The current bunch of local legislators will never be confused with the Pierce County political mafia of yesteryear. History smiles slyly on that powerful crew, which ran the show in Olympia for a glorious decade starting in the mid 1980s.
With Gov. Booth Gardner of Tacoma as its don and several South Sound legislators ensconced in senior capo positions, they strong-armed plums for Pierce County such as a University of Washington branch campus and the Puyallup tribal land claims settlement.
Today, the local delegation doesn’t pretend to have that kind of muscle. But an outside commentator recently gave the members high marks for sticking together like a family and using their rapport to do good work for constituents.
In a May 1 column critical of Clark County’s fractured legislative crew, Columbian political writer Lauren Dake held up Pierce’s delegation as the shining example of how to get along and get stuff done.
“The 20-plus members of Pierce County’s delegation often work together, despite their political diversity and the diversity of the communities they represent,” Dake wrote. She noted twice-monthly lunches during the session and extracurricular team-building exercises such as a field trip to a food bank to volunteer together.
Dake contrasted that with Democrat and Republican senators and representatives from Southwest Washington who don’t trust each other and can’t recall gathering in a room as a group on purpose.
“The comparison isn’t completely fair,” she hedged. “Pierce County is a larger delegation, which inherently helps when vying for scarce dollars. But the Pierce County group has carved out a reputation as coming together when necessary.”
Looking at the cohesion and effectiveness of the delegation is relevant at this moment because Washington stands on the threshold of election filing week.
When weighing a run for the Legislature, potential candidates would be wise to size up not only their ideologies and pet issues, but also whether they possess a genuine collaborative spirit. All it would take is a few rogues to diminish Pierce’s outsized reputation.
The cast of 24 characters will look different next year, no matter what. A pair of experienced hands, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, and Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, are not running for reelection. Other veteran members might get bumped off by newcomers.
The local group’s most clearcut triumph in the last few years was securing a big slice from a statewide gas tax package in 2015. That means state Route 167 will finally be extended to the Port of Tacoma and that Interstate 5 along Joint Base Lewis-McChord will be widened at last.
Booth Gardner and his underbosses would have been proud.
This year, local legislators joined forces to shore up funding for local mental health and chemical dependency services, a problem that has bedeviled every county in Washington. They helped secure several million dollars in staff and structural investments at Lakewood’s Western State Hospital with the hope of making it safer and more therapeutically sound.
In a smaller unity move that didn’t grab headlines, they won a tax exemption that will protect about $2 million in nonprofit behavioral health services in Pierce County.
Meanwhile, Clark County’s delegation lost its grip on money to help integrate local health services for Medicaid clients, Dake said. This was the same group that carped about getting “a raw deal” in last year’s transportation package, in part because of internal disagreements.
The Pierce posse isn’t above using small dramatic touches to enhance its aura. Five of the eight local senators sometimes exploit their seats near each other in the back of the chamber. “One of the things that's fun is to convene a whispering session,” Dammeier said. “It makes everyone really nervous. They wonder what we're up to.”
Dammeier acknowledged in an interview last week that the “mystique” and history of the old Pierce mafia might be greater than today’s reality. But there’s nothing wrong with milking a mystique for all its worth.
It couldn’t hurt Clark County and other legislative delegations to borrow a few tricks from the 253 gang. In time they might find they accomplish more for constituents, learn from local colleagues in the other party and other chamber, and maybe even enjoy their company.
If not? Well, every opportunist knows that maintaining a tight crew still has its benefits. Remember what “The Godfather Part II” protagonist Michael Corleone said: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”