The Washington legislative session ended just a few weeks ago, and the phone of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, already is ringing with urgency. There's a move afoot to recruit her to run for state treasurer in 2008. Current Treasurer Mike Murphy, a Democrat, has said he won't run again.
Brown sounds lukewarm to the idea, especially since she's a single mom with a son in high school. "People are still talking to me," she says. "But at this point it seems unlikely."
But Brown admits she has aspirations for higher office – maybe even a run for governor in 2012. "That's an open door," confirms Brown, who's also routinely approached about running for Congress in Washington's 5th District.
One person who thinks Brown has a bright future in statewide politics is former Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt. "I always viewed Lisa Brown as a rising star in the Party," says Berendt, who would like to see Brown in the 2012 governor's race.
Berendt calls Brown the "smartest person" in the state Senate and says she's not Machiavellian in her approach to politics. "Some politicians are very heavy-handed and run their business based on fear and raw power," explains Berendt. By contrast he says, "Lisa Brown's hallmark is easing difficult issues along and taking the edges off and keeping them moving smoothly, and it's a style that we don't see in Olympia very often, frankly."
Brown is a former economics professor who still teaches part-time at Gonzaga University in Spokane. She's also known around Olympia as a pop-culture maven who keeps a vinyl record collection in her corner office in the Capitol.
Brown was first elected to the House in 1992 and moved to the Senate in 1996. She became Senate Democratic leader in 2003 and majority leader in 2005, when Democrats took control of the Senate. But she's much less well known – and gets much less media coverage – than Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.
Part of the reason is because the House and Senate are distinctly different institutions. House rules make the speaker much more powerful than the Senate majority leader. Also, the Senate, with four-year terms, is known for breeding individualism. But it's also clear Brown's brand of leadership is more subtle.
"I don't think she's this master puppeteer like Frank Chopp is," says first-term Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, who knocked heads with Chopp this past legislative session. He adds: "I think she has the power, but I haven't seen her really strong-arm anyone."
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, calls Brown's leadership style softer and more measured. Sheldon should know, because he's perennially in the Democratic doghouse because he often votes with the Republicans.
"I've had a leader take me to his office and kick furniture around," recounts Sheldon, who won't name names. "I think [Brown's] tactics are much more diplomatic."
Olympia insider and former Democratic House Majority Leader Denny Heck says the test of a Senate majority leader is whether "they can effectively herd the cats." Heck thinks Brown has demonstrated she can.
"I thought when Lisa first became majority leader, there was evidence of a learning curve being mastered, and I think in this [recently adjourned] session she's really come into her own," says Heck.
Of course, it helped that Senate Democrats increased their majority in the last election.
Heck, too, would like to see Brown run for higher office. The question is whether Brown could make a successful run for the Democratic nomination – much less governor – as a lawmaker from Spokane.
The blunt answer is no, says Heck, who also served as chief of staff to former Gov. Booth Gardner. "You can't get to be governor, if that's your goal, from the state Senate out of Eastern Washington. I think that's very difficult."
The obvious solution to that hurdle is first to run for a lesser statewide office to build name recognition. Attorney general is probably the most well-paved stepping stone to governor – in Washington and in any other state. But since Brown is an economist, not an attorney, the state treasurer position seems an obvious choice.
Either way, history is not on Brown's side. Eastern Washington hasn't sent a governor to Olympia since the Roosevelt era. That was Clarence Martin of Cheney. The Democrat served from 1933 to 1941.
Brown acknowledges there's a political disadvantage to being from Spokane, because voters on the populous west side of the Cascade Mountains don't know her as well, if at all. But Brown confidently says: "If I were to make it through a primary in a statewide race, I think I would be very electable, because I think my politics are really in sync with the majority of people in Washington state."
Republicans think otherwise. Washington Republican Party Chair Luke Esser served with Brown in the state Senate until last year. Don't let the fact Brown is from east of the Cascades fool you, says Esser. "By any reasonable scale of liberalism in the Washington state Senate, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any senator who's more liberal than Lisa Brown," though he allows that there are other senators he views as equally liberal.
Esser confirms he's talking to potential Republican candidates for state treasurer, but he won't reveal names at this point.
As for the 2012 governor's race, Esser says, Democrats are getting ahead of themselves. He says they're operating under the assumption that Gov. Chris Gregoire is going to win re-election in 2008 and that the seat will have no incumbent in 2012.
To that, Esser says: "I think they're going to be greatly surprised if next year – knock on wood – Dino Rossi runs again."
As for Brown, she says that with a Democratic majority and a strong economy, being majority leader is one of the best jobs a person could have. The only job that would be better, she admits: governor.