Washington lawmaker’s gaffe may spur new civil rights law

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, February 10, 2016 7:35pm
  • Local News

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler says he regrets blurting, “She’s racist” moments after his caucus ousted Lynn Peterson as the state’s transportation secretary.

Though he’s yet to publicly apologize, the Ritzville Republican did quickly retreat from the remark directed at Peterson in the impassioned verbal scuffle of partisans following the Senate vote last Friday.

But once played, the race card can’t be taken back.

Its presence on the table, however, could spur passage of a major civil rights bill pushed by Democratic lawmakers that is known as the Washington Voting Rights Act.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Luis Moscoso, D-Bothell, passed in 2013 and 2014. Each time, it died in the GOP-controlled Senate. It cleared the House again last week on a party-line vote.

It would provide a cause for legal action in state courts to compel district elections in cities, counties and school districts where minorities face barriers to getting elected. Supporters contend this is quicker and less expensive than pursing enforcement of federal voting rights law. And it requires negotiations between parties before lawsuits get filed.

It’s been a long and difficult conversation between Democrats and Republicans in the two chambers.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee wielded the issue against Schoesler in his Monday morning tirade against Senate Republicans’ action.

“The man who is now blocking passage of the Voting Rights Act that will give minority people in the state of Washington the ability to get elected … the man who is standing in the (doorway) of civil rights in this state calls Lynn Peterson a racist on the floor of the Senate,” Inslee said.

Less than two hours later, the Republican-led Senate Rules Committee sent two bills aimed at boosting political representation of minorities to the floor for possible action.

One is the Senate’s version of the voting rights act. It’s not identical to the House bill. A significant difference is it relies on enforcing federal voting laws and would not open the door for lawsuits in state courts.

The second bill, which Schoesler pulled to the floor, would make it easier for cities and counties to switch from at-large to district elections for commissioners and council members.

Schoesler said there was no link between what he said on the Senate floor and what happened with those bills.

“I am responding to local governments in my region,” he said. “So despite what Jay Inslee said in his press conference, the proof is in the Rules Committee.”

Meanwhile, a caucus of minority lawmakers from the House and Senate is keeping watch on the ripple effects of the Senate leader’s comment.

Moscoso said he was “thankful” for the remark if it incites broader and deeper conversations on racism, equity and discrimination this session beyond the voting rights bill.

“There are many other racial equity issues we should be talking about,” he posted on Facebook. “Don’t stop now.”

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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