Being a Republican no longer means being shut out.
As the 54th Washington Legislature opened Monday, many at the Capitol began to get a look at what life will be like in the new legislative order.
In addition to the novelty of increased lawmaking clout, the shift in power brings more mundane benefits to some Republican legislators, such as bigger offices and increased staff. For some, those new surroundings may take some getting used to.
Rep. Todd Mielke, R-Spokane, the new chairman of the House Republican Caucus, rattled around his swanky new digs on opening day, unable to find so much as a pen.
“Gotta be one around here somewhere … boxes everywhere … let’s see,” he muttered, banging his hands back and forth in a top desk drawer.
Mielke chaired his first caucus meeting Monday morning, leading Republican members through the paces and pomp to come once the session officially convened at noon. New members asked a lot of basic questions - like which door to use to enter the House chamber.
Family and friends were invited into the usually closed-door caucus session, including Spokane County GOP chairman Duane Sommers and vice-chairwoman Charlotte Karling.
“There’s just a whole lot of excitement - people who have felt disenfranchised, especially from our part of the state, feel like they are part of things again,” Karling said. “This is a historic day, to have a Republican speaker, and so many committee chairmen sworn in from the East Side.”
One of the few legislators around the last time the Republicans held a majority in the House is Rep. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, now in his 14th year of office.
As chairman of the Law and Justice Committee, Padden hopes to tackle many of the get-tough approaches to crime touted by Republican candidates last year.
“This is the culmination of all the hard work of a lot of members and a vindication of a lot of voters who wanted change,” Padden said.
Rep. Jean Silver, R-Spokane, is now chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which holds the purse strings of the state as the House begins to write the 1995-97 budget. She intends to use her new power to clutch those purse strings tighter than ever.
“I’m a CPA, and when I first got to the Legislature, I could not believe how this place worked,” said Silver, a 12-year veteran legislator.
Freshman Rep. Larry Crouse, R-Spokane, had barely put up a painting and a clock on his otherwise bare office walls when the opening ceremonies began.
Crouse, part of this year’s influx of new Republicans, said he will learn the ropes from party leaders. Though he is part of the House GOP’s commanding new 60-38 majority, he said he will go out of his way to listen to the Democrats.
“Just because you have a D after your name doesn’t mean you have no ideas to help the people,” Crouse said.
Democrats said Monday they will cooperate with Republicans on many issues, but won’t sacrifice core principles.
Rep. Dennis Dellwo, D-Spokane, said he believes Democrats still have enough clout to play a part in the political process this year. He said he will try to act as a liaison between the Republican-dominated House and the Senate, where the Democrats hold a shaky 1-vote majority.
He said it is too early to tell how being a member of the minority party will affect his job, but admitted, “It’ll become a problem when you’re in a committee and you’re trying to talk sense and fail because you don’t hold the committee chairmanship.”
Meanwhile, one floor down, citizens were trying to make a few laws of their own, with initiatives to the people. Measures ran the gamut from efforts to save sea life with a ban on drift nets to restoring gun rights.
Clarence Keating Jr. filed his initiative revamping the state tax code for the 18th year in a row.
“It’s so great, you don’t want to give up on it,” he said.