Wild, wild West

Senate Republican leader Jim West talks sweet but plays rough.

I WISH I HAD A NICKEL for every time the word "bipartisan" has been uttered since the 2001 session of the Washington state Legislature opened January 8 in Olympia. With crucial policy and fiscal issues to be settled by April 15 and the Legislature almost exactly split between the parties, nobody on either side wants to be seen taking the first step down into acrimony and deadlock.

As a result, the level of legislative discourse so far has been almost suffocatingly high-minded. Fortunately for those looking for a little spark and spice, there is Jim West.

Senator James E. West represents the 6th Legislative District, a dependably Republican swatch of suburban sprawl and lava buttes wrapped around the west side of heavily Democratic downtown Spokane. West has been in politics more than 20 years now and no longer looks at all like the deputy sheriff he once was. He's been in the state Senate since 1987 but stepped into party leadership there only in 1999.

Perhaps in recognition of his new eminence and responsibilities, he has recently grown a full (though trim) black beard. "It makes him look thoughtful," a Democratic adversary says dubiously. Out, or at least not in evidence, is the guy notorious for leaving a death threat on the answering machine of a political opponent. In is the quoter of Stephen Covey's best-selling management bible 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (He says he's chalked "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood" on the Republican caucus blackboard.)

Despite some tacking into the prevailing bipartisan wind, West does not seem to have lost any of his zest for politics as contact sport. Early in the session, he made a good deal of hay out of the nefarious way the majority Democrats, holding a mere one-vote majority, had assigned themselves hefty super-majorities on several crucial committees. In support, he issued a chart replete with figures from the past 20 years, despite its evidence that when in the majority themselves, Republicans did exactly the same thing. (West's Democratic counterpart, Sid Snyder of Longview, responded by granting the Republicans another seat on Ways and Means. "All he had to do was ask," Snyder says mildly.)

You could say that campaign struck a blow for bipartisanship, but you couldn't call the fast one West pulled the very next week anything but good old gutter politics. At 9am on Monday, January 15, West called a press conference to announce that he was introducing a bill to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for murderers of children under 12. West told the press that the bill was inspired by the murder of 9-year-old Valiree Jackson of east Spokane, whose father was convicted late last year of her murder.

Now, there is no chance that this bill, however worthy, is going to emerge this session from the Senate Judiciary Committee because the chair of that committee, Democrat Adam Kline of Seattle, is a strong opponent of the death penalty. Still, you'd expect a fan of "Seek to understand" to attempt to reason with Kline; instead, just 15 minutes after the end of West's press conference, the murdered child's uncle called unannounced on Senator Kline to express his views personally. Since the uncle is black and the date was Martin Luther King Day and a KIRO-TV crew happened to be present at the time, it's hardly surprising that Kline suspects that the visit was a trap. "I was in back-to-back meetings with constituents; he didn't have an appointment, but imagine how it would have looked if I'd turned him away," Kline says. "I've worked in the past with Jim West and gotten along with him, but when he talks about bipartisanship, you might want to take it with a grain of salt."

Senator West is justly proud of his work as chair of the Ways and Means Committee during the 1997-98 session: the only session in 40 years that delivered a balanced budget to the governor not only without forcing him to call a special session but with time to spare. The Republicans held a comfortable majority of both houses in that particular biennium, so West's feat is not quite as extraordinary as it seems. It's certainly no predictor of success in a very different job under very different and challenging fiscal conditions.

West's job managing his caucus is exacerbated by the fact that Clark County's Don Benton bagged the top minority spot on the Transportation Committee, where some of this session's hottest battles will be fought. However, Benton is in deep trouble with his own party for financial fiddledeedee as Republican state chair and has had little time to spare for legislation. (Over the weekend, the GOP dumped Benton from his post as party chair.) No one would describe the rest of West's party team as exactly the best and the brightest of legislative Republicans. If West wants to put his mark on this session, he needs to raise his sights above the easy targets he's taken on so far. Never mind bipartisanship; plain old partisanship to some purpose would do fine.

 
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