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Senate rejects state transportation secretary

OLYMPIA - Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, urges the rejection of Lynn Peterson as state transportation secretary during Friday’s debate. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA - Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, urges the rejection of Lynn Peterson as state transportation secretary during Friday’s debate. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A politically divided Senate refused to confirm state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson on Friday, essentially firing her after three years on the job.

Republicans, who control the Senate, said they were responding to growing complaints about the state’s many troubled transportation projects. Democrats insisted it was an exercise of raw political power. The Senate argued for nearly three hours before rejecting Peterson on a 25-21 vote.

Republicans then moved to inform Gov. Jay Inslee of their decision immediately, rather than waiting for the normal notification process, which probably would have sent formal notice to his office one floor away by the end of the day.

But Inslee didn’t need formal notice of the decision. Although his office first found out about the surprise confirmation debate a few minutes before it started, his top staff was in the Senate wings throughout the debate. Afterward he called it “a politically motivated attack on an eminently qualified woman.”

Allegations flew. Republicans contended Peterson was incompetent or at least hasn’t done enough to right the foundering department that has problems with the massive tunneling equipment dubbed Bertha in Seattle, the Highway 520 bridge over Lake Washington and variable-rate toll lanes in Puget Sound suburbs.

“It’s about the general overall shape that department is in,” said Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic. “Unfortunately, we’re doing less with more when we need to be doing more with less.”

“Bertha is a mess. She inherited it, but it has gotten worse,” said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane. “Being nice ain’t enough. You have to be competent.”

Using a word like “nice” to describe a woman executive is dismissive and “a verbal pat on the head,” countered Sen. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma.

If Republicans had problems with her competence they could have brought it up last June when the Senate Transportation Committee held a confirmation hearing and voted unanimously to send her appointment to the full Senate, said Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.

“There was not any mention at that time that there were tremendous problems with her performance,” Jayapal said.

Gubernatorial appointments for many top state positions require Senate confirmation, although appointees often serve for months – or like Peterson, years – before the full Senate votes. When it does, the process is usually routine, with a short speech or two and a unanimous vote. Some senators said Friday it was time to exercise their constitutional obligation to “advise and consent” on appointments.

The last time the Senate refused to confirm a gubernatorial appointment was in 1998, when Republicans rejected Jolene Unsoeld, a former Democratic legislator and member of Congress, for a spot on the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Democrats tried several times to delay Friday’s vote or send it back to the Transportation Committee to give Peterson a chance to answer criticisms. They lost every vote as Republicans and Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who is part of the Majority Coalition Caucus with them, held firm and eventually voted down Peterson’s confirmation.

After the Senate adjourned, Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, showed reporters a copy of a letter from the state Civil Rights Commission that raised concerns about Peterson favoring firms owned by white women over those owned by minorities for a program to help disadvantaged small businesses.

“The Civil Rights Commission can’t work with her. She’s racist,” Schoesler said as he walked away from the press table.

Inslee called that statement an “unfounded, scurrilous and outrageous outburst,” contending Peterson had worked to make sure businesses owned by women and minorities get a fair chance to compete for projects.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, distributed to reporters the comments from Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, after the June hearing, thanking Peterson for the job she had done over the previous 2 1/2 years and complimenting the department staff.

“The calendar may say February but it’s actually November in this chamber,” Carlyle said after the vote, a reference to the upcoming election in which the governor and half the Senate are on the ballot as well as the president and other federal offices.

But Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Vancouver, said complaints about transportation projects have continued to pile up since that confirmation hearing, creating a “comprehensive body of work” that is very serious. The state soon will sell more bonds to pay for part of the massive transportation package the Legislature approved last year when it raised gasoline taxes, and Peterson’s rejection could “show the markets we are looking for someone who is more responsive.”

Democrats questioned whether anyone would take the post after Friday’s surprise ouster.

“This is not how one should treat one’s employee,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. It may be difficult for the governor to recruit the next transportation secretary, or the leader for any other agency that needs to be filled, he said.

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