One of the state’s most powerful politicians shook Spokane’s political landscape and shocked her own party Thursday when she announced she won’t seek re-election to the Legislature.
State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown has represented her central Spokane legislative district since 1992, first in the House and, starting in 1996, the Senate. A staunch Democrat, she has led the Senate for eight years, and her pending departure sent ripples through both sides of the partisan aisle.
“It’s going to be a loss for the state, frankly,” said Gov. Chris Gregoire, a longtime ally. “It will be a huge loss to Spokane.”
Brown said she returned to Spokane after this year’s legislative session “fully intending to run for re-election” and only changed her mind over the weekend.
“It just hit me that my legislative career has been fantastic and that it’s time for that chapter to be complete so I can move on to other things,” said Brown, who said she will not run for any other office in 2012. “I really feel like there are other opportunities out there for me. I don’t know exactly what they are – probably in public policy or politics in some form. I feel like the best way to explore that is to take a step back.”
Gregoire said she likely will ask Brown to serve elsewhere in state government.
“Her economic background is invaluable to state government, so I hope she will find another place to serve, and I intend to ask her what that might be,” said Gregoire, who said she was taken by surprise by Brown’s decision. Brown told the governor by phone Thursday morning.
Brown’s decision, only a couple weeks from the candidate filing deadline, took most political observers by surprise. Invitations for Brown’s campaign kickoff, scheduled for Monday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, had already been mailed.
“I had to sit down when she told me,” said her campaign manager, Lori Kinnear, who learned of Brown’s decision when Brown called her Thursday morning.
Spokane County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kris Cejka said she also learned of Brown’s decision Thursday morning.
“I had no idea,” she said. “There had been no word at all, not even a hint.”
Brown, who moved to Spokane in 1981 to teach economics at Eastern Washington University, was preparing for her first serious election challenge in more than a decade, following a challenging legislative session in which she lost control of the Senate when three of her fellow Democrats broke ranks and sided with Republicans on spending and budget issues.
Republican Spokane City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin announced earlier this spring that she would run against Brown for the Senate seat.
Brown’s announcement Thursday, though, set in motion a series of potential race-changing moves across Spokane’s political landscape.
State Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, announced early Thursday afternoon that he will run for Brown’s seat in the Senate.
Brown said she will continue with her kickoff event to celebrate her time in the Legislature and announce who she will endorse for her Senate seat.
“I’m sorry to lose her as my senator, but just so appreciate her and her service to our community,” said Billig, who said Brown told him of her decision a couple of days ago.
Marcus Ricelli, Brown’s senior policy adviser, announced Thursday afternoon that he will seek Billig’s House seat. Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder said he will make an announcement today regarding Billig’s legislative seat but didn’t elaborate.
Brown said McLaughlin’s challenge did not affect her decision.
“Honestly, I’m quite confident in my ability to keep my seat,” Brown said. “I wasn’t fearful of my re-election prospects.”
McLaughlin said she, too, was “totally surprised” by Brown’s announcement.
“It doesn’t change a thing for us. We still need jobs, not new taxes,” McLaughlin said. She said the race will remain challenging because the district leans heavily Democratic, but that Brown’s absence could make fundraising easier.
Political leaders said Brown’s decision almost certainly means Spokane will lose the influence it has enjoyed in the Legislature for nearly a decade. Before Brown became Senate majority leader in late 2004, Republican Jim West held that position. He left the post in 2004 to take office as Spokane’s mayor.
“With Jim West, and then Lisa, we have had a very high visibility in Olympia,” said former Democratic state Rep. John Driscoll. “They made sure they kept Spokane on the radar screen. That’s of critical importance in Olympia. Otherwise, we could easily be forgotten.”
Former Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin said that when legislators call state agencies to ask for help, officials listen.
“It matters even more when they happen to be the majority leader,” said McCaslin, a Republican who said she supported McLaughlin in the race with Brown. “They’re very powerful people, and they’re in a position to get things done.”
Gregoire agreed that Spokane likely will lose influence in Olympia.
“I’d like to tell you no, but that would not be honest with you,” Gregoire said. “Lisa as majority leader has to fight for the entire state, but at no time did she ever fail to advocate not just her own district but all of Spokane, the greater Spokane. To her credit, she has brought home things that are exceedingly important.”
Asked what Brown’s biggest accomplishment is in Spokane, many of her supporters, including Gregoire, point to Brown’s work to develop Washington State University-Spokane. This year, the state provided the money to build a home on the Spokane campus for WSU’s pharmacy school and University of Washington’s medical school.
Brown also lists WSU-Spokane as her top accomplishment specific to Spokane.
“Being able to get the last piece of the medical funding and seeing that Riverpoint campus just completely launched in the middle of my district – what was pretty much bare ground when I started in the Legislature – is just very gratifying.”
The recent legislative session was among the most difficult for Brown.
The Democratic majority in the state Senate declined in the 2010 election, and when three members of her party declined to support the Senate Democrats’ budget plan this year, Republicans successfully wrested control of the Senate budget. Even so, Brown appeared to enjoy strong support within the party and was likely to maintain leadership of the caucus.
“It has been very hard on the Legislature, to try to do the right thing, make the right decisions,” Gregoire said. “I think what you’re seeing is an individual who’s put it all on the line and needs a break, a well-deserved break.”
Brown said she was satisfied with the final budget deal reached among House and Senate leaders and Gregoire. The outcome made it easier to step down at the end of her term, she said.
“The last few years with the recession have been tough, certainly, and this year it was as well,” Brown said. “But I felt, in the end, good about how the budget turned out.”