Political pragmatism blocks votes on death penalty, weapons

OLYMPIA — A vote, up or down, on abolishing the death penalty in Washington.

That’s what Attorney General Bob Ferguson wanted on the legislation he crafted.

“The Legislature has evaded a vote on the death penalty for years,” Ferguson said at his January news conference rolling out the bill. “The public deserves to know where their representatives stand.”

The public is not going to find out this session.

Nor will it learn what Washington’s 147 citizen legislators think about a bill bolstering background checks for buyers of assault weapons.

That legislation penned by Ferguson stalled as well.

OK, so Ferguson will finish the month 2-0 against President Donald Trump in federal court and 0-2 in front of the state House Judiciary Committee whose majority of members are, like the attorney general, Democrats.

Each bill wound up in the heap of discarded policies because they lacked a path to success, defined around here as reaching the desk and getting signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, who, by the way, totally backed both bills.

The committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, explained neither had a snowball’s chance of surviving in the Republican-controlled Senate. She said she made it clear up front those controversial bills would not receive a committee vote absent a climate change in the other chamber.

Why, the reasoning goes, would House Democrats — and a couple supportive Republicans — expend the emotional energy and political capital on a legislative journey destined for disappointment?

This is the profile of political pragmatism that’s become a hallmark of House Democrats under the leadership of Speaker Frank Chopp in this era of divided government.

He’s exhibited less interest in using his slim majority to advance bills to send a message — like abolishing the death penalty or impeding the acquisition of military-style firearms.

He’d rather put the energy of the caucus behind implementing paid family leave, a concept long eschewed by Republicans now gaining momentum among GOP in the Senate. And Chopp is also high-centered on assembling a revenue package to ensure public schools are fully and legally funded.

Members of his leadership team this week explained the process of winnowing the list of bills to focus on is a balancing act and rejected the notion Senate Republicans are in any way intimidating their decision-making.

Another plausible explanation for the lapse of the death penalty and assault weapons bills is Democrats didn’t have the votes to advance them, not in committee where they hold seven of 13 seats, or in their caucus where there are 50 members.

These two issues trigger deeply felt feelings. Not every Democrat backs the bills. Others are concerned of repercussions to their career regardless of how they vote. It’s the kind of the vote they don’t want to cast unless success is certain.

Ferguson said this week he was disappointed but not surprised at getting blocked by the realpolitik in Olympia.

These are not “easy lifts,” he said of the two bills, “so we’ll bring them back next year.”

And see if they’re ready to take a vote.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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