The brawl between Senate Republicans and the Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee over the firing of the state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson has struck some as Washington, D.C.-style, in-your-face politics not normally seen here.
State-agency boondoggles and political feuds are nothing new in the state Capitol.
But the surprise takedown of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson this month by Senate Republicans was a power play against Gov. Jay Inslee unlike any in memory.
The GOP’s election-year gambit played to suburban voter anger over a troubled rollout of Interstate 405 express tolling — and previewed a central 2016 campaign charge of Inslee administration incompetence from Republican challenger Bill Bryant.
The brawl between Senate Republicans and the Democratic governor has struck some as Washington, D.C.-style, in-your-face politics not normally seen here.
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“I think we’ve all seen the Potomac politics creeping into Washington,” said longtime pollster Stuart Elway. “We used to think we were immune to that stuff.”
George Scott, a former Seattle Republican legislator and political historian, called the legislative tumult as strong as anything he’s seen in the past four decades.
“I think the Republicans smell blood,” Scott said, citing what he called an unusual number of problems in state agencies. Still, while delays in confirmations for gubernatorial appointees are not uncommon, he said, “Taking this woman’s head as abruptly as it occurred is a startlement, no doubt about it.”
Before this month, the Senate had not rejected a gubernatorial appointee’s confirmation since 1998, when Republicans booted former Congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld, a Democrat, from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Unsoeld’s removal — itself the first such rejection since a liquor-board appointee was denied in 1967 — also drew charges of crass partisanship. But her ouster as a volunteer commissioner was a far cry from the firing of Peterson as head of the state transportation department.
It also came as no surprise to Unsoeld or to then-Gov. Gary Locke. “Despite the differences I had with Republicans, we always had open lines of communication,” Locke said in an interview last week.
At the start of the debate on Unsoeld’s confirmation, state Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, said he’d talked to both of them about his concerns and had “just got off the phone with Jolene.”
There was no such courtesy call to Peterson, who after three years on the job was caught off guard by the Senate’s Feb. 5 vote to fire her — as was Inslee, who was out of town that Friday.
“Poppycock. Bull feathers. This is an election-year stunt,” a furious Inslee said at a news conference last week, calling the “ambush” of Peterson the lowest moment he’d witnessed in all his years in politics.
Inslee canceled meetings with Republicans following the Peterson firing, but said later in the week he’d resume them.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said Republicans were cheering for state government to fail and had stooped to using the Senate chamber to reinforce Bryant’s campaign message. “In my mind it’s really about campaign politics,” she said.
GOP: Agencies overdue for accountability
Republicans reject such charges, saying they acted to bring long-overdue accountability to state agencies, citing high-profile screw-ups at prisons and delays and cost overruns in transportation megaprojects.
“We see a pattern of mismanagement … We do not see a governor that is engaged,” said state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, the chief Senate budget writer, who helped lead the charge for Peterson’s removal.
Hill’s recent floor speeches and role in the Capitol turmoil have fueled new rumors he was reconsidering a bid for governor. He said that’s not true and that his previously stated family reasons for not running remain the same.
The controversy over I-405 tolling — with complaints that traffic might be even worse than before — has “stirred up my constituents more than anything,” Hill said, calling the anger bipartisan.
Although Hill was among the lawmakers who authorized the tolling, he blamed the Inslee administration for shoddy implementation.
David Hablewitz, the founder of stop405tolls.org, which has gathered more than 30,000 signatures to overturn the new tolls, agreed the issue has inflamed motorists of all political stripes. Hablewitz said he considers himself a Democrat, but called partisan politics beside the point.
Peterson’s firing was part of a trifecta of departures from the Inslee administration as he enters his bid for a second term.
A day after Peterson was removed, Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke resigned amid probes over errors that resulted in early releases of thousands of inmates.
And last month, Inslee accepted the resignation of Kevin Quigley, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, which has struggled with court orders to improve mental-health treatment and to improve staffing at Western State Hospital.
Those exits could hurt Inslee’s already damaged reputation as an executive. An Elway Research poll of 500 registered voters in January found Inslee’s job-performance ratings in decline. Just 39 percent of voters surveyed rated his performance good or excellent, with 58 percent ranking him only fair or poor.
Bryant, a former Port of Seattle commissioner, has seized on a theme of Inslee as a bad manager and mocked Democrats for accusing Republicans of creating a crisis.
“The Republican Senate didn’t manufacture the early release of prisoners. They didn’t manufacture problems at Western State Hospital. They didn’t manufacture traffic jams on 405,” he said.
In an interview on conservative radio station KVI last week, Bryant hammered at the tolling controversy further, suggesting WSDOT cared more about raising money than reducing traffic jams. He warned that the state wants to use similar tolling as a model for the entire highway grid.
Bryant has in the past endorsed increased tolling for highways because gas-tax revenues are not projected to bring in enough money for needed long-term road maintenance and improvements.
During a 2012 talk in Tacoma, he suggested that densely populated areas would have to go to “more systemwide tolling” — stretching as far as from Olympia to Everett. He also served on the Puget Sound Regional Council, which has endorsed a long-term plan for tolling on major highways.
In an interview last week, Bryant said his statements were not inconsistent. He said he still believes the state must consider long-term alternatives to the gas tax and that systemwide tolling “needs to be one of the options on the table.”
The confrontation may have dimmed already modest expectations for bipartisan breakthroughs on school funding and other issues during the 60-day legislative session, set to end March 10.
But after his initial, angry blast at Republicans early in the week, Inslee sought to reset the tone somewhat at a Thursday news conference. “The goal was bring the temperature back down,” said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith.
Inslee rescheduled meetings with GOP lawmakers and said he was optimistic about progress on issues such as a state Voting Rights Act, a measure aimed at shifting the way city-council districts are drawn, in order to boost election prospects for historically underrepresented minorities.
The proposal has repeatedly passed the Democratic-majority state House but has been bottled up in the Republican-led Senate.
Meanwhile, Republicans have signaled they could go after another Inslee appointee — Dorothy Frost Teeter, who has headed the state Health Care Authority (HCA) since 2013 but has not been confirmed.
Republicans have complained the agency’s budget estimates have been inaccurate, bringing higher-than-anticipated Medicaid costs projected at hundreds of millions of dollars over the next four years.
An HCA spokeswoman attributed those increases to rising prescription-drug costs and higher Medicaid enrollment.
But Hill and other Republicans say the agency’s bad projections have been a constant source of frustration, calling HCA “the biggest problem agency we have had the last three years.”
Still, Hill said he didn’t know whether Republicans will move to fire Teeter as they did Peterson. “Anything could happen on any day in the Legislature,” he said.