Big speeches attracted full houses in the two Washingtons on Tuesday, as is customary when chief executives give their annual appraisals of triumphs, plans and dreams. There were a few empty seats, however, and they drew nearly as much attention as the filled ones.
President Barack Obama left a vacant chair in the First Lady’s box at his final State of the Union address to honor “the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice,” according to the White House.
At the Capitol in Olympia, a pair of glaringly empty seats in the front row at Gov. Jay Inslee’s State of the State speech weren’t planned by the governor’s office. On the contrary, the absence of two fellow Democrats, who were elected alongside Inslee during a near-sweep by the party in 2012, might have embarrassed him a bit.
It’s hardly shocking that Auditor Troy Kelley’s chair sat unoccupied. Embattled officials facing criminal trials and calls for impeachment rarely show up in public. They might even go seven months without showing up for work.
More surprising was that state schools chief Randy Dorn went AWOL. He did it to make a point about school funding — specifically, to express outrage over the state’s continued tap dance around its constitutional duty to provide enough money for schools, and to collect it equitably. Dorn, a two-term superintendent of public instruction from Eatonville, left a note on his abandoned chair that said: “Reserved for kids and students.”
The last time an empty chair caused this much of a stir, Clint Eastwood was pretending to interview it.
Give credit to Dorn for waiting until the opening ceremonies were over before leaving the House floor. Every smart student knows that to avoid being marked tardy or absent, you at least have to show up. Give credit also to Inslee for not sending a hall monitor to summon Dorn back to the front of the classroom.
Beyond that, there’s not a lot of credit to spread around.
Dorn gets no applause for his histrionics. The nine state Supreme Court justices attended Inslee’s speech and managed to sit through all of it, despite the contempt order they slapped on lawmakers in 2014 for not making adequate progress to fix the school-funding mess.
Dorn’s tactics are clumsy at times. But he is the most consistently vocal statewide politician preaching the urgency of adopting a fully funded K-12 system that doesn’t split school districts into winners and losers. It’s an urgency that was highlighted in this space last weekend.
Inslee and legislators says they’re mostly limited to collecting data this year. Because the political realities and the high court’s expectations are so daunting, they’re kicking the can down the road on a final school reform plan until 2017.
Dorn’s not buying it. “I stopped playing kick the can at age 13,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. He said legislators have already studied school finance exhaustively, and it will be impossible for them to meet the court’s 2018 deadline if they wait until next year.
In the meantime, he said, “the governor’s (2016) budget does nothing to get us out from under the court order.” It only worsens the problem by calling for teacher pay raises that would require more support from local levy dollars.
Dorn’s says he won’t seek reelection this year, though he’s considering an independent run for governor. His words and theatrics have the desperate tone of a lame duck who refuses to go quietly. But say this much for him: Even when his chair is empty, his message is not.