In the wake of yesterday’s surprise vote to remove Lynn Peterson as Washington Secretary of Transportation, Senate Republicans have been asked, again and again, by their Democratic colleagues as well as by reporters: Why are you doing this?
Different Republican senators have been giving different answers, especially in one-on-one interviews with the press.… even contradicting each other, with some making inflammatory comments. One thing, at least, is quite clear: Republicans are having a hard time keeping their story straight.
Maybe it’s because they can’t agree among themselves why they did it, or they didn’t have time to rehearse an agreed-upon narrative together.
Or maybe it’s because what they did was an outrageous misuse of their political power, and they realize that, but don’t want to admit it.
You can judge for yourself. Let’s start with top Republican Mark Schoesler:
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R‑Ritzville, came to the press table after the vote to show reporters a letter that was sent by the state Civil Rights Coalition to the speaker of the House expressing concern that the Department of Transportation didn’t treat the minority small business community fairly.
[Jaime] Smith, the governor’s spokeswoman, was standing at the press table and challenged Schoesler on why no one had any indication of the Senate’s plans until moments before it started.
Schoesler ignored her and continued talking about the letter from the coalition that criticized Peterson, and he ended the conversation by saying “she’s racist,” as he walked away, causing vocal outrage from Democratic senators and governor’s staff who had gathered nearby.
“I think that right there says everything you need to know,” Smith said.
Emphasis is mine. Schoesler lamely tried to retract his comment later, saying “I regret my remark in the heat of the scrum at the press table.” Schoesler also told the Associated Press that he “spoke things that I probably didn’t want to say.”
Schoesler may really regret his “remark” in the weeks to come. Governor Jay Inslee made it plain that Schoesler’s slander against Peterson infuriated him.
It appears Schoesler has poisoned his working relationship with the governor and the governor’s staff… not a smart thing for a majority “leader” to do.
In contrast to Schoesler, my own senator, Republican Andy Hill (R‑45th District), said Peterson’s dismissal was nothing personal:
“This is not personal. I like Lynn Peterson. I think she is a good person, but I look at results,” Hill said.
Hill, and his colleagues cited a range of problems on Washington roads, such as tolling on State Route 520, and the express toll lanes on I‑405. Hill said that, at times, the Good-to-Go system that manages tolling is “customer hostile,” and that I‑405’s new tolling system is “a nightmare.” Others mentioned the “debacle” of Bertha that, admittedly, Peterson inherited.
“My biggest concern is the implementation (of I‑405). It has absolutely been abysmal,” Hill said. “(WSDOT) thinks everything is going great. And I’m sorry — there is no accountability there.”
Hill has some nerve talking about “results” and “accountability” when he and his colleagues are in contempt of court for failing to fully fund our public schools.
As the Senate’s chief budget writer, Hill has come up with some truly awful, unworkable budget proposals that relied heavily on gimmicks, accounting tricks, and phantom marijuana tax proceeds to balance the books.
Hill & Co. aren’t delivering for our kids, and yet here they are, making a scapegoat out of Secretary Lynn Peterson for everything that’s wrong with WSDOT.
If the problems with the I‑405 HOT lanes were good enough reason to get rid of Lynn Peterson, then Senate Republicans’ repeated refusal to work with House Democrats to raise the revenue that our schools need should be grounds for all of them to lose their jobs. Senate Republicans are very good at grandstanding and political theater, but very bad at getting results.
Though Hill insisted Lynn Peterson’s ouster was about “results” and “accountability”, his colleague Republican Judy Warnick admitted to Yakima Herald reporter Mike Faulk that firing Peterson was about sticking it to Inslee:
Asked Sen. Warnick if Peterson vote was about performance or just a stick in @GovInslee’s eye: “Maybe a bit of both.” #waleg
No, it’s not politics against the Governor. This is… uh, I’m sure you’ve seen the media surrounding, uh, the Department of Transportation, from the HOT lanes, to CRC [Columbia River Crossing], to bridge collapses… I mean, the list goes on and on.
Bridge collapses!? Peterson is to blame for the collapsed bridges that the Legislature didn’t have the courage or foresight to replace years ago? Wow. Just… wow.
Heck, Peterson’s response to the Skagit River bridge collapse and the Oso mudslide has won her praise from mayors in Arlington and Mount Vernon, who sent emails to Senate Republicans yesterday urging them to keep Peterson on the job, as Republicans were on the verge of voting to remove her. Mayors in Puyallup and Renton made similar requests. But they were ignored.
Around the same time Rivers and Hill were going around insisting it wasn’t politics, Republican Michael Baumgartner, one of the more extreme members of the caucus, was busy taunting the Inslee administration on Twitter:
Note to other Inslee Appointees: Shape up, Do your job. Serve the people w accountability. Or more heads are going to roll. #waleg
Asked by The Seattle Times why he turned on Peterson, Transportation Chair Curtis King initially said it was because she mismanaged the I‑405 HOT lanes rollout.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King, R‑Yakima, was accused by Democrats of flip-flopping. King had told Peterson in committee last year: “I want to thank you for the job you have done over the past two and half years, and I can’t say thank you enough to the staff that you have behind you.”
King says his view shifted last fall when WSDOT staffers sounded blasé about complaints during the I‑405 toll startup. “It’s like, ‘We’re handling things really well, things are going fine,’ yet there are signatures from 22,000 people saying this is garbage,” he said in a phone interview while driving home via White Pass.
But then he pivoted and said Peterson wasn’t enough of a road warrior.
He also said Peterson is making it too cheap for Sound Transit to acquire right of way along state roads.
“She’s very partial to transit, very partial to bike and pedestrian paths, all those things,” King said. “We need to protect the citizens that want to travel on our roads. That’s why we’re there. We need to protect the ability of people to use our roads, use their cars. From the get-go, she was about moving people on transit, moving people on light rail.”
King’s account of why he changed his mind about Peterson doesn’t make sense.
If, “from the get-go”, Peterson’s partiality to transit was a problem for King, why didn’t King object to Peterson’s confirmation last year when it was in committee? Peterson had already been on the job for two years at that point. Last June, King seemingly had nothing but praise and appreciation for Peterson, while Connecting Washington was being negotiated. Now he’s unloading on her.
And what’s wrong with moving people on transit and light rail? It’s a good thing when we reduce congestion by providing commuters with reliable transit options.
We no longer have a Department of Highways. We have a Department of Transportation. Ferries, freight mobility, and passenger rail are all within the purview of WSDOT — as are multimodal projects that give Washingtonians choices, so they’re not forced to drive to get where they need to go.
That said, WSDOT is still definitely a highways-centric agency. Lynn Peterson didn’t change that. But apparently not highway-centric enough for Curtis King.
We have to wonder: who’s going to want the job of leading the Washington State Department of Transportation now that Senate Republicans have fired Lynn Peterson without giving her an opportunity to defend herself, and without any notice to Senate Democrats, Governor Jay Inslee, WSDOT, or the public?
Given what happened to Peterson, how is Inslee supposed to recruit a high-caliber replacement to lead WSDOT? Who’s going to want to come here to deal with the rowdy, reckless, torch and pitchfork-wielding Senate Republicans? Who’s going to want to be promoted from within?
Even after Senate Democrats repeatedly warned them of the damage their rash, reckless actions would inflict on the Senate floor, Senate Republicans went ahead and got rid of Peterson anyway. That really says something.
The Senate Republicans have proved time and again that they are more interested in winning elections and increasing their political power than governing.
They have their sights set on winning a majority in the House this fall (in addition to keeping their slim Senate majority), and it’s evident they’re trying to build an anti-Inslee narrative for their candidates. They don’t care if they hurt the state in the process. And amazingly, they don’t even seem to care about having a coherent, defensible justification for their actions, as their comments yesterday demonstrate.