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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Politics as a team sport

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s the 4th quarter and the game is tied. The red and blue teams are both looking to score campaign points with undecided voters, who will have to make the call when ballots drop next week.

Former Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla concurred with the sports analogy. “If you want to do the best for the people of Washington, it’s a team sport.” It requires working as a team plus working with the other side on common ground, or when you need cooperation to pass your agenda.

Hewitt recently recorded a video for the Cathy McMorris Rodgers campaign about one of those times he reached across the aisle to then-Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. In 2006, the Senate Republicans authored the Rest in Peace bill to block protesting within 500 feet of military funerals. It had missed a key date, and so had a union-supported bill backed by the Democratic caucus. Hewitt and Brown signed a formal agreement to waive the cutoff date and bring both bills forward for a vote before the session ended.

Former Senator Joyce Mulliken of Moses Lake remembered how picketing groups like the Westboro Baptist Church were affecting grieving families that year. As the wife of a Vietnam combat veteran, she fully supported the bill. She couldn’t understand why the deal fell through. “Might just have been politics at its worst at the end of the session, with the majority party focused on doing only the things on their own agenda. It just didn’t make sense,” said Mulliken.

Brown went to the floor with her bill, got it passed and then abruptly adjourned for the year a day early. She would later describe the bill’s 2006 demise as “an 11th-hour miscommunication between Democratic and Republican leaders,” according to a Spokesman-Review article from the time. It passed on the first day of the 2007 session.

Still, Hewitt remembers feeling betrayed. “I was probably more congenial than I should have been that night, I should have gone back to the floor immediately. It all happened in a matter of minutes.” It destroyed his trust and his working relationship with Brown.

When told the Westboro Baptist Church group was back firing up Spokane headlines this week, it seemed like more than a coincidence to Hewitt. The group is an embarrassment to Christians and conservatives, and having them turn up the week before ballots are mailed out seemed, to some, like a Hail Mary play by progressive groups.

Like any other big-league team sport, politics involves money. The possibility of outside funding playing a role in setting the time and place of the Westboro group’s appearance was plausible.

But wrong.

Hillel Gray, a lecturer in comparative religion at Miami University of Ohio, has built a relationship with Westboro Baptist Church members over the past eight years in an effort to better understand what drives their actions. He’s authored several pieces on the group. “They don’t accept outside donations, won’t even let me buy a meal when visiting,” said Gray. “Perhaps Gonzaga’s Journal of Hate Studies was the draw.”

Gray was also curious enough to forward a request for comment to Steve Drain, a leader of the church. Drain’s response was unequivocal. “The main driver was the North American Association for Environmental Education conference [at the Spokane Convention Center], and whenever we are in an area we try to make our schedule as jam packed as we can. We believe significant weather events are God driven, we believe the religion of environmentalism needs God’s word injected into it. We don’t care about elections or politics. We pay our own way for all of our trips instead of spending money on hobbies.”

So no Hail Mary to distract voters. Perhaps a stray dog wandering onto the field to interrupt the game, but no money trail to follow.

It’s not for lack of money. It’s a tight race between two well-qualified and skilled politicians, both tapping into money from outside the district. OpenSecrets.org reports over $6 million dollars in total direct fundraising by Lisa Brown and Cathy McMorris Rodgers as of July 18, plus additional spending by outside groups. All that money is creating more heat than light.

The red and blue people know who they’re voting for. For the undecided and the independent, the question is who do you trust to put the people of Washington first. “Sometimes political games are played that don’t benefit the people,” said Mulliken.

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