Confidence Is Key For 24-Year-Old Lawmaker

By Walker Orenstein
The Seattle Times.


For about $95 a session, Melanie Stambaugh can teach a person confidence.

It’s the type of confidence that helped the 24-year-old Republican bowl past five-term Democrat Dawn Morrell by nearly 10 percentage points last fall to become one of the youngest House members in state history. It’s also the type of confidence that helped her deflect playful shots about her age from Rep. Sam Hunt, chairman of the House State Government Committee, while testifying on a bill last month.

“You get an A for doing your homework,” said Hunt, D-Olympia, chuckling after Stambaugh’s testimony.

Stambaugh quickly moved on.

She won’t be rattled by pokes at her inexperience, fun-loving or otherwise. The Puyallup politician, who makes a living coaching self-esteem in others, is bent on leveraging her age and self-assured nature toward improving the state’s education system and making government smaller, rather than letting her youth become a sideshow.

Along with her age, the nature of Stambaugh’s business makes her an unusual presence among lawmakers.

“We teach about respect and we teach about mutual love and we teach about independence and really thinking for yourself,” Stambaugh said about her business, You Impression. “All of those pieces play into my role here in the Legislature.”

You Impression was opened in 2012 by Stambaugh’s mother, Tina, and sister Kristina. The Sumner business is decorated out front in Pinterest-style fonts, bright colors and advertising posters that look like infographics. The inside has a modern metallic chic to it, and lots of open space.

As Stambaugh sat in her office in the Capitol, she said she’s still in the process of decorating her new workplace, which already has taken on the character of You Impression. A small, bright couch replaced the standard brown-leather chairs of other offices.

Eight confidence tracts are available at You Impression, such as branding, leadership and pageantry. Group sessions are available, too.

Kristina said young professionals hoping to land jobs by improving interviewing skills are a common client, but the business serves a wide range of ages. The Stambaugh family helps lead games, exercises, goal setting and more in the cheery environment.

“What we teach is what we live, and it works,” Kristina said. “We’re coaches just like in a sports team, but we’re a coach for your mind and your heart.”

As her career as a legislator begins, Stambaugh is known as an unseasoned, moderate Republican from Western Washington. She’s the only woman in the Legislature under 38, one of 12 Republican women in the House of Representatives and part of a handful of younger lawmakers in the “under-40 caucus.”

Education in focus
To get to Olympia, Stambaugh, who was a Capitol page in junior high and Pierce County’s Daffodil Festival Queen as a senior in high school, knocked on an estimated 17,000 doors during her campaign. By comparison, Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, who teamed with Stambaugh during the campaign, said he hit about 8,000 doors for his own re-election bid.

Stambaugh raised ,798 in donations from individuals, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
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Morrell, her opponent, collected $12,370 from individuals, although she raised more money overall.

“(Stambaugh) is the hardest-working campaigner I think I’ve known,” Zeiger said. “She really connected well with people in the community; she got out and met people.”

The Morrell campaign hit hard at Stambaugh’s readiness. One ad said Stambaugh lacked real-life experience and rejected that her time at You Impression gives her business chops: “That’s a stretch” was the ad’s message.

Stambaugh’s tone didn’t waver when talking about negative aspects of her first campaign:

“I was focused on being who I am and meeting new people and hopefully being able to enact the changes that the 25th District wanted,” she said. “Those outside ideas or thoughts never needed to enter into the equation because I had my goals set and I was just running.”

Victory in hand, Stambaugh’s biggest task at the Capitol is to prove her relentless, Russell Wilson-like confidence is more than just a fundraising technique.

Education was Stambaugh’s biggest selling point on the campaign trail. She graduated from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, volunteers with a drop-out-prevention group in Puyallup and tutored at Rainier Beach High School.

Now serving on the House education and higher education committees, she said her perspective as a recent graduate is valuable.

Stambaugh said members of the Higher Education Committee were surprised at testimony from college students in a hearing about the amount of debt they accumulate.

“To me it was an obvious fact that students were experiencing this debt and high tuition rates, so I realized really it’s great to have me on the committee,” she said.

Two of Stambaugh’s bills deal with education. House Bill 1973 would create a pilot program at Eastern Washington University for textbooks that students can access for free or at a heavily reduced price, based on an open-source model created by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Both bills easily passed their first committees, but HB 1973 is likely dead after not getting a hearing in the House Appropriations Committee.

Stambaugh repeats the “funding education first” mantra many Republicans have used to argue against new taxes to pay for the court-ordered K-12 funding increase, under the McCleary decision. At the same time, she says that meeting the order shouldn’t drain money from higher education. She is open to new higher-ed revenue sources.

“It’s a delicate balance, most definitely,” said Stambaugh.

Pushing for impact
Democrats have been eager to work with Stambaugh so far — four of her five bills have Democratic sponsors.

Stambaugh was the only Republican among 42 sponsors of House Bill 1294, which would make it easier for teenagers to register to vote.

Hunt co-sponsored a bill with Stambaugh and serves with her on the Education Committee.

“She’s very confident, very well-organized and she seems to be learning well,” he said.

Stambaugh said her age helps her find freedom from backing some conventional Republican beliefs. For one, Stambaugh is pro-choice on abortion, but said she is “personally pro-life.”

“I think at the beginning I was able to say, ‘I don’t necessarily look like the typical Republican candidate,'” Stambaugh said. “That allows me to not have to be the typical old-school Republican.”

But Morrell, a nurse, said there is more to supporting women’s issues than being pro-choice. She noted Stambaugh’s time working for the conservative think tank Washington Policy Center.

“She doesn’t believe in raising the minimum wage, she doesn’t believe in workers’ rights, so I don’t know what’s so moderate about her,” Morrell said. “I’m really, really hoping that she steps forward and is a moderate and stands up and does the right thing. The truth will be when she takes the vote, and they’re tough votes.”

Whether Stambaugh is eventually a loyal Republican ally or an occasional maverick is yet to be seen.

In light of the McCleary decision, education and higher education are subjects every lawmaker in Olympia is hoping to influence in the budget.

Without seniority or a spot in fiscal committees like Appropriations, Stambaugh’s role in the big picture is likely to be limited, despite her confidence and drive to be an impactful lawmaker.

Zeiger, who was first elected at 25, thinks Stambaugh is doing the best she can, given her rookie status. Her first bill to reach the House floor, House Bill 1316, to protect elderly and other vulnerable people, passed 97-0 on Monday. It would require police to arrest someone suspected of violating a temporary protection order, without first getting a warrant.

“When you’re a new legislator you want to be cautious, but you also want to get out and make a difference for your community,” Zeiger said. “I think she’s made that right balance.”

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