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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee blasts Senate GOP over ‘political hatchet job’

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee denounces the rejection of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson by Senate Republicans as a “political hatchet job” during a press conference Monday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington Gov. Jay Inslee denounced Senate Republicans on Monday for what he called a “political hatchet job” – the rejection of the state transportation secretary after she had served three years on the job.

Clearly angry over Friday’s floor action that ousted Lynn Peterson from the top of one of the state’s largest agencies, Inslee called the surprise vote “a gross abuse of the confirmation process” and called out several senators by name.

He had some of his toughest words for Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, who after the vote produced a letter from the state Civil Rights Commission questioning Peterson’s role in ensuring minority businesses get contracts from the Transportation Department. Schoesler, R-Ritzville, labeled the secretary a “racist.”

Inslee contends that’s a strange claim to make, with Republican leaders blocking a vote on a proposal that would provide more representation for minorities.

“Now he says he regretted it, but I haven’t seen him apologize to this woman who worked so hard for three years while the Senate sat on its fingers and did nothing,” the governor said at a morning news conference.

Inslee pushed the Senate for three years to approve a major transportation package that would include key highway, bridge and mass transit projects around the state. Last year, the Legislature approved the $16 billion package along with an 11.9-cent increase in the gasoline tax.

Inslee also questioned how Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King could have praised Peterson and her staff at a Jan. 13 meeting and voted to remove her less than a month later.

Schoesler responded that Peterson was “given ample time to show she had the right stuff” to lead the department but the state has “tolling disasters and a tunnel project that may never be finished.”

“If he would hold his agency heads accountable, no one else would need to,” Schoesler said in a statement.

Senate Republicans later countered with a news conference of their own, insisting they had received a growing number of complaints about major transportation projects like the “Bertha” tunneling project in Seattle and toll lanes on Interstate 405.

“The pressure was building for a long time,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “Sometimes you need to act decisively.”

He and other GOP leaders said they were surprised by the weekend’s other big change at a state agency, the unexpected resignation of Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, who took over that department late last year. In a letter to Padden, Pacholke said he hoped the resignation would “meet your need for blood … and fulfills your political needs so you can let this agency, our agency, heal.”

No one in the predominantly Republican majority had asked him to resign, Padden said.

Padden said he doubted Peterson’s unexpected rejection would result in the state having trouble filling openings in three of its biggest departments – Transportation, Corrections, and Social and Health Services. He added, however, that anyone taking the job should “have your eyes open.”

“If you’re competent, come here and do the job,” Padden said.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said if Republicans wanted a change at the top of the Transportation Department, the usual way to do it would be to notify the governor and give Peterson a chance to resign rather than “essentially destroying someone’s reputation on the Senate floor.”

“It’s a good way to scare state employees, but it’s a bad way to do business,” Nelson said.