With apologies to the Grateful Dead, what a short, strange trip it’s been these last two months since Sen. Pam Roach was elected to the Pierce County Council.
She grudgingly gave up her legislative career to represent Council District 2. She caused a rumpus by scolding staff (and mistaking a fellow council member as staff) at her first study session last week. And she bulldozed a path for her protege, Phil Fortunato, to be appointed to her Senate seat over the weekend.
That Fortunato was sworn in as senator also might seem a strange switcheroo to voters in the legislative district covering northeast Pierce/southeast King county. Didn’t they just elect the Auburn Republican to a different statehouse post in November?
Despite the odd turns and the fact this Editorial Board didn’t endorse Fortunato for an open District 31 House seat last year, we can’t fault the joint decision by Pierce and King county leaders to promote him to the Senate on Saturday.
The other two candidates whose names had been forwarded by precinct committee officers were less qualified, sacrificing themselves as lambs to get Fortunato appointed. The best candidate by far — Rep. Drew Stokesbary — didn’t make the top three; he was cut at the precinct committee level, at least in part due to Roach’s influence.
“This is politics,” the 63-year-old Fortunato summed up after Saturday’s controversial process.
Indeed, it is. Charges that the system was rigged in his favor aren’t inaccurate, but if opponents don’t like it, they should work to shake up the roster of precinct officers.
There were whispers last week suggesting what would’ve been an even more egregious act of rigging. Democrats, according to rumors, would delay the appointment for several weeks, denying the fragile Senate majority coalition a key GOP vote.
The whispers exploded into full-blown accusations by anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman. He insisted the Democratic-controlled King County Council would hold Roach’s seat hostage, and that Dems would then ram a liberal agenda through the Capitol. Eyman continued to throw bombs, even after the two county councils scheduled their joint meeting for Saturday in Fife.
It was an absurd nuclear scenario put forth by a man who’s never held public office. Even a cynic who doesn’t believe in the better angels of state lawmakers should understand the reality: In a tied or closely divided Legislature, bipartisanship is needed for elected officials to pass budgets and go home.
The joint vote to appoint Fortunato was taken a mere two days before the opening of the 2017 session, which promises to be a long slog. The Legislature will need each of its 147 members fully engaged from the outset to tackle a big to-do list, including the complex business of school funding reform.
The best news from Saturday’s action is that one of those 147 members will be Morgan Irwin, who was appointed to replace Fortunato in the House. Irwin is a sharp, broad-minded Republican whom we endorsed over Fortunato in the primary election last summer. An Enumclaw farm boy by upbringing and a Seattle police officer by profession, Irwin, 33, has valuable insights to share in Olympia.
As for Fortunato, his wish to be a senator means he will spend a lot of time campaigning the next two years. He must return to voters this fall before serving the final year of Roach’s term, and then again in 2018 if he seeks a full four-year term.
While a gamble for Fortunato, it’s a great opportunity for voters to ensure he’s a strong voice for their interests, not a puppet of the senator he replaced.