On Wednesday night, in a historic Spokane theater she helped save with state appropriations, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown was to kick off her re-election campaign.
Despite having a relatively well-placed opponent, the Democrat didn’t face a tough race. Spokane’s 3rd District has been well-stacked with Democratic voters.
But Brown won’t be attending that kickoff. The woman who has been in the Legislature for 20 years and run the state Senate for eight will retire instead.
Because she isn’t as personally dominating (some would say domineering) as House Speaker Frank Chopp, because she is from a city that is both physically and emotionally separate from Western Washington, Brown isn’t as familiar over here. Anyone who spends time around the Legislature, however, knows plenty about one of the most powerful people in the state.
For one, she was usually the smartest person in the room, and not just because she holds a doctoral degree in economics and has taught at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga. Brown brings a depth and breadth of knowledge that is uncommon in a place where many lawmakers stay on the surface of subject matter. Even those with expertise focus on a single topic or two.
Brown is quick-witted. She may have a temper, but it is rarely exhibited in public. She is considered a liberal and once was labeled “Sandinista Lisa” by opponents because she once taught economics in Nicaragua. That she taught capitalism to the communists isn’t mentioned by her foes.
She certainly is liberal on social issues. Her support for an income tax puts her on the left as well (and shows how safe her district is), even though it isn’t a partisan issue in most other states. And her lawsuit against the two-thirds majority for tax hikes was wrong on the politics but right on the constitution.
I recall her as having more-nuanced political views, even qualifying her as a member of what was labeled the neo-liberals or New Democrats. Like them, she questioned Democratic orthodoxy and was a school reformer who twice voted for charter schools. As Senate budget chairwoman, she used her knowledge of economics to ask hard questions about spending.
Once she became just the second female majority leader, however, Brown too often placed her own views behind those of the caucus. Perhaps that is necessary to keep the top job, but sometimes she yielded to people with less knowledge than she had and allowed them to define her party as anti-reform – especially on education.
Brown is better known in Spokane but is surely more appreciated on “the coast.” In its editorial on her retirement, the Spokesman-Review dubbed Brown “too liberal for us” on budgets, taxes, business regulation and the size of government.
Without irony, however, it praised her for bringing home the bacon for local projects, especially the Riverpoint higher education campus and its health sciences complex that could evolve into a full medical school.
That’s a necessary skill for second-city lawmakers. Whether or not such places really lose out to Seattle, it is always good politics to claim it happens and that winning big chunks of the state budget is needed to even things out.
Why leave now? Brown said she had an epiphany while walking around one of Spokane’s beautiful lakes after yet another grueling session. At 55, she thought there might be something else to do after two decades in Olympia.
While that means out of the Senate, it doesn’t necessarily mean out of politics. As she told the Spokesman-Review: “I feel the best way to explore that is to take a step back.”firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8657 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics Twitter: @CallaghanPeter