought I’d take you on a deep dive into the candidates to see how they stack up.

Who’s running?

On one side is the incumbent Jon Tunheim. He got his law degree at the University of Puget Sound. He started working for the Prosecutor’s office in 1988 as an intern, became a Deputy Prosecutor in 1990, and was elected Prosecutor in 2010. This was made easy by the fact that no one ran against him. He ran unopposed again in 2014. He’s entrenched and established and considered unbeatable by most local political influencers.

His opponent is local civil attorney Victor Minjares. He got his law degree from Stanford Law followed by 15 years as a prosecutor in Los Angeles. After moving here in 2005, he spent 8 years in the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.


If I were hiring for the position and looking at both resumes, I’d have a tough choice. Tunheim has 8 years in the position, and 30 years in the office. Victor has a degree from Stanford Law, and 15 years as a prosecutor in one of the biggest counties in the country. In the end, I think Victor’s education and experience edges out Tunheim in this category.

Name recognition.

I mentioned earlier that Tunheim has never had an opponent before. That means he hasn’t had the benefit that a full-on campaign brings of getting your name out there to the people. If you asked 100 random people on the street who their prosecutor is, I’m guessing 90 of them couldn’t tell you. His name recognition just isn’t strong in the general public. He does have some in the social/racial justice communities, but it’s all negative, due to his decision to prosecute Andre Thompson & Bryson Chaplin and to not prosecute Office Ryan Donald in 2015. Victor has been in the community for a number of years and even ran for a judgeship a few years ago. Name recognition among the general public for these two is pretty close I’d say.

Side note: The high negatives that Tunheim brings with him are in a segment of the population that traditionally doesn’t vote or get all that active, primarily people of color. In other elections around the country recently this voting block has created some surprising results when they get engaged. If I’m Tunheim in this climate of change and the move away from the status quo, I’m very worried about these newly engaged voters. Tunheim isn’t a particularly exciting candidate. I’ve never seen him fire up a crowd the way that Victor held the crowd when he emceed the Families Rally last month.

The money.

If you’ve spent any time with me talking about campaigns you’ve probably heard me mention The Four Resources: time, information, money, and people. If you have a lot of one of them you can get away with having less of another, but you need as much of all of them as you can get. Whoever has the biggest net balance of the four resources on election day wins.

Money is the one we hear about and talk about the most because it’s the most controversial. Money buys you media, the most expensive and hardest to acquire campaign asset. You can mail more, run more TV and radio ads, get more yard signs out, and thereby not have to do the grassroots (time-expensive) work of personally reaching out to people at their doors and at events. Saves you time and effort, and can squash opponents.

If you predicted the winner of every election solely based on fundraising you’d probably be right at least 90% of the time. Here in Washington for instance, we didn’t get marriage equality passed until our side finally raised more money than the other.

Here’s the breakdown as it stands right now according to the Public Disclosure Commission:

  • Starting funds
    • Tunheim $5726.64
    • Victor $0.00
  • Contributions
    • Tunheim $25,185.06
    • Victor $7269.19
  • Loans
    • Tunheim $0.00
    • Victor $5000.00
  • Expenditures
    • Tunheim $15,451.35
    • Victor $4175.50
  • On hand (approx)
    • Tunheim $15,459.71
    • Victor $8093.69

So right now Victor has about half as much money as Tunheim. Victor’s largest contributor is Bruce Mackey, at $1000.00. Tunheim’s largest is himself, at $3896.33 (second place is Lacey City Councilmember Michael Steadman at $1000.00).

Expenses get interesting…

Victor’s largest expense to date, as it should be, is yard signs, at $2489.24. Nothing wrong with that, those things cost about $5 each and he needs his name out there everywhere, so he bought about 500 yard signs. No big deal. Tunheim’s biggest expense, however, is his campaign kickoff (including a private VIP dinner before the main event), which came in at a whopping $8535.29 after all expenses. This is beyond extravagant, it’s perplexing. The event lost money. A C4 filed the next day, which appears to contain all of the contributions from the date of the event, totals $8326. So the event lost the campaign $209.29 in day-of receipts. Kickoffs are intended to be your first big fundraiser where you prime your coffers for the coming year. By comparison, a congressional candidate in the state spent about $5000.00 on their kickoff but made around $50,000.00 from the event. It gives me the feeling that maybe Tunheim just doesn’t think he has a challenging opponent and decided to celebrate his victory early. I don’t know and I won’t speculate his motivations. The fact is: that is way too much to spend on your kickoff and seems irresponsible to me.

At the end of the day I think if Victor can raise a total of $30,000 by the beginning of October, he can run a competitive campaign, and do the basic mailing he needs to do. They’ll have to work really hard and mount a strong grassroots campaign, but it can be done. He’s going to have to summon an army of folks that go hit doors and phones for him. More people can beat more money.

Bottom line

If they run a tight, smart campaign, it’s possible for Victor to beat the incumbent. People seem to think that Tunheim will raise a lot of money on demand and that’s going to sustain him and assure his victory. I’m honestly not sure about that. I think a lot of his likely donors will be focused on the county commission and the very important race between Tye Menser and Bud Blake. He might have trouble at the ATM because of it.

I won’t predict anything in July, because there are still way too many variables and way too much time, but I think it’ll be fun to watch it play out.


A Long Time Coming


Our city council made history last Tuesday by passing a resolution that changed everything about how we approach homelessness in our city. It’s about time.

Fifteen years or so ago I became a volunteer at the Bread and Roses Advocacy Center (BRAC) at the corner of State and Washington. I started out as a volunteer for The Voice of Olympia, a monthly street newspaper that covered issues related to poverty and homelessness, and featured local artists and writers from the street community with the goal of giving them, as the title suggests, a voice. I sold ads (I tried more like) and helped out with some editing and layout. The Editor in Chief was Meta Hogan, who you may have heard of as the creator of Olympia Power & Light along with Matthew Green, who I’ll talk about in a minute.

Six months earlier I’d taken a fall from a ladder at a job site. I’d been working for a small painting and construction company. L&I determined that I not work, and do physical therapy for a year. Six months into it I was bored out of my mind. A friend handed me a copy of The Voice, I saw that they needed help, I had VAST journalism and editing experience from my three years on the high school paper [/sarcasm] – so I called that day to get scheduled. Within a week I was basically volunteering all day every day. After six months of that, they invited me to join them as a member of the staff collective.

Until I joined them, Bread & Roses had three staff members: Selena Kilmoyer, Meta Hogan, and Phil Owen. They’ve all gone on to blaze trails and do inspiring stuff you’ve probably heard about if you’ve lived in Olympia for a while.

Selena was our leader. We never talked about it in those terms; hierarchy wasn’t really our thing, but there was no denying that she was – to three kids in their mid-20s trying to make sense of human suffering and the blind eye that society turns to it. She was our rock, our advisor, and our guide in all matters spiritual, practical, and comical.

Meta was the one who pushed us the most. She carried (still has it I think) a benevolent chip on her shoulder and she never let us acquiesce to the injustices of the world, always pushing us to say, firmly and resolutely, “Fuck this shit.”

Phil was more the more practical one, the voice of reason. In an academic sense, he was probably philosophically the most radical – our brother of the perpetual Trotsky love-fest – but he also kept us from spinning our wheels too much. He was always planning and setting the course.

How do we turn our radical notions of love into policies and programs that grantors will fund and cities will pass into law? That was the question always burning below the surface. Above the surface, we were fighting every day to keep people alive, and to be a source of love, to invite people in not as clients of our social service agency but as guests in our space and our lives. To show them that blessed community can be forged anywhere and that we can make it (together) if we try.

Over the years people were added to the mix and with that came changing dynamics, “company politics,” drama, shifting goals and values, organizational structures, all the things that can happen when people start peopling. It’s possible that if we had just kept it the four us and never tried to grow or add people to the mix (or maybe they should have kept it just three), we might still be at it all these years later, but I don’t think we’d be better for it. We wouldn’t have taken the risks and accomplished the things we did if we’d stayed in the cocoon of Bread & Roses. I loved my time there. I love who it made me. I wouldn’t change a thing. To Phil, Meta, and Selena – thank you. You helped me wake up to the world and my place in it, and helped me find self-worth.

The first city council member, and really the first politician, that I ever found personally relatable was Matthew Green. Matthew was closest to my age of the council members and always spoke frankly with a keenly honed sense of what’s right. He stuck to his guns despite often being out to sea on a city council that tended more conservative than he. After his time on council, he managed campaigns, focused on getting good people elected to council who would fight the good fight. I started volunteering on campaigns about 10 years ago and I watched Matthew intently as he led them. How he prepped candidates to run, how he worked with volunteers, crafted strategy and messaging. If I even sometimes show a glimmer of talent at campaign work, then it’s because of Matthew. He also taught me, by example, that you can be principled in the business of politics and still be effective, and that we can use the strategies, tools, and especially data (Matthew is a data wizard) of conventional politics in benevolent ways.

Where’s this shaggy dog story going?

Last Tuesday.

Last Tuesday our city council unanimously passed a resolution on homelessness that calls for direct action to address the suffering of people on the streets and to enact policies and practices rooted in love. Period. Full stop.

In the Bread & Roses days, and for years after, we fought against anti-homeless ordinances and defunding of programs. And we lost. Every time. From the Sit/Lie to Anti-Camping Ordinances to the well-orchestrated campaign to stop The People’s House, we’ve always had a city council and administration dominated by folks who don’t want to spend resources on helping people but would rather push them out or make their very existence a crime.  We might have had in Matthew, and in later years Jim Cooper, one voice on the council, maybe two on some issues, but never enough to turn the tide.

Today we have a city council that is doing the good work out of love and saying without fear that while we don’t know yet exactly how we’re going to do it, we’re deciding to do it. Matthew Green started us down the path that got us here by being that voice in the dark and then showing others how to be that voice by helping compassionate people get elected.  Councilmembers Jessica Bateman and Clark Gilman dared us to believe that we can actually have the kind of city council that can get the job done without leaving anybody behind. We came into this past year needing just one more seat to have a firm majority. We took two. Lisa Parshley and Renata Rollins completed the council we dreamed of all those years ago, and now we’re reaping the rewards.

I’m taking some time this week to reflect and celebrate and be grateful.

Thanks for reading.


PS – A special shout out to Meg Martin, Mindy Chambers, Theresa Slusher, Rosalinda Noriega, and Malika Lamont – the warriors who fought when others wouldn’t. I think we’re actually doing the damn thing now. Ain’t it cool?!

Guest Post: The Racist Origins of the Slow-Growth Movement

…and what it means for Thurston County

By: Marco Rosaire Rossi

Few modern transformations in the United States were as significant as the rapid growth of suburbs after World War II. During the Great Depression, the US housing market collapsed. In response, the federal government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Unlike in European nations, where the housing question prompted governments to directly subsidize dwelling units, the United States provided housing to its citizens through loans. Realtors and developers were terrified that the federal government would enter the housing market as a competitor. To prevent this from occurring, they lobbied for the subsidization of home mortgages instead of dwelling units. These affordable loans gave millions of Americans an opportunity to own a home while providing a much-needed economic stimulus to the housing industry.The FHA ameliorated the fallout from the Great Depression, but after the Second World War, its effects caused an unprecedented housing boom. An overwhelming number of Americans fled central cities for suburban landscapes. Homeownership became the principle signifier for entering America’s middle-class. However, access to a mortgage still depended on a person’s creditworthiness. FHA would not support lending to individuals who had a high potential for default. At the time, the lending practices of banks were openly racist. Ethnic minorities, by virtue of their skin color, were not considered creditworthy regardless of their actual financial situation. The FHA supported this racism. Working with other government agencies, it labeled geographic areas dominated by ethnic minorities as risky for mortgage support. Additionally, it produced reports that ranked ethnicities based on their “beneficial effect on land values.” At the top of the list were people from English, German, Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, and Northern Italian backgrounds. On the bottom were Russian Jews, Southern Italians, African-Americans, and Mexicans.The FHA strongly supported segregation, but it did not write laws to enforce it. Because of this, it was possible—though very difficult—for racial minorities to find willing lenders and sellers to purchase a home. Even though the risk was slim, there was a constant fear among white homeowners that racial minorities could move in next door and drive down property values. For this reason, neighborhoods created racial covenants that prohibited homeowners from selling their home to minorities as a condition of residency. In order to enforce racial covenants, white homeowners—in cooperation with developers—created homeowner associations. Enforcing racial segregation became a matter of neighbor-to-neighbor policing.These racial restrictions were soon seen as being on the wrong side of history. In 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that racial covenant agreements were unenforceable. Shortly after, the FHA revised its policy guidelines to no longer support racial segregation. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended racial discrimination in all forms of housing.These successes in racial justice did not mean that the racist legacy of homeowner associations had disappeared. The civil rights movement meant that mortgages and suburban neighborhoods were now available to anyone who financially qualified. For many white homeowners that was a serious problem. Unable to legally discriminate against racial minorities, homeowner associates began to advocating for restrictive zoning practices that prohibited new housing developments. Homeowners, who originally cooperated with developers, now became their primary antagonist. As one developer lamented, “paradoxically, I sell to people who become my enemies.”In a post-civil rights era, arguing for restrictive zoning practices on racial grounds had become a faux pas. Luckily, the rising popularity of environmentalism provided advocates of restrictive zoning a new rhetorical toolkit. Prohibiting new people from moving to an area was not about racial anxieties. It was about preventing the exhaustion of precision resources. Books like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s The Limits of Growth described a world of increasing scarcity. Homeowner associations applied these prognostications of planetary destruction to their own backyards. If the cities in India could not feed their people, then the suburbs in America could not house newcomers. This marriage between privileged homeowners and misanthropic environmentalists created the foundation for the slow-growth movement. Advocates of slow-growth sought to reduce, if not stop completely, the pace of urban development. It mattered little that the books that they based their ecological catastrophism on were criticized for their crude determinism, faulty assumptions, and pseudoscientific posturing. For the slow-growth movement, they provided a progressive rationale for an inherently regressive political position.The question is to what degree is this history relevant to Thurston County? The answer is it is extremely relevant. It explains the county’s current housing shortage and the persistence of racial inequalities in homeownership.Between 1970 and 1980s, Thurston County experienced historical population growth. The 1970 US Census recorded the county’s population at 76,894, but by 1980 that number jumped to 124,264, a 61.6% increase. Before this time, the growth of duplexes and fourplexes correlated with the population increases. However, during the mid-1970s these types of housing units spiked, outstripped population growth, and then suddenly crashed. By the early 1980s, these units hit a low point in which they have never recovered from. The failure of these types of units to recover with the housing market indicates policy changes. Cities in Thurston County stopped zoning for these multifamily dwellings. Municipalities instituted more restrictive zoning practices that favored single-family homes and prevented new development projects from being built. Thurston County wasn’t alone in this change. At the same time, similar restrictions were occurring throughout the United States, especially on America’s liberal west coast. It was a sign that the slow-growth movement had become a major force in local politics.As intended, restrictive zoning practices affects newcomers, and in so far as those newcomers are racial minorities, they burden them the most. The draft summary of the 2017 Thurston County Assessment on Fair Housing indicates racial inequalities within the county’s homeownership market. In the past decades, there has been a noticeable decline in Thurston County’s white population. In 2000, whites made-up approximately 86% of the population. Today, that number has dropped to approximately 75%, and will likely continue to decline. In every single school district in the county, the white population is less than its surrounding municipality. In some cases it is by a considerable margin. In Olympia, whites are 85% of the general population, but 69% of the student population. In Lacey, whites are 74% of the general population, but 52% of the student population.Many racial minorities in Thurston County tend to do better economically than their white counterparts. Currently, the white median income is $60,834. But, the median income for African-Americans is $66,480, for Native Americans, it is $61,167, for Asians, it is $65,341, and for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, it is $99,875. Despite doing better economically, all these racial minorities are underrepresented in Thurston County’s homeownership population. African-Americans comprise 2.7% of the general population, but only 1.72% of homeowners. Native Americans are 1.4% of the general population, but 1.03% of homeowners. Asians and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders are 6% of the general population, but only 4.19% of homeowners. This means that even though whites are 75% of the general population, they constitute 87.06% of the homeowner population. In Thurston County, even when racial minorities make more money than whites, they are still not equal to them in terms of homeownership. The reason for this is clear. Restrictive zoning practices have resulted in housing shortages that have caused home prices to skyrocket. In doing so, it has prevented racial minorities from joining their white counterparts in middle-class neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as racial minorities have become more successful, the goalpost for America’s middle-class has shifted away from them.The slow-growth movement constantly insists that their advocacy for restrictive zoning practices is not racially motivated. Their concerns are purely environmental. New housing developments in their neighborhoods are prohibited because their areas already have too many people. It is an issue of resources and carrying capacity. This proclamation begs a question: if there are truly too many people in these areas then who should be excluded? Not surprisingly, the loudest advocates of the “too many people” position never offer themselves up as part of the excess population. It is always someone else who qualifies as the “too many.” Historically, that unspoken someone else has been people of color.Whether advocates of the slow-growth movement admit it or not, restrictive zoning practices were designed to restrict certain people from accessing spaces, not restrict certain behaviors that are damaging to the planet. Racial disparities in social geography are not accidents of nature, but part of a history of social exclusion. The reality is that Thurston County is racially unequal because it was designed that way, and if the slow-growth movement continues to defend restrictive zoning practices, then Thurston County’s racial inequalities in housing will not only continue but worsen.

D.C. Journal Part 3: Rare and Special Books

After four amazing whirlwind days in D.C. I’m back home and wiped out, but energized. Working for the Congressman has from day one been humbling and inspiring, but the last few days, seeing the things I got to see and meeting our D.C. counterparts to develop shared priorities for the coming year, I feel an enormous sense of responsibility, different than before. On another level. These posts cover the highlights of my trip, and the experiences I’ll never forget.

If you’ve been reading this series you know that I spent a lot of time on this trip inside the Library of Congress. I didn’t, however, have any time at all to explore the building. My friends expecting souvenirs are very disappointed. I’m counting on a future full of trips to D.C. where I’ll be able to remedy that.

Despite that, we had a slot on our schedule for a presentation from Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division at the Library. We were escorted by library staff to a room removed from the public area. It stored a collection of books kept under lock and key. A room adjacent to it, a reading room, overlooked the Great Hall of the library, the main floor of which sat about two floors down. An awesome bird’s eye view.

We entered the room and Mark was sitting at a great big wooden table. He wore wood-framed glasses and a tan sports coat. His shaggy gray hair and casual style told me he wasn’t much concerned with material things or cosmetic appearance. He was very comfortable. He’s been in his job at the Library for 20 years and still describes it as the greatest job in the world. When he talks about it his face lights up and his eyes glisten like a kid told she’s going to Disneyland.

Laid out neatly around him on the table and on two carts positioned on either side of him there were boxes of varying shape and size, from small and cube-like to big and flat. He explained the history of the Library. After the British burned the U.S. Capitol in the War of 1812, destroying the original Library of Congress with it, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell his entire library of about 6,500 books to Congress for whatever they’d be willing to pay. In 1851 another fire destroyed around 35,000 books, including two-thirds of Jefferson’s original collection. In 1998 Mark was hired and began the quest to restore Jefferson’s library with exact editions of the books Jefferson would have owned, no replicas or later editions allowed. His work continues.

Mark picked up one of the smaller boxes and slid another box out from inside it. He set that box on the table in front of him and opened the flap. “This (dramatic pause) is the first book ever printed in what we now call the United States,” he said, choosing his words carefully. Titled, The Bay Psalm Book, it was printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Mass. There are eleven known copies in the world, and one sold at auction a few years ago for $14.2 million.

Next, he picked up another box. This one a little squarer than the last. From this he removed another older looking book, a deep red in color, with a little golden latch on the side, which I thought looked like a bible. Mark offered the book to my coworker Brendan, “Put your hand on it,” he said. Brendan did and Mark explained that this was, in fact, the bible Abraham Lincoln had been sworn in on. Later, Barack Obama would choose the same bible for his own swearing-in. It goes without saying that I’m very jealous of Brendan right now.

We saw many more pieces, including the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated and some Washington Territory books and ephemera.

The piece that had the most profound impact on me was one Mark pulled from one of the large flat boxes on the table. He opened it to reveal the very first printing of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. He told us the story of its creation, that Jefferson wrote the first draft and that 86 edits were applied before the final version we saw before us. Being a writing nerd, I clumsily asked about that process, being curious about what the changes were. Mark gave us a little more detail about the process and then told us the story of one of the edits, one made by Jefferson himself before handing it over to the other founders for review. At one point, he edits out one word for another. Not just a line through it, but a box was drawn around it and filled in completely with ink and then smudged out. Over the top of it, he wrote the word, “citizens.” It was never disclosed by Jefferson what the word he crossed out was, and it’s been a point of speculation for many years. Finally in 2010 through the use of spectral imaging analysis, they were able to uncover the secret word.

Jefferson had originally written the word “subjects.”

This means that in the course of his writing, I imagine in a moment where he’d hit a stride – that zone you get in when you’re writing without thinking and everything around you disappears. I imagine him writing that word and immediately catching himself. “No! No, we are NOT subjects anymore!” Is what he probably thought as he hastily smudged out that word. I can imagine the sense of pride he felt writing the word ‘citizens’ over the top. He probably paused and beamed at it for a long moment, filled with joy. He may have even taken a break, and gone for a walk and to clear his head before continuing. That’s what I would have done.

This story also reminds me that these people we put on pedestals (literally or figuratively), were just people like us. They made mistakes. They brought emotion into the work, they felt anxious and insecure. Those things powered them like they power us. They were figuring it out as they went along, building their parachutes after they jumped. I think it serves us well in the face of the challenges of the day to keep that in mind. We’re not so different from our heroes.

Thanks for reading.