Sparks in Spokane: a GOP odyssey

The definitive report on the Washington State Republican Convention, as witnessed by Crosscut's resident elephant. There was a little friction, and it will be a tough autumn, but the GOP looks forward to a competitive gubernatorial race.
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The definitive report on the Washington State Republican Convention, as witnessed by Crosscut's resident elephant. There was a little friction, and it will be a tough autumn, but the GOP looks forward to a competitive gubernatorial race.

To paraphrase an old Chinese saying: "The mountains are very high, and Spokane and the Washington State Republican Convention were a long way away." But the trip was worth it — every lonely Interstate 90 mile of it. The May 29-31 event was classic GOP politics, high drama and a helluva lot of fun, even at $4.15 per gallon.

State political party conventions are the culmination of a long, multi-stage process starting with precinct, county, and district caucuses; then county conventions; and finally the state gathering where, in presidential election years, delegates to national party conventions are selected.

In addition to delegate selection, the party's platform — a statement of principles and policies reflecting the wishes and will of the grassroots — is adopted.

The Spokane GOP gathering did both, but not without faction-driven sparks.

Miles and miles west of Ritzville, streets became increasingly festooned with re-election campaign signs for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and former state Sen. Dino Rossi (that's right — re-election signs for Rossi; Republicans regard him as the legit governor). I rolled the Caravan into Spokane, parked, then went to the Spokane Convention Center to register.

I ran into Shawn Burpee, the longhaired young man I had met and interviewed at the King County Republican Convention. Along with his dad, Charles, both Burpees were to be delegates from King County's 31st Legislative District in Enumclaw.

We bent some elbows with overpriced libations and overcooked chicken skewers — what would a political event be without chicken? — while talking politics.

The Paulistas make themselves evident

Friday morning saw 1,351 delegates queued for entry through airport-tight security. Inside the convention hall, individual county delegations and King County's 16 sub-delegations were allotted space on the floor. Because King County had the largest delegation, and because home for me is in the 45th District, one of the largest district sub-delegations — I sat dead center, just a few rows back from former Sen. Slade Gorton's head. Best seats in the house.

Seeing familiar faces from the county convention and legislative district caucus made it easy to plunge in and converse. Delegates Andrew and Mabel Low were there with their super-delegate daughter, Mareya. They decided to get involved for the first time this year, citing a belief that the foundational greatness of America is in the strength of the family.

I also spoke with 45th district delegates Kjell Anderson, 27, and Brendan Woodward, 24. Anderson, a Microsoft contractor, said he believes it's the government's job to secure individual freedoms — not provide peoples' meal tickets or redistribute wealth. While he's an army veteran with combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, he's also new to politics. His edgy airborne (Hooah!) enthusiasm and hunger to learn about political issues and philosophy kept him firing question after question.

Woodward on the other hand, isn't a stranger to politics, nor is he your typical Republican. He cut his teeth stuffing envelopes for KVI-AM talk show host John Carlson's 2000 run for governor. He also managed a Jeffrey Possinger's state congressional bid in 2006. Now he's an environmental entrepreneur and the subject of a recent piece by Seattle Times scribe Danny Westneat, who touts Woodward's Christian-based green credentials.

This is the emerging Republican grassroots: family-oriented, risk-taking, visionary men and women who want to make a difference and be heard.

It was obvious from the first moment we entered the hall there would be some contentious fireworks during the course of the weekend between the supporters of all-but-nominated presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and the zealous acolytes of erstwhile presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. His supporters — the "Paulistas" — neither asked for quarter nor gave any. Foreshadowed at April's King County Convention and seen at several state and local Republican gatherings across the country, the Paulista's would wage an ownership struggle for a hunk — if not all — of the convention's outcome.

Floor leaders for Sen. McCain wore either gold or red baseball caps (making those wearing business suits look sillier than normal), while the Paulista ramrods muttered to each other with Secret Service-type earpieces or also held clipboards burdened by masses of Paul campaign buttons.

From the outset, the Paulistas sought to wrest control. Not long after state party chair Luke Esser gaveled the convention into business, shouts of "point of order!" started streaming from several microphones scattered about the convention floor. Not even the adoption of an agenda was immune from the cries, though the measure finally passed after some amendment.

Then followed the obligatory litany of speeches by statewide Republican officeholders, candidates, and other notables.

Among them was U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn. Not always the most stirring of orators, this was one of Reichert's better efforts, though his words in support of Sen. McCain as the party's presidential nominee fueled a minor Paulista firestorm. He focused on an appeal to our collective heritage and our hopes for the future, saying it could best be secured by adhering to traditional American and Republican values.

"We are proud Americans," Reichert said, and it's our job to "tear down the walls to freedom," so that all may enjoy it.

Later, state Attorney General and candidate for re-election Rob McKenna tuned delegate ears to his office's efforts to crack down on illegal drugs, primarily methamphetamines.

McKenna said the number of meth labs statewide decreased 90 percent — from 2,000 to 200 during his time in office. He also promised to increase efforts against prescription drug abuse, organized criminal gangs, violent sex offenders, and Internet fraud, if re-elected.

Secretary of State Sam Reed spoke of his office's efforts against voter fraud, specifically his success at putting several people associated with so-called voter rights organization ACORN in jail for voter registration fraud, along with removing some 430,000 invalid registrations from voter rolls. The message was clear: Under Reed, at least in terms of voting, the dead will not rise again.

The increasingly impressive Steve Beren, this year's challenger for U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott's 7th District seat, gave a feisty and principled address to the convention delegates. The animated Beren — a bald, wiry, but not terribly tall man — bobbed and weaved at the microphone like a feisty bantam rooster turned loose to fight a Foghorn Leghorn-type who's been ruling the roost so long he thinks he can do anything with impunity.

Second only to Gov. Chris Gregoire, nothing galvanizes the state GOP grassroots like a swipe at McDermott. And Beren took full advantage of it. He told the crowd he was running, "for liberty, for America, and against Jim McDermott," and they roared their approval.

Cloaking his longer-than-long-shot candidacy in realism, he challenged delegates to support his efforts with the assurance that the more he campaigns, the more voters will come to the polls and support Republicans up and down the ticket.

"In the heart of liberal Seattle," Beren told delegates, he was "fighting for conservative values."

And after suggesting to the crowd that presumptive Democratic Party presidential candidate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's real middle name was "Jimmy Carter," Beren really teed off on some of the Rev. Wright gum stuck to Obama's shoe by specifically rejecting, "God damn America," in favor of "God bless America."

Remember Dino!

Then came Dino — Rossi, the 2004 GOP candidate for governor whose razor-thin, 129-vote loss to Gov. Christine Gregoire. He prompted the same kind of response Texans give to "Remember the Alamo" from the Republican grassroots ("Remember Rossi!").

To sustained chants of "Dino! Dino! Dino!" the crowd roared to its feet to greet the man Republicans regard as the true winner in 2004. And he did not disappoint.

Looking fit and ready to take on the world, Dino launched into a stem-winder stump speech, reminding delegates that out of the three million ballots cast, 130 more votes his way four years ago would have made the difference.

He condemned the growing state spending rate — while also denouncing any call for a state income tax. He reminded delegates of his five police guild endorsements, expressing his interest in making Washington the best place in America to start a business and the worst place to be a criminal.

Dino was energetic, funny, and obviously having a good time.

He criticized what he saw as the current attitude of the governor's office, labeling it as "The Audacity of Nope," adding that nothing gets done on Gregoire's watch. He outlined a vision of a government where patrons are treated as customers, not nuisances.

Reminding delegates that Gregoire has been on some sort of government payroll for nearly 40 years, he tried to dismiss so-called conventional wisdom that this is a Democratic year.

"When the polls show the race to be a statistical dead heat against a candidate who hasn't been on TV in four years, then she's in trouble," he said.

At a post-convention banquet later in the evening, I asked Rossi how he expected to break the Blue hold on King County and Seattle. He said he would borrow a page from the Ronald Reagan playbook and bring his message straight to the people.

Rossi also said he wants to replace the state's big government attitude with an entrepreneurial culture that would transform the state into a great place to do business. But he added that the effort required money, and from someone who'd signed the front side of a paycheck, not just the back.

After Rossi's speech, the business of adopting permanent convention rules brought Dino-phoria back to earth. Challenges to various procedures were issued left and right. Paulistas and wannabe-Paulista's sent all sorts of "points of order" to the credentials committee, who promptly put down claim after claim.

Delegates then elected KVI-AM morning host Kirby Wilbur to be its permanent chair. Wilbur is both popular with rank-and-file Republicans and a seasoned arbiter of scrupulous fairness and vigorous willingness to bang the gavel when necessary. And as events unfolded, Wilbur's patience and skills were put to the test. His presence and experience served him well.

When the convention adjourned, I ate the first of, perhaps, the two most expensive ham-sandwich box lunches I've ever eaten. Next up was the congressional district caucuses, where were to elect a portion of the national convention delegates.

Debating amongst ourselves

Because the Washington State Republican Party opted to allocate national convention delegate selection based partially on the results of precinct caucuses and partially on the results of the Feb. 19 primary, the executive committee of the state GOP developed a formula to allocate delegates. Somewhat more complex than the formula used to determine when Easter falls in a given year, about the only thing missing from the four-page document was a reference to consultation with the entrails of a goat.

At the 1st Congressional District caucus, 35 people were earnestly argued to be one of two delegates that would attend the national convention in Minneapolis.

In a time-consuming winnowing process, paper ballots with all 35 names had to be distributed, gathered, and then sent down to the tabulation area. To win a national delegate slot, people had to receive a majority of votes cast. However, with that many names on the ballot it could have gone well into the night — save for a rule that required dropping the names of candidates who failed to receive a minimum percentage of votes cast.

Still, it took forever. To pass the time, delegates kicked around their own policy ideas and debated amongst themselves.

Arthur Cody, a family practice physician from Lynnwood, talked of how difficult it was to make a medical practice survive when Medicare and Medicaid haven't increased reimbursement rates in years, despite the increasing costs of treatment.

Doctors are increasingly reluctant, or simply refuse, to take Medicaid patients and are dropping out of Medicare altogether, Cody said.

He also aimed criticism at insurance companies, advocating the addition of strict antitrust scrutiny while pushing for cutting the flow of government subsidies to the insurance sector. He advocated reform of the malpractice insurance system, noting that he did not carry malpractice insurance himself. Without the huge pool of money represented by malpractice insurance, he said, there isn't much bait for plaintiffs' attorneys to go after.

Former Kansas state senator Paul Hess, a delegate from the 32nd Legislative District, recounted how his former state had completely privatized social service functions in the 1980s, which resulted in lowered state costs, improved client services, fewer lawsuits, more agency transparency, and a massive reduction in state employees.

This system, implemented well over 10-years ago during Hess' state Senate career, continues today and remains untouched by Kansas' governor, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius — who, by the way, is a name frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

After several hours of chatting, debating, voting, tabulating, and watching the drapes rot, two national delegates were finally selected — just in time to split for the day, go back to the hotel, and get ready for the evening's festivities, including the convention banquet.

It never fails — I always sign up for these big soirées, and I always swear never to sign up for big soirées again. Not that the company isn't worth it — I enjoyed sitting next to former and soon-to-be-again 45th District Rep. Toby Nixon, and across from an old friend, Bellevue City Council member Conrad Lee — but political convention banquet meals are definitely not haute cuisine.

The absence of the advertised keynote speaker for the evening, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, was also a letdown. So the ever-valiant 5th District U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers pinch-hit.

I made a couple short cruises through the candidate-sponsored hospitality suites after the banquet was over, where I was able to grab my couple minutes with Rossi, among others, without grabbing anything from the ice cream sundae bar or cheese trays.

Showdown at the convention corral

The next morning, the tension on the convention floor was palpable — the earpiece people whispered in small, huddled groups scattered hither and yon, while the baseball-cap types skittered about as if they were carrying state secrets. There was an anticipation of some sort of clash, though over what exactly remained to be seen.

During the afternoon, chairs on the floor sagged under the weight of suggested amendments to the proposed party platform, while an almost inch-thick stack of resolutions recommended for adoption by the state platform committee begged reading enjoyment.

But before policy work could begin, more delegate-selection process was in order. The preceding day's delegate selection based upon the primary election had to be augmented by some from the caucus system. So a slate of proposed party-endorsed "Unity Delegates" — most for McCain, some for Huckabee, and some for Paul — was one of many pieces of paper on each seat.

In the end, McCain's supporters won the most delegates, taking 30 out of 37 representatives selected to go to Minneapolis, while only four delegates will represent Paul, along with three for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Three additional ex-officio delegates, state Chair Luke Esser and national committee members Jeff Kent and Fredi Simpson, will round out the contingent of those who'll be privileged to spend their Labor Day holiday listening to the ever-present sound of Midwest tornado sirens and gully-washer thunderstorms. They'll no doubt also enjoy near-triple-digit temperatures and early September humidity, along with the nastiest mosquitoes this side of malaria. And don't forget the food. The Twin Cities' finest cuisine is also rumored to be heavily laced with cream of mushroom soup (Minnesota binder). Mmmm.

The ice fishing probably won't be that great either.

For the proposed platform, Central Washington University professor and platform committee chair Mathew Manweller, explained the process by which the platform had been developed. Consisting of a lengthy preamble and 13 focused planks, it outlined Republican principles and values of:

A free society, free markets, free trade, the sanctity of human life, limited government, low taxes, a minimal bureaucracy, a strong national defense, private property rights, and the concept that government should do for individuals only those things they cannot do for themselves.

The planks were subjects ranging from personal, civil, and religious liberty, along with economy, taxes, immigration, family, health care, energy, environment law, justice, and others.

Delegates had an opportunity to approve planks as read, or move to set them aside for later amendment. The majority of planks were approved as read, while those set aside focused on traditionally conservative grassroots issues such as abortion and the rights of gun owners.

For the most part, the proposed platform was a "big tent" approach to conservative beliefs and ideas. There was plenty in it for everyone to like, and a little something for everyone to grouse over.

The consideration process was often sharp but was kept civil at the insistence of Wilbur's ever-ready gavel. Paulistas made repeated indignant complaints that copies of the draft platform weren't made available, which prompted Wilbur to remind forgetful delegates that they had been distributed the day before.

On many issues, the Paulistas and McCain people were at opposites, with Paulistas acting as the primary force in favor of amending the platform.

Given the numerical superiority of the McCain supporters over the Paulistas, however, most of these efforts failed — most, but not all. Some amendments — stronger pro-life and specific Second Amendment language, for example — passed with strong delegate support.

However, in the several hours of discussion and debate, not a single word was uttered by anyone — not Paulistas, nor McCain supporters — in favor of higher taxes, expanded government, more regulation, or suppressed liberties.

About that immigration plank ...

After the convention, some in the media picked up on one particular platform item and sought to make it emblematic of both the convention and grassroots Republicans. The immigration plank included the following:

Legal immigration can best be facilitated by a transparent, traceable, and enforceable guest worker program that does not include amnesty or birthright citizenship and sanctuary cities." (Emphasis added.)

Liberal commentators and left-wing bloggers have had a field day with this, claiming the Washington GOP is foursquare in favor of repealing the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which classifies citizens as either naturalized or born in the United States.

The bloody shirt of this so-called "commentary" has even been waved on the pages of Crosscut, yet at no time did any delegate or convention official mention amending the Constitution. In fact, the immigration plank passed without comment or amendment.

The point of the language, it seems to me, is simply to withdraw a benefit to those who are in the country illegally, something that is arguably within the purview of Congress to do and a political and legal question about which there is increasing national debate with good arguments on both sides.

It's not a black-helicopter attempt to shred civil liberties, despite the fantastical imaginations of leftist demonizers.

With the platform adopted, our increasingly weary attention turned to resolutions. Time was marching on to the 5 p.m. witching hour and the natives were getting restless — those mountains were still very high, and for most, home was a long way away.

The thick stack of resolutions, percolated from precinct caucuses and county conventions, dealt with diverse issues like the opposition to breaching dams on the Columbia River to livestock identification concerns to the ever-popular nuclear waste debate at Hanford.

Be it resolved, or maybe not

When we got to the proposed resolutions that had a "do-not-pass" recommendation, however, elbows got sharp, tempers frayed, and parliamentary machinations and maneuvers went through the roof.

Lines at the floor microphones became long. Delegates whose pet issue had received a thumbs-down from the state platform committee waited to argue their case, while frivolous shouts of "point of order" bogged down each resolution's consideration. All the while, the clock did not work in favor of well-reasoned debate.

At one point, a large number of would-be McCain delegates and their baseball cap brethren left the hall in what appeared to be an organized attempt to bring the proceedings to a halt by denying a quorum. It almost worked, but Wilbur kept the proceedings working smoothly and decided enough delegates remained to conduct business at the time.

But as the clock ticked closer to the 5 p.m. witching hour, delegates realized that the rules would have to be suspended to continue consideration of the resolutions — or the convention would turn into a pumpkin and adjourn.

A Paulista moved to suspend the rules to allow the convention to carry on, which was soon after put to a vote. Unless two-thirds of delegates agreed to carry on, the convention would be kaput.

Individual delegation chairs were summoned for instructions while their deputies sought to keep delegations in order. The 45th District delegation, chaired by Dollie Kosters and assisted by Eric Rohrbach, maintained strong discipline, keeping almost 100 percent of the delegates until the very end.

One by one delegates were polled. To continue, or not to continue — that was the question.

Then — out of the blue — someone started singing patriotic songs.

"God bless America/land that I love ..." rang out as the votes were tabulated.

Apparently, Republicans are Americans first, members of a political party second — and that means both McCain supporters and Paulistas.

When the votes were finally tabulated, the "carry on" motion actually passed, but not by the necessary two-thirds. So Wilbur struck his gavel and declared the 2008 Washington State Republican Party Convention to be adjourned.

The rush to the exits was such that the timid risked being trampled underfoot.

A large of Paulistas carrying Ron Paul banners and signs had already formed just outside the exit. They refused to let the moment die, shouting support for their 72-year-old revolutionary patron saint in a manner reminiscent of 1960s-era student protests. Most people, however, made mad dashes to trains, planes, and automobiles and headed for home.

Staying steadfast in a tough year

There's no question that the GOP faces an uphill battle this year. We're the party of an unpopular president. Then there's high gas prices, the tanking economy, and the tough but improving war in Iraq. Times are challenging. But at similar times in modern history, Republicans have prevailed when they remember why they are Republicans and when they quit acting, and spending, like Democrats.

A candidate like Rossi, with a positive approach and the ability to get close to and identify with voters, has something to offer, while Gregoire, when you think about it, hasn't accomplished much of anything, save ballooning the size of state government.

Meanwhile, a gutsy guy like Beren shows something by sticking closer to McDermott than a suit of clothes. By challenging and holding McDermott accountable, Beren could increase turnout for Rossi while securing votes for himself.

These are guys I want to hang with — and these are guys in whom I have confidence.

Even the Paulistas, as rowdy and contentious as they were, hold more to values with which I identify than anyone on the big government, high taxes, weak America, less-freedom-and-liberty side of the aisle.

I'm proud to identify with Republican principles and the GOP. I'll continue to hold my party accountable when it strays. I'll also continue to hold it up while it offers better vision and hope for both Washington state and America.

Freedom and liberty work — always have, always will.


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