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Shawn Vestal: No second thoughts for Lisa Brown

Wed., July 4, 2012

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. (Tyler Tjomsland)

It’s been a few weeks since Lisa Brown set off the most intense political scramble in years, when she unexpectedly announced that she would leave the state Senate.

Since then, between the farewell parties, a trip to Zambia with her Gonzaga students, and some off-session legislative tasks, she hasn’t had lots of time for second thoughts.

Or at least none that took hold.

“I’m feeling good about my decision,” Brown said. “Some people stay too long, and I don’t want to be one.”

During an interview at the Davenport Hotel this week, Brown said she’d been feeling for a while that it was time to enter the post-legislative phase of her life. She was interested in public policy work – perhaps on a state or federal level – and had explored the possibility of a run for lieutenant governor. She’d spent 20 years in the Legislature, and the last few sessions had been exhausting and discouraging, capped by the “betrayal” of three moderate Democrats who joined the GOP in a dramatic budget coup this year.

So she had been leaning toward a change, and then a few things pushed her to a decision now, she said. One was a concern that if she did get an opportunity this fall or winter – an appointment under a new state or federal administration, hypothetically – it would be a difficult time to replace her. She also came to feel positive about the Democrats’ chances for keeping the majority if she left.

“It was probably time to do something else,” she said.

At least in the short term, Brown’s something else represents a loss for Spokane. She’s been one of the most powerful senators in Olympia as the leader of the Democratic majority, and before that, minority. That means she’s been in a prime position to work on behalf of progressive causes, but also had a crucial voice in bringing projects and state funding east.

Frequently pilloried by conservatives, she’s also worked alongside an almost entirely conservative delegation from Eastern Washington. Her path has always been atypical: An economics professor and activist, she organized the first “Take Back the Night” march in Spokane and was among the “Molar Majority” movement to provide dental care for the poor before she was drafted to run for the House in 1992. Right away, she became a lightning rod for conservatives.

“I was kind of the poster child for what they don’t like,” she said. “They called me Sandinista Lisa. I was an unmarried mom. There is just a lot from their perspective not to like.”

An economist who taught at Eastern Washington University before entering politics, she gravitated toward the budget process – the Legislature’s big grind, but also the place where real change occurs. In 2003, she became minority leader for the Democrats; in 2005, she became majority leader. That put her in a position to work for the things she was passionate about, such as improved human services, better funding for schools, and key Spokane projects, such as the Riverpoint campus and the medical school.

She went into the Legislature believing that our state’s tax system is lousy, and she leaves office with the same belief. Our reliance on sales tax makes us extra-liable to the swings of the economy and puts a disproportionate load on people who earn less. In recent years, as the recession walloped the state budget, the two-thirds requirement for tax increases has effectively left the GOP minority in control of the big decisions – and it’s meant billions and billions in budget cuts, and a reluctance to even close tax loopholes, let alone bring in even a bit of new tax revenue.

“It was tough,” she said. “The budget cutting year after year really wore me and many people down. Psychologically, it was really tough.”

A lot of speculation about Brown’s departure centered on last year’s budget debate – in which three Democrats crossed over as part of a budget coup that took Brown and others by surprise.

“It definitely did not feel good,” she said. “It felt like a betrayal.”

She counts this year’s approval of gay marriage among the highlights of her career, though she believes the issue drove Republicans into an entrenched opposition to compromise that affected budget deliberations. She’s also proud of the development of the Riverpoint campus and the preservation of funding for specific programs in Spokane, such as the Crosswalk teen shelter.

On the state level, she worked to eliminate the supermajority requirement for school levies – a tough political battle that required a squeaker of a two-thirds vote in 2005.

Brown’s departure has created the most interesting political scramble in years. State Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, is running to replace her in the 3rd District against Republican Nancy McLaughlin, who currently serves on the Spokane City Council. Billig’s seat is being sought by Democrats Bob Apple, Marcus Riccelli and Councilman Jon Snyder, and by Republicans Morgan Oyler and Tim Benn.

Whoever wins will face another daunting year in Olympia. But some early signs are hopeful. Revenue projections are stable, and caseloads for state services are expected to fall. Brown thinks we may have turned the corner.

“I think we’ve gone through the worst of it,” she said. “In these 20 years, I’ve been through several of these cycles. The last one was the worst.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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