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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Slim majorities require focus on party discipline

OLYMPIA – The most ephemeral thing in politics might be big majorities. This should be particularly obvious to Democrats as they look to next year’s Legislature.

Six years ago, Democrats approached the session with 31 of 49 seats in the Senate and 62 of 98 seats in the House. Those were nearly veto-proof majorities if they’d found the need to override any vetoes from Gov. Chris Gregoire, but considering she was a fellow Democrat, that point was mostly moot.

Slowly the Republicans chipped away at those margins, a few seats at a time. They’ll have a one-seat majority in the Senate – or two seats if you count nominal Democrat Tim Sheldon, who got significant financial support from GOP sources to beat fellow Democrat Irene Bowling and could caucus with Republicans.

In the House, the Democrats will have a majority of just four seats.

Such margins usually require iron discipline by leaders to keep legislation moving through the pipeline. Allowing detours for proposals that satisfy the most liberal or conservative segments of a caucus, but have little hope of passing the full chamber, is only practical in times of large margins.

For example, when Democrats had large majorities there were almost-annual hearings on a state income tax bill. Leaders knew those bills had no chance of becoming law, but it satisfied some of the more liberal members, and some like-minded constituencies, to provide an airing of the progressive Holy Grail before letting it slip into parliamentary oblivion.

When margins are tight, however, leaders often eschew hero bills that can split their members and provide votes for the other party. House leaders have to be cognizant of the defection of moderate Democrats in the Senate, the self-dubbed “Road Kill Caucus” for its perceived middle-roadness a few years back. They gave Republicans in that chamber a working majority on budget matters even when the GOP had a five-seat deficit on paper. Senate Democrats didn’t know it then but those defections were a harbinger of their current minority status.

Senate Republicans showed they could enforce strong discipline in the years when they needed all hands on deck to make the coalition caucus work. House Speaker Frank Chopp will need to recall the tactics that worked when he spent three years as “co-speaker” because the chamber was tied at 49-all.

Ayes had it on both

Spokane County voters said yes to both gun initiatives, causing some observers on the West Side of the state to scratch their heads on election night. One could reasonably vote no on I-591 and I-594, they opined, but voting yes twice seemed illogical on measures largely in conflict.

Spokane is not alone in passing both measures. Asotin, Clallam, Clark, Pierce and Skagit counties also have both in the yes column. In all cases, at least one initiative is ahead by relatively thin margins.

In Spokane, I-591 leads by about 1,800 votes, and I-594 about 8,000 as of Friday’s count. But the precincts where one passed are generally precincts where the other failed. There are a handful of precincts in the northeast city of Spokane and the central Spokane Valley where both passed. But some of those tended to be precincts with higher numbers of “undervotes” where at least one measure was left blank.

It seems likely some voters had strong feelings for one but couldn’t decide on the other. Indecision isn’t the same as being contradictory. Maps of the votes and undervotes appear on the Spin Control blog.

Likely not major factor

In politics, as in military campaigns, victory has many fathers. That may explain the self-congratulatory news release from supporters of I-594. The expanded background check ballot measure had so much cash that it moved some money into a separate “Victory Fund” PAC and endorsed 22 candidates who shared similar views on the issue.

Twenty of them won, prompting the group to claim a success rate of 90 percent (it’s actually 91 percent, but who’s counting). Not mentioned in the news release was that many of those candidates faced only token opposition, and two were running unopposed.

A final note on the gun initiatives: Some commenters on the newspaper’s website argue I-591, which opposed tougher state laws for background checks, carried more counties with more territory and should be considered the winner while I-594, where opposition covered more ground, should be the loser, based on geography.

This goes beyond the sore loserdom to the various basics of democracy. States aren’t set up to have places with more square mileage dictate to places with less.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political writer Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.
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