There's a title fight going on for the soul of Washington State's Democratic Party.
Or maybe the fight is just over the speed of change.
In one corner sit House Speaker Frank Chopp, Governor Gregoire, and the Road Kill Caucus of middle-of-the-road Democrats.
In the other corner sit the progressive caucus, the netroots, and most of the Precinct Committee Officers and Democratic activists (including yours truly).
The fight echoes a similar, but more divisive, fight within the national Democratic Party between pragmatic centrists (including President Obama and Blue Dog Democrats) and progressives.
The centrist Democratic faction in Washington State is eager to hold onto Democratic electoral majorities and so is willing to work with business interests such as the BIAW to delay progressive legislation. The centrists are also more sympathetic to anti-tax preferences of many suburban and rural voters.
During Governor Gregoire's successful 2008 bid for reelection, she promised not to raise taxes. More recently she reportedly nixed efforts to eliminate tax preferences granted to the Trans Alta Energy plant (notes from LAC meeting).
Frank Chopp is a consummate master of political compromise, centrism, and slow-going. He squashed the Homeowner's Bill of Rights (see also Home Warranty: A simple matter) and marijuana decriminalization.
The Roadkill Caucus, a group of conservative Democrats in the state legislature who feel their ideas get run over by both lefty Democrats and hard-right Republicans, have started their own political action committee, The Roadkill Political Action Committee.
The group includes: Sens. Steve Hobbs, Brian Hatfield, Derek Kilmer, Chris Marr, Mary Margaret Haugen, and Paull Shin and Reps. Judy Clibborn, Deb Eddy, Chris Hurst, Kelli Linville, Larry Seaquist, and Larry Springer.
Other members include House Finance Chair Ross Hunter (48th LD) and 41st LD Rep. Marcie Maxwell, according to this article published by the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Road Kill Caucus members Hunter, Eddy, and Springer spoke at recent Legislative Action Committee meetings. They seemed not at all hostile to progressive calls for a state income tax and for elimination of tax exemptions. But nor are they willing, I think, to stick their necks out on the issue of an income tax -- which is a reasonable stance, given the fact the voters in Washington State have repeatedly rejected a state income tax. Their mantra about this is: a state income tax will have to arise from a voter initiative.
In fact, the centrist Democrats in Washington State are almost certainly a good deal better than the Republican alternatives, especially on social issues. The centrist Dems are all strong supporters of public education and are not eager to minimize government regulation and services. They expressed support for progressive income Initiative 1098. They're just pragmatic about the need for fiscal responsibility and about the need to stay in office. As it says in the Wikipedia article about Frank Chopp:
Despite his sometimes troubled relationship with progressives in his district, Chopp has had a number of successes. In the 2007 session, he engineered the success of bills that expanded health care coverage for children of the poor, paid leave for parents, extended rights to gay and lesbian couples, and furthered the cleanup of Puget Sound.
Even his critics have acknowledged that Chopp has a difficult task in balancing centrist and progressive agendas within his party. John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, one of his fiercest critics, says "Across the range of issues, Frank is a realist. He knows there's only so far he can take the center of the party on these issues. He is aware of the need to build a bigger majority and that comes into his calculus."
One of the most progressive Democrats in the legislature is Democratic Rep. Brendan Williams (D-Olympia). Williams recently announced his intention not to seek reelection. According to this source, Williams, "who wore a defiant 'No BIAW' pin to a Democratic holiday fundraising event in 2008, said he’s not running again because Chopp has neutered the Democratic agenda in Olympia by cozying up with the BIAW. Williams has been a major victim of Chopp’s alliance with the builders association: Two years in a row Williams’s homeowner bill of rights was killed at the last minute by Chopp. The BIAW was upset that homeowners would, my goodness, have the basic right to sue for faulty construction." In a recent facebook thread, Williams reports that Frank Chopp is cutting off campaign funding for House Democrats who are too progressive and who defy BIAW.
Former 41st LD State Senator Brian Weinstein has also decried the influence of the BIAW on Democrats. He was a sponsor of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights. According to the Seattle P-I, Weinstein asked, "Why is Democratic Speaker Frank Chopp standing with the right-wing BIAW instead of the homeowners of Washington?" Weinstein has also said, "It's a real shame and a stain on my party," he said. "My fellow Democrats would cry foul when the BIAW levies vicious attacks on our governor and environmentalists, and then they hypocritically accept campaign contributions from BIAW PACs. It's no wonder most people are so cynical of politicians. You would think that the Democratic Party would put principle before money, but some in my party just can't help themselves" (from Some Dems assail BIAW, take its cash).
One of the biggest disappointments in the recent legislative session was the failure to eliminate tax exemptions for out-of-state banks and for TransAlta Corporation. The legislature came close to eliminating the exemptions but the votes weren't quite there. The problem is that the people and organizations who benefit from the exemptions are highly motivated to oppose any change. They flood Olympia with lobbyists and phone calls. On the other hand, the benefits from eliminating the tax exemptions are diffuse.
On a smaller scale, the problem can be seen in the effort to raise fees on private airplanes. Not surprisingly, the several thousand people who would be affected made a big stink and contacted their legislators. (LAC meeting notes)
So, instead of eliminating tax preferences for out-of-state banks, for Trans Alta (whose coal plant is one of the largest source of pollution, and which no longer produces coal in the state), and for owners of private aircraft, the legislature raised taxes on soda pop.
The moral: citizens and activists have the obligation to educate themselves on the issues and to pressure their legislators do the right thing -- at the right speed.