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NPI’s Gael Tarleton elected Majority Floor Leader by Washington’s House Democrats

Earlier this evening, we received word that State Representative and NPI Vice President-Secretary Gael Tarleton has been elected by her Democratic colleagues to serve as the new Majority Floor Leader in the Washington State House of Representatives, succeeding Representative Kristine Lytton, who is taking over the chairmanship of the House Finance Committee from Reuven Carlyle.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish for my community and the state of Washington,” Tarleton said in a statement posted to her legislative website. “In just a few short years, we’ve improved public health, expanded access to higher education, and built more secure communities.”

“But there’s still work to do to ensure we provide opportunity for all and build a strong middle class through continued investments in education and the creation of family-wage jobs in all corners of the state. I’m looking forward to serving the people of Washington in this new leadership role.”

Carlyle is likely to be appointed to take the place of Jeanne Kohl-Welles in the Washington State Senate in a matter of weeks.

Kohl-Welles was recently elected to a four-year term on the Metropolitan King County Council, taking the place of Larry Phillips, who decided to retire. Already on the Council are former Washington State legislators Dave Upthegrove and Joe McDermott, who succeeded Julia Patterson and Dow Constantine, respectively.

Carlyle’s planned departure necessitated another round of reshuffling. The caucus has already bid farewell to Ross Hunter and Dean Takko, who left the caucus earlier this autumn. Hunter now works in the Inslee administration along with Takko’s predecessor, Brian Hatfield. Takko took Hatfield’s place in the Senate, and was himself succeeded by Hatfield’s legislative assistant J.D. Rossetti.

The Majority Floor Leader has an important job within each house of the Legislature. It is the floor leader’s responsibility to coordinate the debate on the floor and ensure that bills have either the requisite fifty or twenty-five votes required to pass prior to the commencement of debate.

Tarleton’s counterpart in the House on the Republican side is J.T. Wilcox, who represents Yelm, Eatonville, La Grande, and the adjoining communities in the 2nd Legislative District. Wilcox posted to Facebook today, commenting on Carlyle’s departure and trying to spin it as good news for Republicans. He wrote:

The best and the brightest are leaving the WA House Democratic Caucus. Deeply experienced, senior members Hunter, Carlyle and Hunt have already announced they are moving on. Among the most talented younger members are Brady Walkinshaw and Chris Reykdahl [sic] who is also leaving the caucus. Many of these are pursuing other elective options, however doubtful. In the meantime, House and Senate Republicans are maintaining amazing stability due to the serious opportunity to govern the state of Washington.

I had to laugh when I read this. (J.T., if you get around to reading this post, there’s no h in Reykdal. Spelling counts, especially when you’re a lawmaker.)

Let me offer a few observations in response.

First, it’s pretty evident Wilcox and his fellow House Republicans are hungry for power. Republicans have been in the minority in the state House of Representatives since the turn of the century, and naturally they’re tired of that.

Having whittled the House Democratic majority down to fifty, House Republicans are now beating the drums, partnering with national Republicans to target the Washington State House for a takeover, and trying to convince reporters and prognosticators that 2016 is going to be their year.

Of course, the rest of us are under no obligation to help them create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 2016 is a presidential year, which means a larger and more progressive electorate is likely to turn out. If House Democrats learn from their mistakes, they ought to be able to rebound and pick up seats instead of losing more.

Second, with respect to Carlyle and Hunt, they’re not leaving the Legislature, just moving over to the Senate to continue their service there, as many of their Democratic colleagues (like Dean Takko, Maralyn Chase, Bob Hasegawa, David Frockt, or Sharon Nelson) have already done. Carlyle and Hunt will be bringing their considerable experience and legislative skills to a caucus that is angling to get back into the majority in 2016. That’s good news for the Democratic Party.

Third, we commonly see legislators seek higher office in presidential years, when all nine of the state’s executive department positions are up, in addition to the state’s ten U.S. House seats, and, usually, one of two U.S. Senate seats.

Washington State legislators aren’t paid very much, and they often seek to move up when opportunities present themselves. This is true for Democrats as well as Republicans. Wilcox conveniently failed to mention that several of his Republican colleagues in the Legislature are also running or thinking about running for higher or local office in 2016. A quick rundown:

  • State Representative Elizabeth Scott (R-Firearms) is giving up her seat to challenge Suzan DelBene for Congress;
  • Bruce Dammeier is leaving the Senate to run for Pierce County Executive;
  • Senator Pam Roach says she’s running for Pierce County Council;
  • And Senator Steve O’Ban is rumored to be considering a campaign for state Supreme Court. Like Scott and Dammeier, he’d need to give up his seat.

Fourth, the turnover in the House Democratic caucus that Wilcox is talking about is occurring in solidly blue Democratic districts. Brady Walkinshaw is from the 43rd, Chris Reykdal and Sam Hunt are from the 22nd, Reuven Carlyle is from the 36th, and Ross Hunter is from the 48th. None of them were seriously challenged in 2014. These are the kinds of seats a prognosticator like Larry Sabato would rate as “Safe Democrat”. The Democratic Party should have little difficulty defending them.

And turnover in safe districts has upsides for a legislative caucus. It provides an infusion of new blood and allows less senior members to step into new roles and gain experience, with little risk to the caucus’ electoral prospects.

We are very proud of Gael for having won the support of her colleagues to be Majority Floor Leader. We know firsthand that Gael excels in what she chooses to take on. She has a commitment to excellence. House Democrats will be well-served by her in this role, and by extension, so will the people of our great state.

We are also looking forward to seeing the new members of the House Democratic caucus in action in 2016. New Democratic State Representative Patty Kuderer, for instance, is a capable and worthy successor to Ross Hunter, and we know she’ll do a good job representing the Eastside and working to fully fund our schools.Once again, congratulations to Gael on beginning this exciting new chapter in public service. It’s well-earned and well-deserved.