Pierce County's legislative power still not like 'mafia' days

Lawmakers from Pierce County gain in leadership

Staff writerFebruary 2, 2014 

Jan Angel gathers with supporters, including Tonia Olson, at the Canterwood Golf and Country Club, in Gig Harbor.

JANET JENSEN — Staff photographer

Politicians from the home of the Tacoma Dome are climbing the ladders of power under the Capitol dome.

But Pierce County still isn’t anywhere near the height of its influence in state government. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it had House speakers, Senate leaders, budget writers and a governor — and at one point all of them together, as people from elsewhere groused about the “Pierce County Mafia.”

Today, the state’s second-biggest county plays second fiddle to the biggest. King County now that holds those top positions.

But more lawmakers representing Pierce County lead House and Senate committees now than at any time in more than a decade.

“Slowly but surely we’re coming back into the limelight,” former Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma said. “For many years we were kind of in the shadows, so to speak.”

A big factor in that shift is the divided government in Olympia.

Republicans took over the state Senate last year with the help of two renegade Democrats, and they installed several local lawmakers in important posts. Democrats did the same while holding on to control of the House.

The new dynamic might be frustrating to anyone who wants to see laws pass. But in some ways it benefits Pierce County, one of the state’s most politically divided zones. Tacoma is a Democratic stronghold while the suburbs are in swing districts where Republicans have an edge.

Of the 24 lawmakers who represent a piece of the county in the Legislature, half are Republicans, half Democrats.

Now 10 of them hold chairman’s gavels, after developments in January.

First came the game of musical chairs among Democrats that followed the election of former Sen. Ed Murray as mayor of Seattle. It ended with Tacoma Rep. Laurie Jinkins atop the House Judiciary Committee.

Then came last week’s shake-up. Sen. Jan Angel, a Kitsap County Republican who also represents west Pierce, became co-chairwoman of the banking committee with a demoted Democrat, Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens.

The Legislature’s 40 chairmen and chairwomen of standing committees are legislative crossing guards. They choose which proposals receive public hearings and which come up for a committee vote.

“Committee chairs have the power,” Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said. “Having Pierce County represented by these chairs means that bills with a significant impact on Pierce County, in particular, are more likely to be heard and more likely to get out of committee.”

Lindquist has lobbied at the state level for changes based on local cases. Some include a constitutional amendment on bail after the shooting deaths of four Lakewood police officers and new involuntary-commitment standards after the father of a former Western State Hospital patient was murdered.

He pushed for that mental-health law at the same time Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and Sheriff Paul Pastor sought changes for mental-health evaluations at jails. Both measures passed, with the help of a bipartisan group of local lawmakers who made the topic a priority in 2013.

No signature victory leaps to mind for delegation observers. But many of its members are hoping a transportation tax increase will be their big win. Rep. Hans Zeiger was the only Republican to vote with Democrats for a gas-tax package last year, while his fellow Puyallup lawmaker, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, has been perhaps the most vocal Senate Republican in favor of a package.

Not coincidentally, one of the biggest projects to benefit from such a package would be the long-awaited extension of state Route 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma. A smaller share could go to Interstate 5 around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“There’s a lot of pressure about 167 because of them, I think,” said Chris Vance, a former state Republican Party chairman.

Dammeier said: “I think if you look at it, Pierce County is well positioned, and the influence of the delegation is growing in both chambers.”

Some observers singled out Dammeier and Jinkins as two of the delegation’s rising stars.

They are proof that committee chairmanship isn’t everything. Dammeier is not a chairman but has been influential in an informal role. He helped negotiate last year’s deals on education and the budget. Before Jinkins led a committee, she was prominent in pushing for new kinds of taxes and participating in the lawsuit that overturned voter-imposed restrictions on tax increases.

Both, Baarsma predicted, have bigger leadership roles in their futures.

Pierce County doesn’t hold any of the marquee jobs in the Legislature. King County has most of those. Speaker Frank Chopp represents Seattle. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom and the two top budget writers, Andy Hill and Ross Hunter, are from the suburban eastern side of Lake Washington.

The most important committee with some Pierce County influence at the top might be Senate Transportation. But even there, Sen. Tracey Eide represents only a sliver of Pierce County while living in King. (Besides, the Democrat co-chairs the panel with a Yakima Republican, Curtis King, who’s part of the Senate majority.)

But Vance said King County lawmakers don’t tend to gang up as much as those from Pierce.

“King County’s so big that it doesn’t think of itself as one region. Seattle is so different than the King County suburbs. South King County is so different than the Eastside,” he said.

Vance doesn’t see a major change in Pierce’s pull. He said the county has had a consistently strong influence in the Legislature, which he ascribes to its tendency to produce moderates. “Seattle will always have power as long as Democrats control either body, but Seattle is hurt by the fact that they’re not moderates,” he said.

Sen. Randi Becker, an Eatonville Republican, and Sen. Steve Conway, a Tacoma Democrat, agree the local delegation can reach across party lines when it comes to directing tax dollars to the county — such as the vocational skills center in Frederickson that the two worked with others to fund.

But there is a wide spectrum of ideology in the group, probably more so than at the county’s peak of influence when most of its leaders were Democrats. “That might make it harder to act as a delegation sometimes,” Jinkins said.

Conway is one of the only local lawmakers remaining from what he recalls as “a golden age.” “Today,” he said, “we have to be more bipartisan.”

THEY EACH GET A GAVEL

Ten state lawmakers who represent part of Pierce County chair or co-chair a standing committee:

• Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance

• Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, Health Care

• Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Des Moines, Transportation

• Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, Government Accountability and Oversight

• Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, Judiciary

• Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, Business and Financial Services

• Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services

• Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, Human Services and Corrections

• Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, Governmental Operations

• Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, Higher Education

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826
blog.thenewstribune.com/politics
jordan.schrader@thenewstribune.com
@Jordan_Schrader

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