Writings and observations

Second of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

Our clearest tipoff that the Washington 5th district contest was getting close came through inadvertence.

close districts mapRepublican Representative Cathy McMorris, seeking her second term in the Republican district, was checking into a telephone conference call with Republican Senator Larry Craig and a group of constituents, on the subject of veterans benefits, a hot topic in the 5th. Before entering the general call, she had what she thought was a private two-way talk with Craig, and said she was concerned that the race in her district was becoming very tight. Craig remarked that polling numbers looked bad all over. Neither of them knew a reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review was also on the line, blocked from announcing his presence but able to hear every word.

That was confirmation – since there hadn’t been much objective evidence, such as polling – that Democrat Peter Goldmark was in fact closing on McMorris, putting her re-election at genuine risk.

It was a late-blooming race; Goldmark was more or less universally seen as a longshot when he entered earlier in the year. The seat once held by Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley was securely held by Republican George Nethercutt for a decade; having beaten Foley, Nethercutt was never again in serious jeopardy in the 5th. When he left to pursue (unsucessfully) a Senate seat in 2004, Democrats had high hopes that their candidate, a well-liked Spokane businessman who was well-funded, had a strong shot. McMorris, emerging from a three-way primary, clobbered him with 59.7% of the vote. In this Republican district, where the state legislative delegation was all Republican outside central Zpokane (and one Walla Walla representative), McMorris looked like a solid bet to hold the seat easily. In her first term, she engendered no major controversy or scandal, and seemed reasonably well liked personally.

Goldmark, though well known in agricultural circles, had never run for office before and had to introduce himself to the district. This proceeded slowly, especially since mass news media showed little interest in the contest, and since Goldmark was far behind McMorris in fundraising. (Fundraising picked up toward the end; he ultimately raised about $900,000 to McMorris’ $1.5 million – money was probably not the deciding factor here.)

Washington District 5

Aside from whatever the Democratic tide might contribute, Goldmark did have some issues. One, as indicated, was veteran benefits and care, growing out of a long-running story about veteran health care in eastern Washington. Another was the economic trouble many rural regions encounter; Goldmark made that his signal issue, and his rancher appearance and even his slogan (“riding with Goldmark”) keyed to his rural support. The rural areas are, of course, the most Republican parts of the district.

The end result was McMorris at 56.1% to Goldmark’s 43.9% – McMorris down by 3.6% from 2004, but not very close to a Democratic win.

Two thoughts about this.

One is that a diminished McMorris number this year isn’t what you’d ordinarily expect. When House members win their second terms, especially in districts (like the 5th) where their parties dominate, their numbers usually rise. Nethercutt’s winning percentage, for example, rose from 51% the year he beat Foley to 56% two years later, and that’s not an unusual development. Our speculation is that absent a Democratic tide – in a more or less “neutral” year – McMorris might have pulled around 63% or 64% this year. (That also reflects the greater attention to the race, and the larger Goldmark fundraising, than normally would have been the case.) Did the tide visit the 5th? Yes: It just didn’t reach high enough.

There is a strategic question buried in this, however, for the district’s Democrats to consider. Might the Democratic tide have been leveraged into more – and might it be if another tide occurs in 2008? To that, a qualified yes.

There are a dozen counties in the 5th district, and Goldmark lost all of them. His best (47.3%) was Whitman, home of Washington State University; he polled 45.5% in Spokane County, which is where about two-thirds of votes in the district are cast. (He did well, for a Democrat, in his home Okanogan County, with about 45%.)

But in that same election, Spokane County threw out two Republican state legislators, and two state senators – not the longstanding one senator – will represent it in Olympia. The county was marginal, maybe leaning Democratic (depending on how you apportion it) in legislative races.

Maybe as significant, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell carried the 5th district, riding over an energetic campaign by Republican Mike McGavick. Cantwell carried three counties in the district, Asotin (50.7%), Whitman (49.3%) and Spokane (50.1%). But a key percentage of people in those places switched from Cantwell to vote for McMorris in the next line on the ballot, and that killed Goldmark’s chances.

Votes for Democratic candidates can be found in this area. It may be that part of Goldmark’s problem was that he looked for them in the wrong place. The Washington 5th is far from a soft touch for Democrats, but the results suggest it is not entirely beyond reach either.

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The concession Tuesday by Darcy Burner in her congressional race in Washington’s 8th congressional district had to come as deep disappointment to her and her backers. But let’s put a little edge on that. This was one of the seats, after all, that Democrats had a really high hope of picking up, long before those hopes started sprouting in far less likely places. There are new Democratic U.S. representatives-elect in places like Kansas and Nebraska and both seats in New Hampshire. The Democratic candidate for the at-large seat in Wyoming – Wyoming – came closer than Burner did to knocking off first-term Republican Dave Reichert.

close districts mapBurner’s race was not the only case where Democrats were hoping for a big win last Tuesday: They were sensing the wave too in Idaho’s 1st and Washington’s 5th districts.

In this batch of posts we’ll consider why the wave didn’t lap up quite high enough in the Northwest, and what that suggests for the next cycle . . . which is, incidently, underway . . .

Let’s begin with the other district that was, somewhat, in play in this last election: Oregon’s 5th district.

It is sharply different from the other three in that it had a Democratic incumbent challenged aggressively by a Republican (making it a reasonably comparison with the one U.S. Senate seat up in the district, in Washington). It may, however, help draw a few pieces of the puzzle into focus.

When on October 19 we cited four seriously competitive U.S. House races in the Northwest, we included this one – ranking it as least competitive. The pending Democratic tide was one reason, but there were others. The incumbent, Representative Darlene Hooley, was reasonably popular, having served in office in the district for many years (in local and state office before Congress), is well-known and liked personally. There is also this measure: She had not had a really close race since winning the seat in 1996, but had one of her closer wins in 2004 over the energetic Jim Zupancic (53.1% to 44.3%). She’s never had a landslide. And her central Willamette Valley district has historically been lean-Republican; it is not predisposed against Republicans.

Oregon District 5

The Republican who entered the race, Mike Erickson – they weren’t exactly crowding the starting gate – but have absorbed those latter points and concluded: If just a few points of Hooley’s support, some of it Republican, can be peeled off, and the Republican then presented as an acceptable alternative, this could be winnable. Especially if you could, as Erickson could, self-fund the campaign. That at least seems to have been his campaign’s operating logic.

And after his campaign spent $1,559,363 mostly on TV advertising (most of it, from what we could tell, negative on Hooley) – to Hooley’s comparable $1,557,354 (she had money stockpiled for such an occasion), here was the Hooley-to-Erickson percentage: 54% to 42.8%, a bit better for Hooley than two years before.

Why did this $3 million race change so little?

The Democratic tide contributed, certainly. This race does suggest its limits: Against a determined and well-finance opponent, Hooley was only barely able to increase her percentage from last time. (The other three Democratic House members in Oregon, none facing as competitive a race, increased their normal numbers somewhat more.)

But we’ll suggest this too: Running a harsh negative race against someone who is well known and well liked is a high-risk and usually a no-win proposition. We also suspect that the deluge of TV ads had more negative than positive effect.

None of which necessarily means Hooley is invulnerable; and come the point she doesn’t run again, this seat will likely be home to a hot contest. (It was, for several cycles, before Hooley secured it.) But a challenge that actually puts a Republican over the top cannot be as simplistically designed as those up to now, and Hooley’s odds for 2008, if she runs then, are good.

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The Tuesday night Frontline documentary on PBS did a respectable job of overing last year’s Jim West tragedy in Spokane – casting it, reasonably enough, in a classic tragic form, of a man brought down by flaws from within. It did not seem to constitute, as some at the paper apparently had suspected, a sustained blast at the Spokesman-Review, the newspaper whose reporting eventually led to West’s recall as mayor.

Frontline West programThe paper nonetheless seems to have a hard time dealing with it. In the process, it seems to be considering changing an aspect of its own operations that, ironically, allow it to deal more effectively with reports such as this one.

The case, for those unfamiliar with it, concerned Jim West, a long-time Republican state senator elected mayor of Spokane in 2003. (One of the elements left out in the show is that West was generally deemed to have been a good and effective mayor, up to the point the storm hit.) In May 2005, the Spokesman-Review reported that West had been leading a double life, that he had been visiting gay chat rooms and – the paper said this was its main reason for the reportage – had used his position of mayor to further that social life. Somewhat separately, the paper’s reports also linked him to the sexual abuse of minors from years before, when he was a scout leader.

The stories, and they were ongoing for months, created a firestorm in Spokane, and led to a recall election which ousted the mayor. West died of cancer (for which he was being treated during the scandal months) earlier this year.

We followed the story as it unfolded, and read a substantial portion of the related materials the Spokesman posted on its web site – and it posted there not only the many stories in the case, but also many of the raw materials associated with them, including transcripts, tapes, documents and more. This extensive posting was not unusual behavoir for the Spokesman, by the way. Although much of its news content lies behind a pay wall, the paper prides itself on being unusually open in letting the public in on its editorial process and newsgathering. No other Northwest paper is nearly so open; we know of none elsewhere that entirely match it, and we’re big fans of it.

We’ll not here make a unilateral clearance of the Frontline program, but we will note that this was, after all, one episode of normal American television: It sought in less than an hour to explain a man’s life and a mass of reportage that ran to nearly a couple of hundred articles. It left a lot out; as we watched, we remarked on items not included. But then, had they been, the program could have gone on to several hours.

In the Spokesman’s News is a Conversation blog, Spokesman Editor Steve Smith (who was the key figure driving the coverage) had a number of comments today, pointing out errors of commission as well as omission.

I think their mistakes of commission (fact errors) and mistakes of omission were not malicious, in general, but driven by the demands of their narrative and their medium.

But the overall effect, I think, was to seriously dilute the depth, breadth and detail of our reporting and to place far more importance than facts warranted on West’s gayness as the cause of his fall.

Frontline got its Shakespearean tragedy – no one can dispute that Jim West was a tortured man. But I don’t think they got to the truth of the story. And I don’t think they ever understood Spokane.

Here are a couple of the fact errors spotted in an initial, cursory viewing:

• Frontline said that Robert Galliher’s first mention of abuse by West was in a 2005 interview. Incorrect. As we reported, he wrote about the abuse in a 2004 jailhouse letter to a psychiatrist who provided a copy of the letter to the newspaper. It’s posted online.
• Frontline says Galliher could not explain why he failed to report West sooner. Wrong. As we reported Galliher said he feared for his safety, accused West of orchestrating a jailhouse beating and had tried to avoid pointing a finger at a powerful politician with close ties to police.
• The source who first told Morlin he met West online and had sex with him was barely 18 and just out of high school at the time they first began chatting online and had just turned 19 at the time of their “date.” Frontline said he was 20. That is not an inconsiderable mistake given the nature of our reporting.
• The Motorbrock deception lasted less than three months, not the six months described by Frontline.
• West, not Motobrock, turned the online chats to sex.
• West, not Motobrock, raised the prospect of a job/internship at City Hall.
• West, not Motobrock, asked for the personal meeting in April 2005.

The Frontline story suggested the newspaper dropped its investigation of West’s past history of abuse after initial reports. That is not true.

More broadly, Smith wrote, “I thought the show captured a couple of legitimate sentiments; the sense of betrayal felt by Spokane’s gay community and the rage of ordinary Spokane citizens appalled by the mayor’s behavior, but not concerned about his sexuality. That is where Frontline badly missed the point. The producers claimed they came to town to use West as a beginning point for a discussion of the cultural divide in America, of the difficulty of being gay in a small city. They were so focused on the gay issue they forgot that West’s behavior, considered in either a gay or straight context, was simply repellent to citizens who expected a higher standard from the city’s chief executive. As Frontline producers knew, we often talked about the West story as if he had been seeking sex with 18-year-old high school girls, asking ourselves if we would make different decisions or pursue the story in a different way. Frontline viewers should ask themselves the same question and decide if sexuality was the issue or rep[e]llent conduct.”

That last point – would there still be a story if the sexual orientation had been reversed? – in a useful test, and in our view the stories pass it. We’d agree that Frontline was remiss, as it considered what to include or exclude in its report, not to take that point into account.

But it did have to pick and choose, and if it “got its Shakespearean tragedy,” well, that’s sometimes what reporters and editors do. One online critic today needled Smith, “Wow. Just wow. The immense hypocrisy of your take on the Frontline story and the total absence of self-awareness is staggering to read. Have you ever shown the subject of a story the copy in advance? Have you ever molded a story so that it would be more dramatic? As ‘head honcho’ have you ever taken a reporter’s copy and re-directed the focus?”

And the one bit in the Frontline program which really did reflect sourly on the Spokesman was not a fact or narration but a snip of video shot the night West lost his recall election, when Smith and others in the newsroom joked about possible headlines. (If you didn’t see the program, you can probably imagine what the “headlines” were.) Yes, it’s what happens in newsrooms, but in the somewhat tragic context it played like an outtake from Borat.

None of that really seemed to justify what looked like a deluge of negative comments on the Spokesman web site today. (Many were essentially just simplistic defenses of West; many came from outside the Spokesman‘s readership area.)

This whole case had its gray areas. We do think the Spokesman’s coverage and approach was justified, on balance. We can reach that conclusion, and sustain it in the wake of the Frontline piece, with some comfort because the Spokesman has been so open with its investigation.

Which is why we were a little taken aback by this comment on the main Spokesman blog:

An unintended consequence of the initiative is that every decision we make, no matter how routine or small, suddenly is exposed to national scrutiny occasionally generating jarring, off-point, crazy or even damaging responses.

We understand that the Transparent Newsroom isn’t about polishing our newsroom’s or national reputation. It’s about building credibility with our audience, here in Spokane and environs. But no one likes to be criticized in the personal way that Internet discourse encourages and some folks here are beginning to wonder.

If we open our doors to everyone and what we get in return is Tuesday ngiht’s Frontline, how can that possibly help.

We’d suggest that not only would the Tuesday program have reflected much more harshly on the Spokesman, but readers interested afterwards in sorting out the truth for themselves would not have had the many articles and raw materials to help in sifting the facts.

These comments – admitted not from residents of (though frequent visitors to) the Inland Empire, in suggestion that in these Internet days, there’s no longer anymore such thing as a local newspaper. As not only Spokane but the whole country found out once again, Tuesday night.

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This probably makes Washington Senator Patty Murray the most powerful member of the Northwest delegation in the next term: She has been named secretary of the Democratic Conference [that is, of the caucus], the fourth-ranking person in Democratic leadership. Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement was that “As Secretary of the Conference , Senator Murray will play a critical role in helping shape and set the Democratic agenda.”

Murray with leadership
Patty Murray, second from right; Majority Leader Harry Reid on her right

In the last decade, Idaho Senator Larry Craig chaired that caucus’ policy committee on the Republican side; that would be the last time someone from the region rose to a similar level in Senate leadership.

The appointment gives Murray considerable clout in the Senate. It also links her tightly to however well the Senate, and the Congress, do in the next few years.

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You know it’s a new century when the Rolling Stones play Boise – no, wait, excuse us, Nampa – as they do tonight.

You know it’s an even newer century when you get to follow the report on the concert by blog – and newer yet when the blog to watch will be that of: Dennis Mansfield.

The social conservative, Republican candidate and church activist will be there and will be blogging. From a Mansfield e-mail recently received: “Yes it is true. I will be blogging the Rolling Stones Concert in Boise tomorrow night (11/14/06), as it unfolds. Though, not on the stage (something about my yodeling style not meeting certain standards…) I will be in the seats way high up near where the air may not be too clear….hmmmm.

“Why blog it? Because, as my website, www.DennisMansfield.com says: Business and Culture do Matter. Visit the site now for some pre-game warm up notes….and add your own. Visit the site tomorrow as the concert begins in the evening, around 6 pm or so MST. Have fun, make comments, join in the event…if only by blogging.”

We’re not able to make the concert, but we’ll definitely be reading the blog. (Though you might take with a wink and nod the case there that the Stones are “conservative.”)

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Once an election is past, the next cycle begins – yes, even if it’s a four-year cycle, as in the case of such offices as governor. And Republican blogger Ted Piccolo (I Am Coyote) is throwing in an intriguing prospect for the next-up.

Greg Walden
Greg Walden

As the field developed for the Oregon governor’s race in 2006, one of the Republican prospects who opted away was U.S. Representative Greg Walden, whose constituent turf includes the Medford area and everything in Oregon east of the Cascades. Walden is popular enough in his own district that, if he does what he’s done up to now, he presumably could keep the seat as long as he wants it. (His re-elect precentages range from the high 60s to the low 70s.) He’s shown signs of interest in other things, though, and a some time early this year he didn’t seem to discourage talk of a run for governor, even after the Republican field was filling with other contenders. (He even joked about it, with a semi-serious edge, at last winter’s Dorchester conference, where he moderated the debate of the three Republican gubernatorial candidates.)

And there’s a new inducement since then: Life in the minority in the U.S. House, which has to be a downer to the many Republicans there who have only known life in the majority.

Piccolo mentions that a lunch meeting was held some weeks back to move toward a Walden run. Now, he writes, “Here is what I think will happen. I think Congressman Walden will make this his last term in Congress. I think he steps down to allow someone (Sen. Jason Atkinson? Ted Ferrioli?) else to run for his seat. He works to help a Republican win the 2008 Sec. State seat. He then spends two years campaigning. If this is the case then one would have to consider Congressman Walden as one of, if not THE, frontrunner for 2010.”

Of course (as Piccolo notes) four years is a long time off, which cuts both ways. The political atmosphere today would not be favorable for a Walden statewide run, but who knows where we’ll be in 2010? As the smarter Democrats demonstrated this year, you only get to take advantage of opportunities that do arise if you’re prepared for them.

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Iif you did an Oregon politics version of the celeb mag standby “the most fascinating people of the year,” Ben Westlund would have to be right up there. He probably was more charismatic than anyone else who ran for governor this year, but more than that he is trying to do something new: Found a new political movement.

Ben Westlund
Ben Westlund

His departure last winter from the state Republican Party seemed part of the machinery of his gubernatorial bid, announced around the same time. But the governor’s race is long gone, abandoned last summer, as is his neutrality in it: He wound up endorsing Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski, which should win him some points with the second-term executive in the months and years ahead. (That could and probably will manifest in ways other than an appointment of Westlund to something or other, which the senator indicates he wouldn’t want anyway.)

Equally, it likely will not with the members of his old Republican caucus. As the Bend Bulletin remarked today in a profile of Westlund’s prospects, “When Westlund launched his independent campaign for governor, Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said Westlund would be invited back into the Republican caucus if the campaign didn’t pan out. At least for now, it appears the welcome mat is no longer out.”

All of which matters now because Westlund will have to go back to work in the Senate, a Senate dominated not by independents like himself – though those ranks have been added to the addition of former Democratic Senator Avel Gordly of Portland – but by Democrats and Republicans. And he is now headed into the last half of his Senate term: In 2008, if he wants to remain in the Senate, he will have to run for re-election, in a heavily Republican district, presumably as an independent.

How all of that will go over will likely depend on what Westlund does next.

He will have to make up a lot of this as it goes along, since there’s almost no history for independents – actually serving in the Oregon or any Northwest legislature – to draw on.

Avel Gordly
Avel Gordly

He may find useful alliance with Gordly, with whom he shares some common ground on issues. They would make a great press conference pair, the one a former Republican, a white man, a rancher from an almost non-town east of the Cascades, the other a former Democrat, a black woman from the center of Portland whose background and key interests are in social services. Between them, they could serve as a kind of moral compass as the Democrats try to make good on their promise and desire for action, while Republicans try not to be rolled too badly and they and others try to keep Democrats from pushing too far too fast.

As a matter of purely practical politics, these two independents could be signposts best paid attention to. And their connections with, without reliance on, the new majority may give them added clout.

Or it could turn out that way. Could also be that exclusion from the caucuses renders them irrelevant.

Our guess for the moment, though, is that these two have clear potential to exert influence well beyond their two votes out of the floor’s 30.

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The larger areas of growth near Boise and Coeur d’Alene get most of the attention and remarks, but there are others of note. Today’s Twin Falls Times News has a good roundup of growth and development at that city – substantial, too, suggesting continued expansion of a city already growing plenty in the last decade.

A question, though: To what extent is Twin expanding at the expense of other Magic Valley towns (a number of which have lost people and businesses to the regional center) and to what extent does it mark an expansion of the region?

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Apart from one early count on Sound Politics (which has held up pretty well), there hasn’t been much rundown of exactly where Tuesday’s elections left the Washington legislature, other than that Democrats did really well and Republicans didn’t.

Here’s what we take away from the election results so far, recognizing that not all votes have been counted but also that, in most cases, at least enough have to nail down results. We see only two Washington legislative races still in realistic doubt.

Chamber 2004 Dem 2004 Rep 2006 Dem 2006 Rep 2006 undec
Senate 26 23 32 17 0
House 57 41* 64 32 2


*House numbers are thrown a bit by the Rodney Tom party shift.

About the two seats we single out . . . Both are currently held by Republicans who were running for re-election. Incumbent Republican Barbara Bailey in District 10, as of the end of last week, held a 172-vote advantage over Democrat Tim Knue; she’s favored for re-election, but this is still too close to definitely call unless (and this wasn’t clear) all votes are in. On the other hand, Republican incumbent Jim Dunn in District 17 is behind 144 votes, losing to Democrat Pat Campbell; but again, we’re not clear on what ballot remain out there. If one went Democratic, the House split would be 65-32 – a more than two-thirds margin, which could have significance in some House procedural or other actions.

For a good many years, most of the last decade at least, Washington’s statehouse could reasonably have been described as closely split (especially bearing in mind the case of Tim Sheldon in the Senate). That is no longer true: Democrats now hold the most decisive margins in both chambers that either party has enjoyed in a long time.

The Senate seats which appear to shift R to D:

District 6 – Chris Marr (D), defeating Republican incumbent Brad Benson, 56.2%.

District 26 – Derek Kilmer (D), a state representative defeating Jim Hines (R ) 60.4% for the seat vacated by retiring Senator Bob Oke (R).

District 44 – Steve Hobbs (D), defeating Republican incumbent Dave Schmidt, 54%.

District 45 – Eric Oemig (D), defeating Republican state Representative Toby Nixon, for the seat which had been held by Republican Bill Finkbeiner, 53.7%.

District 47 – Claudia Kauffman (D), defeating Mike Riley (R ) for the open seat which had been held by Stephen Johnson (who ran this year for the Supreme Court), 52.4%.

District 48 – Rodney Tom (D), a state representative who earlier this year switched party designation from Republican to Democratic, defeating incumbent Republican Senator Luke Esser, 54%.

You see the number pattern: The last four all are Seattle suburb districts, and 45, 47 and 48 all are on the east side of King County – the most hotly contested turf in the state. The congressional contest which centers on this area – the District 8 U.S. House contest – now seems like to go to incumbent Republican Dave Reichert. But only very narrowly, and then only with a push from the rural part of Pierce County which makes up its southern fifth. Eastern King is moving hard in the Democratic column, and these legislative results show that if he does survive this time Reichert should expect another challenge, just as hard, next time around.

The Democratic House wins were a little more scattered: One around Spokane, one in Kitsap county, a few in central or western King and Pierce counties. These too are transitional and marginal areas.

The most interesting of these may be the most remote from the others – District 6 in Spokane, which went from an all-Republican delegation to two Democrats and one Republican. That means that the three local Spokane area districts (3, 4 and 6) now have five Democrats to four Republicans – compared to six Republicans and three Democrats last term. Are we on the edge of redefining Spokane as we’re in the process of redefining Boise to its south? And the eastside of King County?

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ARepublican whose departure from elective office takes effect in January, and word of it comes out on election day. But for Washington state Senator Alex Deccio of Yakima, the reason isn’t politics – he’s in mid-term and wasn’t up for election this year. It’s health. He’s dealing with prostate cancer, and it needs his attention, and he so informed the appropriate officials (the lieutenant governor and his party’s leaders) on election day.

Alex Deccio
Alex Deccio

Doubtless his party’s leaders were sorry to see him go, but at least he will be replaced by another Republican, in contrast to some other Republicans that day.

There’s a certain other irony here. Some legislators are generalists, and some specialists. While Deccio certainly looked after his district (the Yakima Herald-Republic story on his departure attached a picture of him at the Yakima SunDome, development of which he played a key role), his legislative specialty was health.

Deccio looked at it broadly. You might not expect a Yakima Republican to lead work on AIDS-related legislation in the country, but he did. He did that work while never becoming an outlier in his party’s caucus, a notable achievement. (He did also, it should be noted, take some anti-stem cell research stances as well.)

Democrats looking to work on health issues next session at Olympia may want to review his record; some useful pointers may be found there.

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