Olympia's Democrats have lost their way
Rick (NPI's Outreach & Advocacy Director) and I spent much of November 29th in Olympia. We attended two committee hearings, spoke to lawmakers individually, and watched or listened to the activity on the Senate and House floors. And when we left the state capital that evening, we left disappointed yet not surprised.
We made the effort to be there because you can't win if you don't show up. That's the idea behind Governor Howard Dean's successful fifty state strategy.
We went hoping that we would be heard. Hoping (though not expecting) that the lawmakers in front of us might realize the mistake of reinstating I-747.
Unfortunately, we and many other Washingtonians representing diverse interests throughout the state opposed to I-747 reinstatement were ignored.
The two hearings that were held on the legislation were as pointless as the Federal Communications Commission's recent farce of a meeting in Seattle, held with just five business days' notice. Over a thousand showed up for that event to fill the public comment period with near universal opposition to the proposed relaxation of media ownership rules. But less than 72 hours later, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced a largely unchanged version of his plan to roll back restrictions.
The same thing happened in Thursday's special session.
There was virtually no deliberation and no open-mindedness. Most lawmakers came prepared to do the governor's bidding and leave without bothering to think about the ramifications. The few that didn't comprised a brave but tiny minority.
As our good friend Steve Zemke said in his testimony, the entire special session was a railroad. Other matters were set aside, rules were suspended, and thoughtfully prepared amendments rejected in committee or on the floor with little discussion...all to ensure that a defective, regressive right wing property tax limit would be hurriedly put back on the books with no sunset.
Representatives of many different constituencies (firefighters, churches, senior citizens, workers) testified in committee against I-747 reinstatement, urging the Legislature to consider meaningful progressive alternatives instead.
Not a single irate homeowner testified demanding that the Legislature reenact a one percent cap. (I'm obviously not counting Tim and entourage, who are in politics for a living and don't count as "regular folks").
Those present supporting Eyman included employees of the Washington Policy Center and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which made predictable statements on his behalf using conservative framing.
Despite the strong opposition, reinstatement was voted out of committee anyway.
And despite all the problems raised with Gregoire's property tax deferral bill, during the hearings and on the floor, the House and Senate passed that too. The governor signed both bills and one of the saddest, most shameful days in our state's history finally ended.
Olympia failed the people of Washington State. And Democrats failed to lead.
Instead, they scrambled to cave to the right wing and were even mocked by Tim Eyman for doing so. "You’ve kind of sold out every principle you believe in," he said gleefully to the Democrats on the Senate Ways & Means Committee, including a clearly irritated Senator Margarita Prentice (the chair).
Having the special session in the first place was bad enough, but the Democratic leadership made it worse by calling for the defeat of wise amendments (Prentice) or unapologetically defending the reinstatement (Speaker Frank Chopp).
By putting Initiative 747 back into law, Gregoire, Chopp, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, and fellow Olympia Democrats surrendered their moral vision. In one fell swoop they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, alienating the party's progressive base while giving credibility to the right wing's agenda.
What do their actions say to voters? We're inauthentic. We don't really believe in the progressive values we talk about. Don't trust us to govern because we're incapable of coming up with our own ideas and solutions.
Authentic Democratic leaders don't roll over and give in when progressive values may seem unpopular. Being authentic means having the courage to consistently stand up for what you believe in - not abandoning your beliefs for the sake of political gain, or because you smell an election on the horizon. Voters respect authenticity, even if they don't agree with all of a candidate's views or positions.
Dino Rossi's entry into the 2008 gubernatorial race seems to have had the side effect of vaporizing Christine Gregoire's resolve and determination.
It's hard to believe this is the same governor who in 2005 insisted the Legislature increase revenue to fund improvements to our transportation system and took the lead in restoring the estate tax after it was nullified.
Hard to believe this is the same governor who a year ago proposed a budget that committed more funding to schools, healthcare coverage, and environmental protection.
And hard to believe this is the same governor that has been unafraid to clash with the Bush administration, bring warring interests to the same table to broker a deal, or defend countless decisions she's made to guard or enhance the common good.
Gregoire's first term record is largely progressive. But lately her spirit and bold attitude have been on vacation.
Instead of being a leader she has cowered like her predecessor Gary Locke, who did not effectively respond to the likes of Tim Eyman and Dino Rossi.
And unless she changes course, she is going to defeat herself next November - which would be a great tragedy for Washington.
Christine Gregoire needs to run for reelection as Christine Gregoire, not as a less conservative or more progressive version of Dino Rossi. Think about it: Why should voters choose Dino Rossi Lite when they can have Dino Rossi?
If Gregoire, Chopp, and Brown want to win in 2008, they have to extricate themselves from the trap of reactionary politics, a trap that is all too easy to fall into, thanks to the right wing's domination of public discourse:
It is not an accident that conservatives are winning where they have successfully framed the issues. They've got a thirty to forty year head start. And more than two billion dollars in think tank investments.Without our own think tanks, without our own research institutions, we can't effectively counter the other side's ideas with our own.
And they are still thinking ahead. Progressives are not. Progressives feel so assaulted by conservatives that they can only think about immediate defense. Democratic office holders are constantly under attack. Every day they have to respond to conservative initiatives. It is always, "What do we have to do to fight them off today?" It leads to politics that are reactive, not proactive.
- George Lakoff, Don't Think of An Elephant
This is precisely why the Northwest Progressive Institute was founded: to aid in bridging the infrastructure gap between the progressive movement and the right wing. Of course, the existence of NPI and similar organizations cannot magically eliminate elected Democrats' reactionary thinking.
Thursday's special session proved that.
We're here to help, but party leaders (especially those in public office) have to listen and take advantage of our advice and our ideas. Especially on fiscal issues, where the right wing's framing is strong.
Our work is a foundation to be built upon. That foundation is merely a beginning; unless it is embraced, it can't become a finished product.
If Democrats in Olympia truly believe in governing responsibly, they'll build on the cornerstones placed by NPI and other progressive institutions instead of allowing the right wing to push them around. If they do not, we'll see repeats of what happened in last Thursday's sorry special session along with the destruction of the party's hard-fought gains at the state level.
POSTSCRIPT: Activists and advocates dismayed at what happened last Thursday who want to make a difference and be part of a unique political strategy center, built on activist roots, are more than welcome to join us.