The House Democratic Caucus in the Washington State legislature is big and gangly - 63 members strong, nearly twice the size of the Republican caucus. It's made of Seattle liberals, suburban moderates, rural conservatives, and even a former Republican.
But somehow – be it by iron fist, the power of persuasion, or a combination of both – Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, commands an uncanny degree of loyalty. The tent might be diverse, but the House Democrats' intra-party squabbles, personality conflicts, and other dirty laundry are rarely, if ever, aired outside the closed doors of the caucus room.
So when a Democratic member speaks out in frustration and dares to criticize - even indirectly - the speaker and fellow Democrats, it's a shock. Perhaps even more so when the criticism is leveled by a swing-district Democrat – just the kind of member Chopp works hard to protect – and not a frustrated liberal from a safe, urban seat.
State Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, the longest-serving chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has announced she will not seek re-election after 12 years in the Legislature. At age 70, Lantz says in a press release, "it is time to turn my full attention to my family - my husband, my three children, and five wonderful grandchildren."
But as usual, there's a story behind the official departing words. It begins with these additional words from Lantz: "For me, there's been a number of disappointments that happened this year."
The biggest of those disappointments was the failure of H.B. 3095, which passed out of committee but never made it to the floor of the House for a vote. The bill aimed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. It would have prohibited people who are involuntarily committed to a mental hospital from possessing a firearm. The legislation would also have created an automatic notification system so state and federal gun licensing databases would be updated when a person was involuntarily committed.
"When somehow or another this non-gun bill became a gun bill, I realized that I'd met forces that were quite beyond me," explains Lantz. She believes opposition from gun-rights groups had a chilling effect on her fellow Democrats.
"Rational thought wasn't prevailing here," she says. "It was something else that was a way of consolidating political power or political defenses that forgot that we were here to do the common good, and the common good here was to protect us all from gun violence," charges Lantz, a lawyer turned lawmaker.
Lantz says the failure of that bill to even get a vote "was the beginning of my - in a form - disenchantment."
She goes on: "I can't get over how stupid it was. We haven't had anything like this, nor will we ... for a long, long time, where we were going to genuinely take steps towards making our streets and our cities safer and we chose this route of playing, of listening to irrational outside forces."
In response, House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, affectionately calls Lantz naÃÂ¯ve. "It's not a lack of a political courage," says Kessler. "It's a difference of the different districts and the people who live in those districts." Kessler represents the rural Olympic Peninsula. "It's just we have a different culture, and we have different values on some issues, and to say it's all political is simply not true."
Lantz's next disappointment this year was the Legislature's unwillingness - for the second year in a row – to stop a controversial gravel mine on Maury Island in Puget Sound. "We are nothing if we aren't Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, and the Columbia River - that's who we are," says Lantz, referring to Washington state.
"And to not recognize the travesty and betrayal of trust with allowing someone to bulldoze one of the islands, just demolish a feature of this thing we hold in trust, completely shatters my faith in my fellow legislators to identify the right thing to do." Lantz believes politics trumped stewardship in the case of Maury Island.
Again, Majority Leader Kessler disagrees. "Not only [did] we not have the votes on Maury Island and that gun bill that she wanted, we had a lot of no votes, so it wasn't a close call." Kessler says the Maury Island issue boils down to whether it's fair to "change the rules midstream" for companies trying to do business in Washington.
Lantz's third major disappointment was Speaker Chopp's refusal - also for the second year in a row - to take up a "Homeowner's Bill of Rights" to protect against shoddy construction. "You can get a warranty for a toaster. Shouldn't you be able to get a warranty for your home?" asks Lantz.
Under pressure, the speaker, on the third-to-last day of the session, issued what he called a "three-part" proposal for addressing home construction concerns. It includes studying whether homeowners should have more access to the courts to address grievances with builders.
For all of her frustration, Lantz says her relationship with Speaker Chopp has been "very, very close" since he rallied to the cause of building a new Tacoma Narrows Bridge with public, not private, funds. Lantz is generous in her praise of Chopp. "I have felt loyal, devoted, respectful, in awe of his political power and impressed with how – more often than not – he's just right-on on the issues. He's a brilliant strategist and visionary thinker."
But Lantz thinks that as Chopp's majority in the House has grown, there's been a paradigm shift. She says he's "now in the proverbial [role of] herding cats within the ... caucus." And she thinks he's failed to use his political capital and political acumen to pass key pieces of legislation that would have benefitted the public. Lantz calls these "lost opportunities."
Chopp declined the opportunity to respond to Lantz's criticism.
As she prepares to leave the Legislature, Lantz - declaring herself an "elder" – says her words of advice for Chopp and fellow lawmakers are the following: "Don't forget your soul, and I don't say it just to Frank, I say it to everybody sitting out there. ... Operating in this environment from a core values system and a vision is what will ... give you success."
Despite her recent disappointments, Lantz describes her career in the Legislature as "fabulous" and says she's leaving on a good note and with a sense of accomplishment. Besides the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, she's especially proud of education reform over the past decade. She says she wouldn't trade a day of her legislative career. And she still has faith that the legislative system usually finds a balance somewhere in the middle of vexing policy issues.
Lantz says the pinnacle of her time in Olympia came on her 70th birthday in February. Her husband held a surprise party at the house Lantz rents in Olympia during session. Gov. Chris Gregoire, Chopp, and Lantz's judiciary committee staff were among the attendees.
"I just felt so completely blessed. And that night was when I told my husband this is it, why shouldn't I know when it's time to go out totally on top?"
As an aside, Majority Leader Kessler says Speaker Chopp desperately sought to convince Lantz to run again - Democrats don't want to lose that important swing seat. "The speaker has been asking and begging, he's taken her out dinner, he's taken her and her husband out to dinner, he's gotten on his knees, he's done everything to ask her to please run again," relates Kessler. "And this time she really just felt like, 'Listen, I need to go to the next step in my life and I don't want to do this again.'"
Kessler adds that, "Frank has finally let go."