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Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen dies after battle with COVID-19

Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, talks to reporters Feb. 2, 2017, at the Capitol in Olympia. State flags will be lowered to half-staff in honor of Ericksen, who recently died of COVID-19.  (Associated Press)
By Joseph O’Sullivan </p><p>and David Gutman Seattle Times

OLYMPIA – State Sen. Doug Ericksen, a stalwart conservative voice in the Legislature, former leader of Donald Trump’s campaign in Washington and an outspoken critic of COVID-19 emergency orders, has died, his family said Saturday. He was 52.

Ericksen said last month that he had tested positive for the coronavirus while on a trip to El Salvador, although his cause of death was not immediately confirmed this weekend.

“We are heartbroken to share that our husband and father passed away,” Ericksen’s wife, Tasha, and his two daughters said in a prepared statement Saturday. “Please keep our family in your prayers and thank you for continuing to respect our privacy in this extremely difficult time.”

Ericksen died Friday, according to the statement.

One of the longest-serving members in the current Legislature, the Ferndale Republican earned a reputation as a fierce and unrelenting foe of Democratic policies and Gov. Jay Inslee. When a GOP coalition controlled the Senate several years ago, Ericksen used his perch as chair of the Senate Environmental, Energy and Technology Committee to help foil the governor’s ambitions on climate change. He went on to become an early backer of Trump’s first presidential campaign.

Ericksen was a fixture in Olympia, serving in the Legislature since 1998 – six terms in the state House before being elected to the state Senate in 2010.

Through it all, Ericksen managed to continuously win reelection in Whatcom County’s 42nd Legislative District, even as Democrats picked up both state House seats in recent years. In 2018, Ericksen fended off a Democratic challenger, winning by fewer than 50 votes.

Lawmakers reacted late Saturday afternoon with shock and sadness. Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said he was thinking of Ericksen’s family.

“It’s just heartbreaking news, what do you do, other than you feel for them, you pray for them,” said Braun, who was calling fellow caucus members to inform them.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said Ericksen’s death had him “a little bit taken aback and dumbfounded.”

“It’s tragic, the guy was one of the smartest people I know, and his floor speeches, his knowledge and environmental issues of all that stuff, was just fantastic,” said Fortunato.

Fortunato added that he and his family had all contracted COVID, but described his own symptoms as mild.

Last month, Ericksen wrote to his Republican colleagues asking if they could help him get treatment. He said he was in El Salvador, and had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I took a trip to El Salvador and tested positive for COVID shortly after I arrived,” he wrote. “I cannot get back home, and it’s to the point that I feel it would be beneficial for me to receive an iv of monoclonal antibodies (Regeneron). I have a doctor here who can administer the iv, but the product is not available here.”

“Do any of you have any ideas on how I could get the monoclonal antibodies sent to me here,” Ericksen continued. “Ideally, I would like to get it on a flight tonight so it would be here by tomorrow.”

The U.S. State Department has, since August, been advising Americans to reconsider travel to El Salvador because of COVID concerns.

Ericksen eventually arranged a medevac flight to a Florida hospital, a former colleague of his told the Bellingham Herald. It was unclear Saturday where Ericksen was when he died.

Ericksen fought, through protest and legislation, Inslee’s orders and mandates, intended to fight the spread of the virus. Public health officials have strongly endorsed vaccination and masks as the best tools for fighting the pandemic. He had introduced legislation intended to protect the rights of people who won’t get vaccinated and had repeatedly called on Inslee to resign.

It was unclear if Ericksen had been vaccinated.

Also unclear has been why Ericksen visited El Salvador – but it’s not his first visit to that country or others in recent years.

Ericksen in 2019 registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent to conduct lobbying work on behalf of the Cambodian government, scoring a $500,000 contract for his new firm.

That contract came after Ericksen traveled to Cambodia to observe – and ultimately praise – the country’s widely condemned 2018 elections. Those elections took place as a government crackdown shuttered independent media organizations and dissolved a key opposition party.

Ericksen had also visited El Salvador with the business partner of his new firm – former GOP state Rep. Jay Rodne – in October and December of 2020, according to posts on social media from that time. This past legislative session, Ericksen missed votes in the senate because he was observing elections in El Salvador at the time, according to the Olympian.

Ericksen was born Jan. 28, 1969, in Whatcom County. He graduated from Cornell University before returning to Washington and earning a master’s degree from Western Washington University. He worked as a staffer in the state Senate and for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, before launching his first campaign for state House at age 29.

In the Legislature he was something of a spokesman for the Republican Party’s right-wing flank. He introduced a bill that would have made it a felony for protesters to illegally disrupt coal trains, gas pipelines or other actions he labeled “economic terrorism.” Following Trump’s loss in 2020, Ericksen proposed scrapping Washington’s system of all-mail voting and requiring photo ID to vote.

A withering critic of Inslee’s emergency orders to curb the pandemic, Ericksen this year introduced a bill to block the state from imposing mandates for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Democratic lawmakers didn’t give the bill a hearing, and Ericksen called again for its passage after Inslee this summer imposed a vaccine requirement for state and school workers and private health care employees.

“This bill isn’t pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine,” Ericksen said in an August statement. “It is pro-individual choice. We need to respect the right of people to make decisions for themselves.”

A longtime foe of environmental regulations, Ericksen was chosen by Trump in 2017 to be part of a transition effort to reshape the Environmental Protection Agency. He split his time between Olympia and Washington, D.C., during that stretch. Ericksen later turned down a permanent job in the regional headquarters of the EPA after raising questions about how often he’d have to come to work in the Seattle office.

As the top Republican on the state Senate’s environment committee, Ericksen had strongly opposed Inslee’s initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He had shrugged off the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, with statements like “climate change will always happen.”

In his last campaign, Ericksen touted his efforts to protect his Whatcom County district’s farms, oil refineries and an aluminum smelter.

In a statement Saturday, Inslee extended his and his wife’s sympathies. “Trudi and I send our deep condolences to Doug’s family, friends and colleagues. Our hearts are with them.”

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, the Senate majority leader said he got to know Ericksen well over more than a decade of legislative service together and called his death tragic.

“While we often disagreed on policy, I respected his long service to his community,” Billig said in a statement.”

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and chair of the Senate Environmental, Energy and Technology Committee, shared a post on Facebook mourning Ericksen’s death.

“We attended the same high school and ultimately served together for years as chair and ranking members of the Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee, wrote Carlyle in the post. “Our policy battles were tough and difficult, but we respected one another’s fierce devotion to serving the public and our communities.”

“Our friendship found ways to rise above political differences” Carlyle added.