"It's like selecting a Pope. For those of us not in the process, it's a matter of sitting around waiting to see the smoke," says Auburn's Republican state Senator Pam Roach.
The process (or lack of) she's talking about is the torch-passing from Senate Minority Leader Dan McDonald to Senator Jim West of Spokane. McDonald announced in July that he's stepping down from leadership to run for Jay Inslee's 1st Congressional District seat in 2000.
Senate leadership was a bumpy road for McDonald last session after Republicans lost the majority in the 1998 election. In the teeth-gnashing following the disaster of the election, McDonald won back his leadership by a scant margin.
The 1999 session turned into one of the most fractious in memory—frustrating especially for senators both Democrat and Republican. They were stymied by an even split between the parties in the House which served as a charnel ground for almost all Senate bills. Leadership in both parties had its hands full in a session marked by bitter partisanship, personal rancor, and figurative infraparty fisticuffs—and not much legislation. An extra session had to be called a month later when legislators finally got down to business and passed a supplemental budget.
Senate Republicans were especially low in the legislative food chain. The few bills they managed to get through and out of the Senate were mostly killed outright or let die in the House—often by fellow Republicans. Marginalized and demoralized, some felt left out of the decision-making process by the situation in general and also by McDonald's top-down leadership style.
Senator Jim West started lining up his political poultry for the job last winter when McDonald began making inquires about Congress. West is a smart, experienced, and capable number cruncher who was chief budget writer back in the Republicans' better days. However, when he threatened a lobbyist with death in 1998 (just political rhetoric, he insisted), it only confirmed his reputation for temper tantrums. All of which makes a few Senate Republicans wonder how he's going to bring the caucus together and get them back into the majority.
No one has come forward to challenge West's anointment, and it looks like there'll be no opposition when the Senate Republican caucus retreats at Silverdale August 19th.
Though Dan McDonald denies there was any rancor in the ranks during the session, the caucus has hired the services of personal empowerment guru Steven Covey's organization to umpire the upcoming retreat. It's hoped that Covey's mantra of "you are not in charge, you are not a law unto yourself" will shrink some egos, encourage a new can't-we-all-just-get-along mood, and help Republican senators be, as Covey would say, "subject to the natural law of the universe . . . if you are a law unto yourself, that kind of pride and arrogance will preclude . . . openness and receptivity." This sounds like wise counsel for this fractured body, even though hope for good results from a New Age-y Republican fuzz-fest seems far-fetched.
Meanwhile, the line forms at the right for Jay Inslee's congressional seat in his Republican-leaning but unpredictable district. The Senate leadership change has been the biggest ripple caused by McDonald's announcement—the election is, after all, in the next millennium, political light-years away.
So far, McDonald will be opposed in the GOP primary by Mukilteo Representative Renee Radcliff, a prochoice moderate who's hoping that her message of fiscal conservatism and social moderation will resound in a district once held by liberal Republican Joel Pritchard. "I'm the one in the middle," she says. Radcliff, head of the Everett Area Chamber of Commerce, will forgo House reelection plans to run for Congress. It's a contrast in commitment, she says, to McDonald, who isn't willing to give up his seat to make the run. (He's not up for reelection to the state Senate until 2002.)
The volatility of the 1st Congressional District race is increased by the presence of the ultraconservative American Heritage Party (AHP). In 1998, the Republican incumbent Rick White's chances were spoiled when the AHP's Bruce Craswell polled 7 percent, giving Inslee a win with less than 50 percent of the vote. In conventional wisdom, anyone with less than a plurality is vulnerable, though the going might be rough for Republicans with the threat of AHP siphoning off conservative single digits.
McDonald said last spring that he needed to know what Craswell's party was going to do before committing to the race. He has, however, made his decision despite having been told the AHP intends to recruit a candidate.
"We met with Dan McDonald," says Craswell, "but we certainly said nothing to encourage him to run in the 1st District." The AHP would like to run someone there, and they'd like to start soon.
Will it be Bruce Craswell again? "It's not my intention," he claims.
Inslee, who's had the job only since January, is a little stunned that Republicans are already lining up to defeat him. He told The Seattle Times, "I don't know what it is I've done, I barely just got here."
Dan McDonald may be the real person in the middle—his years of making legislative sausage make him seem squishy to American Heritage types even though he's very conservative—certainly more so than Rick White or Renee Radcliff. He ran poorly in 1992 for governor and is considered a bit of a plodder. The 1st District includes parts of Bellevue, all of Redmond, Kirkland, Bothell, Mill Creek, Bainbridge Island, Edmonds, and half of Mukilteo. It's a district whose heart is the new electronic technology. That Dan McDonald is a mechanical engineer in this wireless district may be a metaphor for problems to come in his upcoming race for Congress.