You’ve heard it said that American politics is hopelessly polarized. You’ve seen and heard examples of the bitter name-calling and recriminations that pass for discourse. Yet, by the time the Washington Legislature finished its difficult work this year, leaders in the Senate, both Democrat and Republican, were boasting about their ability to handle their differences in a spirit of bipartisanship. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, discussed the experience recently with The Spokesman-Review. The following transcript is an excerpt from that interview. An audio recording of the full conversation is available on The Spokesman-Review’s website at spokesman.com/lisabrowninterview.
Q: When people talk about the bipartisanship they saw in the Senate, what made it stand out as bipartisan?
A: Well, it a was a conscious decision to put the budget together in a bipartisan way, and that means truly from the level of the chair of Ways and Means and the ranking Republican working together down to people in specific policy areas working together.
So, for example, the welfare program TANF – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – there was actually a bipartisan work group which put together our policy on that, which was necessary to make the kind of budget reductions we had to make. You actually had to reform the policy as well.
That group consisted of Sen. (James) Hargrove and (Debbie) Regala and myself on the Democrat side, Sen. (Mike) Carrell and Sen. (Joseph) Zarelli on the Republican side. So it wasn’t just at the top, leadership to leadership or budget chair to budget chair, it was also at the ground level where senators care about certain policy areas that they worked on it together. Sen. (Mark) Schoesler worked on the natural resource budget with Sen. Kevin Ranker from the Bellingham and islands area. So, two pretty different senators working together on natural resources.
Q: There had to be times when that was tense.
A: The trust had to be built. It wasn’t there in the beginning. And there were fears, concerns on both sides that we might not really mean it and at a certain point we might decide to go our own way and I’d twist arms and get 25 Democrats to pass the budget.
Actually, I think 25 of my members voted for the first budget, and so that sent sort of a message, I think, that there was really widespread support throughout my caucus for what we were doing on both the more progressive and moderate side. There were fears that the Republicans would do the same thing, that they would grab a few of the more moderate to conservative Democrats and write their own budget.
So it was a trust-building session. By the end it was actually running relatively smoothly. We had meetings together frequently in my office or Sen. (Mike) Hewitt’s office to talk about the agenda of the day. What bills would be coming forward, what bills weren’t ready to move yet, that kind of thing.
And we aren’t the same, we don’t have the same priorities. So there were definitely some fairly intense negotiations, especially between Sen. Zarelli and (Ed) Murray. I mean, Sen. Murray represents one of the most liberal districts, Capitol Hill in Seattle, and Sen. Zarelli’s from a very conservative southwest Washington district, and they’re pretty ideologically dissimilar. But I had worked with Sen. Zarelli before, and I had found he’ll lay out his position and you lay out yours and then there really was a working to find common ground if you can find it.
Q: The other side of the bipartisanship coin is that certain people have certain expectations of what Lisa Brown stands for, of what Sen. Zarelli stands for. What kind of tension or struggle did that put you through?
A: Definitely tension with some major stakeholder groups. I have a lifetime voting record that’s very sympathetic to organized labor, and this year I was involved in the negotiations on the workers’ comp package of legislation. A couple of those bills were accepted across the spectrum, but one in particular was very much rejected by the State Labor Council and its affiliates, and they just didn’t want a bill to pass.
Q: You’re talking about compromise and release?
A: Uh-huh. It ended up having a section in it that would allow for this new way of settling a claim, so that created tension for me. Certainly when we passed a family planning bill out of the Senate, that must have created some problems for some people in the Republican caucus that didn’t want to see this expanded family planning – “Wait a minute, I thought were were doing bipartisan.”
We agreed to do that bill not as a part of the budget but as a separate bill, and if it got 25 votes it would live or die with the 25 votes it got in the Senate.
But that would be an example of tension on both sides.
Q: Did you sense that in a tight economic year there was tension between interests that you would ordinarily be sympathetic to?
A: That is always there, but it is particularly present when you’re cutting nearly $5 billion out of the budget. The K-12 vs. human services and the social safety net – there was tension there, in the cuts.
K-12 education took the smallest percentage cuts, but they were still the deepest cuts that they’ve experienced as long as I can remember. Human services has been dealing with a series of reductions over time, and it was like, here we go again.
And clearly if you take it from the perspective of the beginning of the session when the governor presented her budget proposal, several of those social safety net programs were clearly completely at risk for being eliminated entirely. The Basic Health Plan, the Disability Lifeline, drug and alcohol programs, things that were completely wiped out in the governor’s original proposal.
And then we lost even more revenue after the governor put her budget out there. So for Democrats one of our goals and priorities and challenges was, can we reform and reduce but still preserve and protect the basic social safety net that people rely on?
Q: What was the relationship like with the House Democrats?
A: In some ways it was more tense than in previous years, because there’s more uncertainty about who you have to make an agreement with.
Q: Did they think that you were betraying them, the cause?
A: I think they understood the dynamic we were working in, and yet, it’s a pretty different culture in the best of times between the House and the Senate, and this was the worst of times, so I think there was a lot of tension and suspicion. On the other hand, I participated in the final budget negotiations between the House and the Senate, and those went quite well, and Sen. Zarelli was at the table, usually with a member of his leadership team – either Sen. Hewitt or Sen. Schoesler.
I was there with Sen. Murray and Kilmer. House Democrats were represented by Rep. Hunter and Pat Sullivan, the majority leader of the House Democrats.
Gary Alexander, the House Republican (leader), was at the table, not necessarily as a negotiator but so he would understand the lay of the land as to what was being negotiated, and because of that the House Republicans agreed to suspend some of the requirements that would have slowed us down at the end of session. And because he was at the table, he could report on what was in and out of the budget and how we got there.
Q: He made the point that he didn’t have a role in crafting the budget but that the Republicans were kept apprised and were at the table. He saw that as maybe a halfway step.
A: And those budget negotiations were very well conducted by all sides. It takes all sides to actually negotiate to the end of a very tough budget. And there was give and take. There was also some very interesting situations were we’d come upon a sticking point, and sometimes the House would go caucus and the Senate would go caucus. And some times the Democrats would go caucus and the Republicans would.
So there were some shifting alliances depending on what the issue was and what the priority was.
Q: Could this have happened in better economic times?
A: It would have been less likely to occur in better economic times. It would have been less likely to occur.
For one thing the Senate has often had closer numbers, and we were definitely aware of that as we went into the session. But particularly for Democrats, with things like the very basics like the Basic Health Plan at stake, we felt the danger of a breakdown or a logjam like you might see at the federal level, that the consequences of that were just too great for us to risk. Even though it seemed like a pretty big risk to work across the aisle, we thought that was a preferable one and one that would be more likely to lead to a better outcome than a big stare-down between two sides.
Q: Speaking of numbers then, if you had had a clear, commanding majority, would this have happened?
A: It also would have been less likely, because in the end it is about getting a majority of the votes. Getting the 25. I will say that in the Senate, no matter what our numbers are, even when we had the very large majority, we have tended to approach transportation budgets and capital budgets and several major policy areas in a bipartisan way. So that’s not new for the Senate. Human Services and Corrections under Sen. Hargrove has been conducted in a very bipartisan way ever since I can remember. Economic development issues, higher education issues – those aren’t necessarily partisan issues.
But what was unusual was the operating budget. People who have been around Olympia a long time said they have never really seen the operating budget be negotiated in a bipartisan fashion, no matter what the situation was, so I think we were breaking new ground there.
Q: How likely is it that we’re going to continue to see this? Is this a pragmatic thing that got you through a time with horrible economics and a narrow majority, or did it actually change the culture in some way?
A: I think it will persist. I am fairly certain it will persist through next year.
Beyond that, the numbers change, potentially leadership changes and new things could occur. But the relationships that were built, I think those are going to have sustainable benefits for public policy. There was the fewest number of times I saw a leader of one caucus trying to lock up all their members than I’d ever seen before, and it created some benefits, I believe, for Senate Republicans, Sen. Hewitt, just like it did for me in the sense that, yes, he has moderate Republicans that would be more likely to vote for an environmental issue or a reproductive choice issue than many of his Eastern Washington members, and by not locking them up, people were free to go the way that they thought best represented their district and I actually think that will continue to be true in the Senate for quite some time.
Q: We talk so much about the tea party movement and there have always been times when there have been a certain number of members of the Democratic caucus who have been in a certain conservative band ideologically, and I guess this is what you’re talking about. But will you lose the discipline you sometimes need on really, really critical issues once people get a sense of not being bound by caucus solidarity?
A: You also benefit in this process by people believing and acting like they’re part of a team. There’s definitely a benefit to that, and in some sense, my observation has been that Republicans have tended to have better discipline along those lines than Democrats as far back as I can remember. We’d had the same kind of team rapport but it was built on a different basis.
This time it was built on a basis of getting through this very difficult time. And doing it in this bipartisan way was actually, it was a caucus commitment that we all shared. We didn’t have very many people who thought that was a bad choice to make. We went completely around the room and had everybody talk about their opinions of it, and even the people that were going to have their voice least well represented by that process, the most liberal members of the caucus, felt it was the right thing to do under the circumstances.
Q: When you go out and talk now to people, and they’re people who were stakeholders and have a particularly favored bill that came out a little less favorable to them than they wanted, given the fact that Democrats did still have a majority in both houses, what’s your response to them?
A: I think that when it comes to budget issues it’s important to look at where the initial budget was that came from the Democratic governor and to realize that we were able to exceed people’s expectations, even though we were working in a bipartisan way with respect to budget issues. Policy issues, all I can say is that the common ground that we found, a lot more was at stake in a standoff. For example, the first workers’ comp bill that passed the Senate was, I think, more potentially injurious to workers than the ultimate compromise bill that we were able to achieve between the House and the Senate. Some people on both sides wanted to continue the standoff, go into a second special session and try to get it all, from either the business perspective or from the labor perspective. And I think the public was better served by working toward the compromise, even though not everybody’s going to be happy about it.
Q: 2012, you’re going to be running for lieutenant governor?
A: I haven’t made my decision yet about what I’m doing.
Q: Did that possibility have any bearing on your ability to be comfortable moving in this direction?
A: I don’t really think it affected this decision. I tend to look at every session as its own experience. Every year has been completely unique and had its own challenges in terms of either some major goals that I wanted to accomplish or some major kind of landmines out there that I was hoping we could avoid. And this one, in and of itself I think, created the circumstances for moving in the bipartisan direction more than any personal plans I might have.
Q: Next January, assuming the economy is a little bit better, maybe the revenue estimates are up a little bit better rather than constantly down, how will this experience guide what the Legislature does in 2012?
A: I believe that the big question mark is still the economy and whether or not we see continued slow growth or no growth at all. Another year of budget cutting, I really do not know how that can be accomplished, especially for K-12 education and higher education. I think we’ve gone as far as we can go there without seriously dismantling things that make Washington state proud of itself. So the economy is still the big question, but I think the experience of working, the partnerships and relationships that were developed among individual members of the Senate, will continue as long as they continue to be in the Legislature.
Q: And if there’s a final lesson politically, what is that?
A: There is an aspect of politics that is always about relationships, and relationships go better if people have a track record of working together and trusting each other.
You don’t have that track record? It’s really hard to develop it in a short amount of time. It takes time and you need a variety of experiences to occur.
For example, you think you’re going to get one vote count, you get another vote count. Why did that happen? Was somebody being deceptive, or was there another factor?
It requires a lot of conversation and meetings to keep people understanding each other’s point of view and keeping the process moving forward with many years of suspicion to overcome, and I think we did pretty well for the few months we had to overcome that.
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