The legislative gods willing, Washington lawmakers will wrap-up the 2007 session next Sunday, April 22, if not before. It's a whirlwind of activity here in Olympia with bills flying off the floors and late-night sessions. Everyone's a bit punch-drunk. A perfect time to step back and take stock of Democratic one-party rule in Olympia.
Despite having control of both chambers and the governor's mansion, Democrats have been trying to show restraint. Republicans might not agree, but those in the liberal wing of the Democratic party can see it plainly in the leadership of House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle. He's been working to keep the party somewhat in check, to keep the agenda mainstream, in part to protect all the moderate swing-district Dems who got elected last year but also to keep the state safe for the 2008 reelection of Gov. Chris Gregoire, who barely won in 2004.
Kittens. That's what Washington House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, affectionately calls freshman Democratic House members. One of the jobs of leadership is to protect these baby cats from Republicans who would like to eat them for breakfast in the next election.
Kessler and Chopp know that freshman lawmakers are most vulnerable in their first re-election campaign. That's because they carry the twin burden of low name recognition and a voting record, which can be used against them. This vulnerability is especially acute in suburban districts where independent-minded voters have no compunction about voting out first-term incumbents.
In the last election, Washington House and Senate Democrats made major inroads in the suburbs and even in rural areas. Examples include Rep. Don Barlow, D-Spokane; Rep. Deborah Eddy, D-Kirkland; Rep Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland; and Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim. Today, House Democrats hold a 62 to 36 advantage over Republicans.
Speaker Chopp is widely credited with engineering these pick-ups. Now he's determined not to lose them. That means making sure this new litter of kittens doesn't take floor votes that could place them in Republican jaws come campaign season.
"We pay attention to those people, we watch out for them," says State Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, the number two Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Dunshee says Chopp and other Democratic leaders are ever mindful of what happened in the early 1990s. That's when Democrats rose to power and enacted a sweeping agenda that included tax hikes. Voters responded by sending Democrats into oblivion in the 1994 election. (It didn't help that 1994 was a Republican year nationally.) Dunshee calls that bloodletting the "'94 Debacle." He says vulnerable Democrats back then were forced to take "god-awful" votes on the floor.
Not this time around. Divisive issues like gun control and whether Washington should have an income tax are topics-non-grata. Case in point: Look at what happened to Rep. Jim McIntyre, D-Seattle, a vocal supporter of an income tax. Before the session, McIntyre was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Finance Committee. A caucus spokesman maintains that was part of a larger committee reorganization.
One frustrated environmental lobbyist says Chopp has done a masterful job of stacking key House committees with just enough moderates to serve as a "backstop" against the more liberal members of the caucus. "If you keep stuff from getting out of committee to the floor, then you're successful in nipping the more radical ideas in the bud," explains the lobbyist.
Instead, House Democrats are sticking to issues they hope will play well from Seattle to Kirkland to Kettle Falls. Chopp calls this his "One Washington" agenda. It includes a phase-in of voluntary all-day kindergarten, expanding children's health insurance, and pouring money into school construction. In addition, Democrats – at the insistence of Gov. Chris Gregoire – hope to show voters they are fiscally prudent by creating a constitutionally protected rainy-day fund.
It's difficult to find dissenters in Democratic circles who will openly criticize the Chopp approach as too safe or too middle-of-the-road. But one longtime liberal lobbyist confirms "there is dissent in the progressive community." This lobbyist, who doesn't want his name used, says sometimes it feels like "education has 'Hoovered' every penny from under the seat cushions." As a result, he believes, Democrats are "grossly underfunding" the Basic Health Plan and neglecting other parts of the social safety net.
But in the next breath, this same lobbyist admits it's hard to gripe, because majority Democrats this year are increasing funding for children's health insurance and passing some controversial pieces of liberal legislation. He cites the domestic partnership bill for gay and lesbian couples as a key example. Other examples include the simple majority bill for school levies and a requirement that school districts teach "medically accurate" sex-education.
One liberal who will talk on the record and is full of praise for Chopp's approach to governing is Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle. "For the liberal members, I don't think they feel marginalized at all," he says. Pettigrew believes if Democrats are behaving in a more centrist fashion, it's because the caucus itself is more centrist. He notes that as the Democratic majority in the House grows, the caucus by default becomes more conservative. That's because most of the new members are moderates from suburban and rural districts, not urban liberals.
Asked if there's ever talk among liberal members of trying to overthrow Chopp, Pettigrew says absolutely not. "Why kill the King when everybody's eating?" he quips, referring to the fact that every Democrat goes home at the end of session with something.
Even if Democrats tried to take on more controversial issues – or flex their majority muscle more – Rep. Dunshee says: "I don't think we have the votes for big stuff." Part of Chopp's key to success is keeping this large and disparate caucus together.
To keep the cohesion, Chopp sticks to a big-three agenda: education, health care, and the economy. Beyond that, he picks his battles carefully and doesn't trot things out onto the floor unless he has the votes.
"A lot of energy goes into building consensus around issues," says Christian Sinderman, a political advisor to the House Democratic caucus. There's "not unanimity always, but at least general consensus. And working specifically on issues that reflect the shared values of the caucus and the state."
Dunshee adds that sometimes individual House Democrats forget the larger picture, but "Frank (Chopp) never forgets the larger picture."
Besides keeping the legislative majority, the looming 2008 governor's election is also a major consideration among Democrats in Olympia these days. They certainly don't want to do anything that will hurt Gregoire's chances for re-election.
So where does this leave Republicans? Sometimes they look as if they don't know whether to laugh or cry. Life in the minority is tough, tough, tough. But Republicans dismiss the idea that Democrats are playing it safe. The GOP mantra this year has been that Democrats are spending too much and saving too little in their two-year budget proposals.
"I think that you do a real disservice to the public's IQ if you say that a 33 percent increase [over four years] in the budget is playing it safe," says Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley. She and other Republicans maintain that Democratic spending now will put the state back into a deficit in the near future. "What you're saying is that the public can't figure out that just because the tax hike hasn't happened yet, it won't happen," adds Pflug.
But at this point no Republican leader is so bold as to predict a landslide takeover a la 1994 anytime soon. For now, Republicans will have to focus on orchestrating a Dino Rossi vs. Chris Gregoire rematch in 2008. And, of course, try to pick off a few of the Democratic kittens in the next round of legislative elections.