OLYMPIA — Next month’s selection of a new speaker for the state House of Representatives may be the year’s most important contest for Democrats in Washington.
Seattle Democrat Frank Chopp, one of the most dominant forces in Washington politics, has relinquished the seat of power in which he sat since the turn of the century. His tenure, unprecedented in length, ended in early May. And four women lawmakers are vying to succeed him — and become the first woman in this position in state history.
It’s a quartet of talent: Monica Stonier of Vancouver, the majority floor leader and current member of caucus leadership; Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma, chairwoman of the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee; June Robinson of Everett, vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, and Gael Tarleton of Seattle, chairwoman of the Finance Committee.
Each enjoys support among the 57 members of the House Democratic Caucus, which will meet July 31 to make a decision. A couple rounds of balloting are likely before any of them garners the required majority.
This is a critical vote. Whoever wins will lead the caucus in the 2020 session. Then they will be tasked with doing whatever’s needed to retain every one of those 57 seats in next year’s elections. Recruiting candidates, raising money and crafting campaign messages are among the requisite skills for this part of the job.
This change of power coincides with a transformation of the caucus itself. Its membership is its most ethnically diverse. Women hold a majority of its seats. And its progressive bent is as dominant as ever.
Big questions loom for each individual member.
Will they want someone with a progressive soul and pragmatic political temperament like Chopp, which seemed to work well the past two decades?
Or will they want a person willing to push a progressive agenda more aggressively, even if it might earn a periodic rebuke from editorial boards and cost a seat or two in a future election?
How important is it for the next speaker to get along with Republicans and build alliances with Senate Democrats?
In the 2019 session, Democrats used strong legislative majorities and partnership with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee to enthusiastically expand most areas of state government and to increase a raft of taxes to cover the tab.
Thus far it’s been a pretty quiet race. These women respect each other so there’s no badmouthing, overtly or in the shadows. They insist there won’t be, and are committed to assuring the caucus will be united once the outcome is known.
Ahead of the vote, each woman is contacting all of her colleagues, by phone or in person, or both. They’re getting asked about their vision for caucus leadership and strategy for winning elections. There’s talk about specific policies, and internal matters as well.
In the meantime, the Members of Color Caucus and the Black Caucus conducted sit-down interviews with each candidate earlier this month. On July 14, the two plan to host a forum at which they hope all four candidates will be together to answer questions from members who show up.
“We are absolutely not making any endorsement. We are looking to provide avenues for our members to get information,” said Rep. Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, a leader of the 16-person Members of Color Caucus. “This is a very historic decision we’re making.”