The low-level buzz, usually constant in the Washington Senate, abruptly stopped as Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, shouted her disgust.
It was the last day of the 1998 session and a bill she’d pushed for months had been stripped of funding.
Brown dubbed the result “empty” and “pitiful.” As a Democrat in the GOP-controlled capitol, it was a moment she had feared all year.
“For me, personally, this is my saddest day in the Legislature,” Brown said, and fell back in her chair.
Moments later, Sen. Jim West, a Spokane Republican, walked to her desk and hunched down, whispering. Then he joined her in defeating the Cooper Jones Act, a bicycle safety bill. Later, another version was approved - this one with funding.
That’s how it went this year as two of Eastern Washington’s most influential - and partisan - lawmakers managed to score victories by working with, as well as against, each other.
They weren’t the only East Side lawmakers who played big roles this year. Rep. Mark Sterk, R-Spokane, helped push a partial-birth abortion ban through the House. Rep. Larry Sheahan, R-Spokane, led a charge to toughen drunken driving laws. Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, pitched salmon measures a Democratic governor could support.
But in a legislative delegation sometimes noted for its reluctance to cooperate, West and Brown chipped away at ideological barriers.
“This is the first year we worked together as adversaries,” Brown said.
West, the Senate budget chairman, dominated the session, riding herd over a $19 billion budget. He designed the GOP’s $2.4 billion transportation plan, reorganized higher education in Spokane and left the session touting a return to fiscal prudence. He even served as a leading strategist on nonbudget issues.
But he also added $1 million to the budget for breast- and cervical-cancer screening - a request made by Brown. The two worked together to keep a Spokane research center intact while debating the future of Eastern Washington University.
West found the money and the procedure to revive a bicycle safety bill - the Cooper Jones Act - named for a 13-year-old Spokane bicyclist who died after being hit by a car.
“I love finding the way to get things done!” an exuberant West said late Thursday, after the bicycle bill cleared the Senate.
Brown, meanwhile, was one of the Senate’s most impassioned orators, and one of the few Democrats to produce legislation despite GOP dominance. She even dragged Republicans into promising consumer protection will be part of next year’s effort to deregulate energy.
“This was by far my most successful session in the minority,” she said.
Brown came to West’s defense when a police investigation into a threatening message he left on a lobbyist’s answering machine threatened to overshadow his accomplishments as a budget writer.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure in that position,” she said.
But in a year noted for harsh partisanship, West and Brown were hardly allies.
Debate between the two over a move to create a Washington State University branch campus in Spokane grew so heated West’s ears turned red and Brown apologized for questioning his integrity.
Brown also embarrassed West and the Republicans by calling attention to $200,000 they had put into the budget to cover “security” at a PGA golf tournament. GOP leaders later removed the money.
Within 30 minutes of working together on the bicycle bill, Brown voted against a Republican request to buy bonds for road work, including some in Spokane. A housekeeping task to get $60 million in “free money,” it failed by one vote.
But Brown and West ended the session far more satisfied than Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, who had perhaps the year’s most disappointing experience.
The transportation committee chairman stood against his party’s $2.4 billion transportation plan all year, only to have them pass it anyway. He joined Democrats in an unsuccessful push to promote an alternative to Initiative 200, the anti-affirmative action measure.
While not rendered irrelevant - Prince helped push the branch campus bill and helped block a partial-birth abortion ban, his war with party leadership cost him effectiveness.
During a break on the session’s last day, Prince sat alone on a bench in the Senate wings, sipping coffee from a paper cup. Behind him, GOP leaders negotiated with his House transportation committee counterpart, Rep. Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island. Prince, again, was excluded.
Prince said his problem is party leaders don’t encourage debate within the caucus. He fears an ultra-conservative minority calls all the shots.
“I know I lose ground with what I’m saying, but doesn’t somebody have to stand up?” he asked. “Leadership acts like a dictatorship and it’s not. That’s a bigger issue than whether Gene Prince gets a say around here.”
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