The Gary Locke vision thing

Last fall, the state Democratic Party rallied its faithful behind the beneficent gaze of the Most Honorable and Exalted Beloved Leader Patty Murray, and behind a uniting cry: Take back Olympia!

Well, we now have the satisfaction of six more years of Patty, at best more boring than six years of Linda Smith would have been—though one wonders if Linda would have supported every bombing sortie that interrupts (or inspires) the president's sex life. And, miracle to behold, behind fatigue with Republican looniness locally and a surge of anti-Starrism nationally, Democrats came close to a clean sweep in Olympia: having a Dem in the governor's mansion, forging a majority in the Senate, and gaining several seats to yield a dead tie in the House. Finally, after years on the outside, the Democrats would have a chance to show us the bold leadership the state has been sorely lacking.

What a disappointment.

It's hard to know whether to be disgusted or thankful that the awkward co-leadership of the House resulted in a paralysis that made passing almost any legislation impossible, at least for the first 104 days of the 105-day regular session. More than 100 bills that passed the Senate unanimously died in the House due to the logjam and rancor.

Calls for greater bipartisanship, like the ones at the end of this year's sorry House spectacle, are generally not to be trusted. Such cries are usually a desire for discussions behind closed doors, without public debate, selling and swapping legislation like so many baseball cards. We have little enough true diversity in this country's political spectrum of elected officials in the first place; Vermont's socialist Bernie Sanders and Idaho's archconservative Helen Chenoweth agree more often than not.

In the case of this year's Oly session, what the dull bills and calls for bipartisanship mask is a truly astonishing lack of difference between the Democrats' agenda—particularly that of Gov. Gary Locke—and that of the Republicans (if you remove the crazier elements of the Christian right agenda). This was Locke's first chance to show leadership with his party in a majority behind him. Democratic Party stalwarts, the true believers who stuffed envelopes, made phone calls, and pounded pavement last fall, may well now be asking themselves: All that for this?

Pending next week's special session, in which more damage may be done on the salmon bill and other initiatives, a look at what's already happened is instructive. Gary Locke's budget was so stringent—not even coming close to the spending caps the Democrats decried so passionately during the campaign—that the Democrats' biggest financial supporter, the teachers' union, was reduced to walkouts and marches to mobilize public and legislative support to squeeze money for them into the budget. So much for Locke's much-touted education focus, a noncontroversial salvo that disappeared from the headlines almost before the spinmeisters stopped twitching.

It was replaced, for much of the session, by debates over salmon. In the face of almost certain federal intervention, the Democrats' plan was twofold: a water bill that was, well, watered down almost as soon as it hit the Legislature, and a breathtaking gift to (and from) the forest industry in the timber bill, which comes nowhere near meeting federal standards for stream protection in exchange for 50 years of legal exemptions and tax benefits for the industry. Guess what? The industry sat down with Gary Locke and friends and wrote the bill.

This is not to say that industries shouldn't have a say in crafting legislation that impacts their businesses. But other stakeholders also deserve a seat at the table, and so does the public. Their exclusion appears to be the preferred strategy of Locke and too many of Oly's Democrats.

Perhaps the most horrifying example of this is the plan, still alive as the special session looms, to "revive" the individual market for health insurance. It was crafted by Locke along with South Seattle Rep. Eileen Cody, a former nurse who is now co-chair of the House Health Care Committee. The market for individually issued health insurance policies in Washington is only 6 percent of the total (the rest being government- or job-issued, or not insured at all). While budget money for the state's Basic Health Plan continues to lag, Locke, Cody, and company picked an odd way to "help" individuals: by proposing to allow insurers to set whatever rates they want with no state regulatory oversight, by allowing an increase from three to nine months for pre-existing condition restrictions (to exclude pregnant women), and by allowing insurers to deny coverage to people with chronic illness (you know, sick people, the people insurance companies are supposed to be in business to help).

All in all, it was as though the state's leading Democrats sat down with the insurance industry and said, "Gee, how can we help you make more money?" In fact, that's exactly what happened. With her own party's leadership willing to legislate her office right out from under her, it's no wonder Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn is abandoning her office for an uphill battle against Slade Gorton.

Observers (including me) cautioned folks, coming into this session, not to expect bold public-interest initiatives from the Democrats. We were only partially correct. Locke did nothing (excepting welfare reform) when he had nothing to offer. Now that he can "offer" the state Legislature, he's approaching the state's CEOs and shopping it around in exchange for corporate support. That's certainly bold, but it's sure as hell not in the public interest.

With Locke up for re-election next year, and the Democrats vulnerable for more legislative swing seats in the Legislature in 2000, it doesn't seem likely they'll do better next session. But that would be a mistake; the Democrats need to give voters a reason to support them. Why vote for imitation Republicans instead of the real thing? If corporations are simply going to start writing our laws, it really doesn't matter which party transcribes for them.

 
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