State Senate Republican victory could be costly with women, Hispanic Washingtonians

News analysis: Maintaining discipline within the Majority Coalition Caucus was a choice that will strike some as driven by an exclusionary agenda that the party is supposedly trying to escape.
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News analysis: Maintaining discipline within the Majority Coalition Caucus was a choice that will strike some as driven by an exclusionary agenda that the party is supposedly trying to escape.

Nationally, the Republican Party is debating internally what it can do to reach out to non-whites and women — constituencies turned off by the GOP's 1950s attitudes toward them.

The Washington Legislature's Republicans are making the same long-term mistakes as their national counterparts.

The top priority of all political parties is to get their members elected. Last year, the national Republican Party blew that mission by not understanding that women and minorities make up the majority of voters. Instead, the Republicans went out of their way to act like stereotypical out-of-touch Republicans, and lost a chance to beat President Barack Obama on the economy.

Shifting to Olympia, we have the Majority Coalition Caucus controlling the Senate -- 23 Republicans and two Democrats who united in a belief that the budget is out of control, job creation is being hampered and education needs fixed.

Their mottos:

"We're truly bipartisan." "We're a new way of making effective changes." "We're a breath of fresh air in politics."

In reality, the coalition has become a conservative Republican caucus controlled by its conservative Republican members. The caucus has a wide spectrum of views from moderates to right-wingers — partly held together by the threat that losing one vote eliminates their majority, and by a strict party-line discipline that even Democratic House Speaker and Godfather Frank Chopp could not achieve on a major gun-background-checks bill.

Behind the scenes, the majority coalition's leaders have prevented some extremely conservative social bills from showing up on the Senate floor, where that proposed legislation could have backfired politically. On the other hand, coalition leader and centrist Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, cannot really buck the hardcore conservatives of the caucus, who include seven out of 13 Republican committee chairpersons. 

The Majority Coalition Caucus had a chance this week to present itself as a kinder, gentler caucus with no cost to its core values of fiscal discipline, education reform and job creation. That chance was wasted with the caucus' dogged stand against the Reproductive Parity Act and DREAM Act. Both bills could have passed because some Republicans in the coalition supported them.

The caucus had a chance to prove that it was not a hardcore stereotypical Republican front — a chance to make more women and Latinos comfortable with the GOP. Instead, the caucus' mantra has become: Chopp rules the House with an iron fist, so that justifies the majority coalition doing the same in the Senate.

The Reproductive Parity Act is about abortion insurance coverage. And abortion is a tricky issue. Pro-life and pro-choice stances are deeply moral and personal matters, full of nuances and variables. All sides have legitimate beliefs that should be respected and not demonized. The Senate had at least 25 votes — a bare majority that would theoretically have included Tom — to pass the act. The Republican leadership killed the bill in committee and angrily rebuffed Democratic attempts to revive it this week on the Senate floor.

The public version of their logic: The bill did not involve education, jobs or budgets.

The majority coalition could have allowed a vote, let the chips fall where they might, and look like a tolerant, bipartisan ruling body. It instead held firm against a vote.

The majority coalition did the exact same thing with rejecting the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would provide possible financial aid to children of undocumented immigrants who graduate from state high schools and want to apply to college.

Conservative Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor, killed the bill in committee, saying the state did not have enough money to cover the extra potential college students. The House passed the bill — introduced by Reps. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, and Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila  — by a 77-20 vote, meaning more than half of that chamber's Republicans supported it. The arguments supporting the bill are that the kids have lived in Washington for long periods and have done well in school, so helping them would be an economic boost to both financially hampered students and the state.

Some Washington Hispanic residents may well view the coalition's rejection of the DREAM Act as at least tinged with racism — and that is a judgment that ought to be treated with respect.

Right now, every Republican reading this story just became angry. Hear me out.

I covered the Tri-Cities area's Latino communities for many years in the 1990s for the Tri-City Herald. One thing that I learned is that racism is frequently subtle and unintentional. A supposedly innocent remark can come across as insensitive and racist to a listener from a different culture. This observation is not some touchy-feely example of political correctness. This session, I have watched both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate floor go into full-fury mode over a hint of a possible upcoming insult of which a normal person would have shrugged off.  Members of minority cultures put up with much more guff than legislators on the Senate and House floors without getting huffy.

But that does not keep the subtle, unintentional stuff from stinging deeply.

Another form of racism is the invisibility scenario — just overlooking people because they are poor and of a different color. The overwhelming majority of Washington's legislators are white and well-to-do — along with most of their professional and social circles.

The Majority Coalition Caucus follows the Republican stance that all tax exemptions are sacred. Washington has 640 tax exemptions amounting to mega-billions of dollars. Republicans say removing even 15 exemptions totaling $751 million would dramatically hurt the economy and would be a low-down trick on taxpayers. One loophole proposed for elimination is the use tax exemption for extracted fuel, which covers a factory or commercial operation's byproducts that are used internally as fuel. The exemption would continue for "hog fuel," which is made from wood byproducts at sawmills and similar facilities. Five oil refineries west of the Cascade Mountains would be affected. And an extra $40.8 million would go to the state in 2013-2015.

So, none of the affected refineries are in Eastern Washington, overwhelmingly represented by Republican legislators. However, some of those legislators have large populations of Washingtonians who are Hispanic. And Latino farm workers provide the cheap labor that drives the agricultural economy of Eastern Washington.

Bottom line: Several Republican senators have a significant number of productive Hispanic constituents in their refinery-free districts. But if they follow the standard party script, as expected, they will probably support the coastal refinery tax breaks while they have, in effect, been pleading no money is available to help provide higher education for their poorer Latino constituents — a blossoming population of future voters who may eventually change the political character of a few Eastern Washington counties, with Yakima and Franklin counties likely to be the first.

Another point: Tax exemptions are supposed to boost businesses -- especially new ones -- as they struggle to create jobs. The oil refineries are solidly in Washington, earning a combined annual income in the nine figures. Republicans are expected to fight to keep the oil refinery exemption. Yet when it came to Washington's Hispanic kids who want to go to college be the future white-collar workers of the state, the majority coalition had a knee-jerk reaction to call on party purity to avoid having a vote on the bill, even though it would have likely passed with moderate Republicans' support.

The coalition's logic involves semantics: The bills did not involve education, jobs or the budget -- even though the DREAM Act fitted two of those criteria. The Senate has too much to do and did not have time to vote on the bills -- although both could have been voted on in 15 minutes. The extra financial aid would suck money away from other programs, which cannot be financed by removing tax breaks because such exemptions are sacred.

These are the type of contorted arguments that no legislator would try on a spouse. Conservative small town and rural voters would crucify their local government officials for such verbal dancing around; I've covered several of those instances. Overly clever arguments that are acceptable in the insider cocoon of the Olympia Capitol Campus would not pass muster in much of the outside world.

Another thing that I learned about Washingtonians who are also Latinos is that a large number have an independent streak. On most issues, they resent being lumped together into a stereotypical Hispanic voting bloc. Republicans could have a realistic chance of recruiting many Latino Washingtonians on economic and educational issues. But Hispanics also unite in opposition if they get a whiff of prejudice against themselves or fellow Latinos.

A macho victory on esoteric parliamentary points that impresses solely Olympia insiders will not impress Hispanic voters if that win hurts their friends' children's chances of climbing the socio-economic ladder.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8