‘Roadkill’ caucus seeks a voice for centrist Democrats

OLYMPIA — Centrist Democrats frustrated that their ideas and voices are routinely mashed by the Legislature’s liberals and conservatives are banding together.

They call themselves the Roadkill Caucus.

“We really didn’t know what to call ourselves. As moderates, we constantly get run over by the far right and the far left and we end up being roadkill,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, one of the founders.

Thus far, about eight senators and 16 representatives, including House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, are associated with the group. Members have met weekly for dinner to swap thoughts and figure out where they stand on evolving issues on budget, tax and policy.

They envision themselves staking out and securing a middle ground in heated philosophical debates sure to break out in the session’s pressure-packed final days.

“We think we can act as a bridge,” Hobbs said. “It’s time now for moderates to join together. We shouldn’t be afraid.”

And he and Kessler said one thing they won’t do is withhold their collective vote as a negotiating tool to win on a particular point.

“What I don’t want us to become is a threatening group,” Kessler said. “I promised (House Speaker) Frank (Chopp) I would not use it as a weapon.”

Hobbs and seven other senators made the same pledge to Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown in her office last Friday.

“We will be constantly talking with her and sharing all the ideas we’re coming up with,” he said.

Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, and Hobbs planted seeds for the Roadkill Caucus.

“So much of the debate is driven by those views on the ends of the spectrum,” Hatfield said. “Most of the state’s residents are in the middle.”

Leaders are reluctant to identify all those involved though they meet in public each week. Two other Snohomish County lawmakers, Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett, and Rep. Mark Ericks, D-Bothell, are among those who’ve shown interest.

Democrats and Republicans meet in formal caucus groups to hash out positions on bills and amendments to be voted on. The Roadkill Caucus represents a more loosely knit faction of House and Senate members.

Historically, there have been many such caucuses within the Legislature. This year, they are most visible among Democrats who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Best known is the Blue-Green Caucus with roughly 20 House members whose political concerns are centered on labor and environmental issues.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, one of the Blue-Green members, said Monday the alliance aims to keep those issues from being overlooked or ignored and does not set out to become threatening.

“The last thing you want to do is shove things in somebody’s face,” he said. “It’s not good politics.”

However, button-wearing Blue-Green Caucus members did upset some fellow Democrats in the final days of the 2009 session by blocking votes on some bills in an effort to force action on other matters such as unemployment insurance and Puget Sound cleanup.

Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, a member, doesn’t apologize for what transpired last session and said the arrival of a new coalition means there will certainly be healthy tension among House Democrats again this year.

She predicted “the main distinction” between the two caucuses will be in how each view solutions for the budget deficit. Blue-Green members see it as a lack of revenue and want to raise more of it, while the Roadkill Caucus will likely see it as too much spending and push to cut programs, she said.

In the end, all the internal debate will expand and improve the conversation among lawmakers.

“These caucuses help us articulate our views and our values and sometimes our values don’t always match even though we’re all Democrats,” she said.

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

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