Washington Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson (right) at the christening of the state ferry Tokitae in Seattle in 2014.

Washington Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson (right) at the christening of the state ferry Tokitae in Seattle in 2014.

GOP lawmakers fire state transportation secretary

OLYMPIA — Republican senators delivered a stunning political blow to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday by voting to fire Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson.

In a rarely used maneuver, 24 Republicans and one Democrat voted to not confirm Peterson whose management they blamed for festering problems with several projects, including the I-405 express toll lanes and a new tunnel in Seattle.

Peterson, whom Inslee appointed to the job in February 2013, will lose her job immediately. She came to Washington after working as a transportation adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

“The way you fix accountability… is to impose accountability on our own,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I personally like Lynn Peterson. I think she is a good person. But I look at results. I have no confidence the agency is in position to fix the problems it has without a change.”

After the vote, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee blasted Republicans for flexing their muscle in this manner.

“This is like a political execution that’s made public here on the Senate floor, because, simply, it’s 2016 and it’s an election year,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

In a statement, Inslee said Senate Republicans “engaged in a politically-motivated attack on an eminently qualified woman. We can only wonder what the Senate Republicans’ next politically motivated attack will be.”

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe said it was “not an easy vote. It was not a political vote. I did so because of the complaints I got from people in my district. Frankly she didn’t have the experience to do this in the first place.”

The last rejection of a gubernatorial appointee in this fashion was in 1998, when former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld was removed from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission by the Senate.

The power to confirm is provided solely to the Senate. But appointees can serve without ever getting confirmed, and that happens a lot.

Since Inslee took office, most of his executive appointees like Peterson have yet to be confirmed. Fewer than half of the 24 current cabinet members had been confirmed as of Friday. The list grew by one Friday, when Vikki Smith was confirmed as the director of the Department of Revenue.

Some, like former corrections secretary Bernie Warner, have come and gone without getting confirmed. Bette Hyde, who retired in 2015 as the head of the Department of Early Learning, never received a confirmation vote even though the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee twice voted to recommend her selection.

And Kevin Quigley will soon leave the Department of Social Health Services without getting confirmed.

Although Friday’s decision shocked Inslee and Senate Democrats, it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise.

This session, Republicans have hammered on a theme that there is a lack of accountability in the management of state agencies.

They’ve criticized the Department of Corrections for failing to fix a software problem that allowed the early release of inmates after learning of the problem in 2012. They’ve questioned the Department of Social and Health Services response to troubles at Western State Hospital.

And they’ve been especially harsh toward the Department of Transportation amid growing outrage surrounding the operation of the express toll lanes on I-405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue.

On Tuesday, Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, confirmed he and Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, were discussing whether to vote to not confirm one or more agency heads.

When asked Wednesday about such an action by Republicans, Inslee said he had chatted with GOP leaders about appointments but it was “nothing intense” and the possibility of anyone losing their job did not come up.

At that time he offered a robust defense of Peterson, praising her role in negotiating last year’s $16 billion transportation package and her use of practical design technique to trim millions of dollars from projects around the state.

“I’m shocked that politics would rear its head in this consideration,” he said. “I would be much more interested in celebrating that bipartisan success than pointing out that folks who are now apparently raising this issue stood in the way of progress for two years on transportation and said ‘No’.”

There was no such celebrating on the Senate floor Friday.

Republicans made the motion to confirm Peterson, then set about to conduct their very public performance review.

They vented frustration with the I-405 express lanes, the stalled tunneling operation in Seattle and the priority of projects to be built with the money from the transportation package. Many talked about the need to change the culture of the agency.

“It’s about the general overall state of the Department of Transportation,” said Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic. “We are doing less with more.”

Democrats, who attempted unsuccessfully to delay the vote, praised Peterson’s performance and called her a competent leader and transportation expert.

“I hope she leaves with her head held high. She’s done an amazing job,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who serves on the transportation committee.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, cited Peterson’s quick response following both the Oso mudslide and the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge.

“She made sure that that bridge was rebuilt under budget and faster than any of us ever could have predicted,” he said.

Several times Democrats said election year politics was behind the move. Republicans repeatedly denied that.

“It’s not personal. It’s not about the next election,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who voted against the appointment. “It’s about business. It’s about the people’s business.”

Tensions were high during the two-hour debate and continued beyond the vote.

Schoesler, the Senate Majority Leader, came to the press table after the vote to show reporters a letter that was sent by the state Civil Rights Coalition to the speaker of the House expressing concern that Department of Transportation policies as they relate to contracting with minority-owned small businesses were unfair.

Jaime Smith, the governor’s spokeswoman, was standing at the press table and challenged Schoesler on why no one had any indication of the Senate’s plans until moments before it started.

Schoesler ignored her and continued talking about the letter from the coalition that criticized Peterson, and he ended the conversation by saying “she’s racist,” as he walked away. That caused vocal outrage among Democratic senators and governor’s staff who had gathered nearby.

“I think that right there says everything you need to know,” Smith said.

Inslee, in his statement, said he “deeply and personally offended by Senator Schoesler’s unfounded, scurrilous and outrageous outburst that Secretary Peterson is a racist. This personal insult, uttered in the Senate chambers, is simply inexcusable and not worthy of his position as a leader in the Senate.”

Department of Transportation spokesman Lars Erickson wrote in an email that the agency has long been working with the coalition about their concerns.

“Any suggestion that Secretary Peterson is ‘racist’ is absurd,” Erickson wrote.

Afterward, Schoesler said by phone that he “spoke things that I probably didn’t want to say.”

“I regret what I said in the heat of the scrum,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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