OLYMPIA — Democrats in Washington enjoyed a genuinely good election.
They protected their incumbents in the Legislature. They picked up seven House seats for a dominating 57-41 advantage in the 2019 session. And it looks like they will gain three seats in the Senate for a comfortable 28-21 edge there.
They re-elected all their incumbents for federal office plus, for the first time, snagged the 8th Congressional District from the grasp of Republicans.
But these accomplishments are no guarantee Tina Podlodowski keeps her job as leader of the state Democratic Party.
Podlodowski, who was elected two years ago on the strength of support from backers of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, now faces a re-election challenge from one of those insurgent progressives. He feels the tally of electoral victories would be greater if the party did a better job spreading its gospel in Republican-controlled territories.
Jason Call of Marysville launched his bid for the chairmanship a few days before Thanksgiving. The educator, parent, and proud Berniecrat is one of Snohomish County’s representatives on the state party’s central committee.
“This is really not about Tina. I would not take away any of the wins,” he said. “This is about the direction of the whole party.”
Progressives didn’t invest time and energy to simply get a seat at the Democratic Party’s head table in 2016. They’re ready to lead, and some, like Call, are frustrated at what they perceive to be the politics of pragmatism.
“People make political calculations,” he said. “I’m done with political calculations.”
Call’s campaign is centered on two major themes — embrace the party platform and spread the message wider.
He helped write a 58-page political doctrine and wants Democratic office-holders and candidates held accountable to carry it out.
“I don’t see us as a state party putting enough pressure on our candidates and elected in the Legislature doing what we need them to do,” he said.
Call expressed it more bluntly in a Facebook post announcing his campaign.
“Now, of course we want to elect Democrats, but being a Democrat has to stand for more than just not batcrap crazy racist science-deniers that populate the Republicans’ 3-ring circus led by a narcissistic sociopath,” he wrote. “We’re here for more than just ‘NOT as bad as Trump,’ and I am years past tired of being told we can’t have it from our representatives, that ‘now’s not the right time to be picky, progressives can’t win.’”
Call is confident that if ideas in the platform — such as single-payer health care and progressive tax reform — are properly and persistently raised in conversations in traditional “red” areas, it will lead to Democrat wins.
“Democrats don’t do nearly enough to get our message out in rural areas,” Call said.
Podlodowski, a former Seattle City Council member and 2016 candidate for secretary of state, declined to comment on Call’s challenge. Instead, in an email and Facebook posts, she made a robust defense of her role in transforming the party operation.
She cited the re-tooling of data and communication infrastructure and a reboot of organizing efforts, which led to picking up more seats. For the first time, she said, Democratic candidates competed for every legislative seat in the state.
“And even if folks did not win, we substantially increased the vote for Democrats in each district,” she said.
“We’ve been meticulous in understanding what’s important to Washington voters down to the precinct level,” she said, adding, “We still have work to do, but our candidates and volunteers worked hard for our victories.”
To win, Call is seeking to replicate the strategy of that 2016 rebellion in which Sanders loyalists around the state won a majority of seats on the central committee and proceeded to elect Podlodowski. The 176-person panel is made up of two people from party organizations in each of the 39 counties and each of the 49 legislative districts.
This time, he’s trying to recruit supporters for himself. Jousting is already occurring, especially among Snohomish County Democrats.
One of those in the middle of the scrum is Bill Phillips, a former chairman of the county party who currently occupies a seat on the state committee representing the 39th District. He’s trying to get re-elected and thinks Podlodowski earned another term.
A few weeks back, Phillips voiced support for Call’s re-election to the state committee. But when Call launched his bid for state chairman, Phillips revoked his endorsement. The sudden climate change chilled their relations.
“I don’t know how you fire a state chair after that performance,” Phillips said. “I am not sure what progressive means, but I am sure Jason Call doesn’t get to define it for everyone.”
Democrats will choose their next party leader on Jan. 27 in Olympia.
Update: On Nov. 29, Jason Call suspended his campaign for the job.