By JEFF JOHNSON
OLYMPIA (Feb. 8, 2016) — Everyone knows that if you have the votes, you can exercise power. Of course, how power is exercised, makes a difference.
On Friday, Republicans who hold a narrow majority in the Senate embarrassed the Legislature and harmed the state with a crass political attack on Governor Jay Inslee and Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. They did this by not confirming — read: immediately firing — Peterson after three years on the job.
Secretary Peterson, a nationally recognized transportation leader, has been praised for her leadership in directing the expedited bridge replacement over the Skagit River. Last year, she was entrusted with leading on a $16 billion transportation package. And last June, she was unanimously recommended by the Republican-led Senate Transportation Committee for confirmation to her position, which had been inexplicably delayed.
But on Friday, in an election year for the governor, she was condemned by anecdote on the Senate floor. She was personally blamed for problems she inherited, like cost overruns on the Highway 520 bridge replacement and the Bertha machine breakdown that has caused a two-year delay on the Highway 99 tunnel. According to The Seattle Times, frustration over new Interstate 405 express-toll lanes presented a political opportunity to blame Peterson and the governor:
“Some powerful swing-district lawmakers, notably Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond) turned against a toll concept that both parties, including both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, have supported. I-405 became a way to turn widespread traffic frustrations against Inslee, a Democrat.”
So Senate Republicans executed a plan to take the chamber by surprise Friday. They used a rare procedural move to bring her confirmation out of their own Transportation Committee, which had unanimously approved Peterson. They had held up her confirmation for three years and now they would use it to fire her. They gave no notice to their colleagues across the aisle or in the House, to the governor’s office, and certainly not to Secretary Peterson herself, who was denied the opportunity to defend herself against an organized political character assassination.
Senate Republicans publicly condemned Secretary Peterson with a barrage of unsubstantiated criticisms about her qualifications, while simultaneously engaging in good-old-boy sexist remarks about what a “lovely lady” she is. Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) even went to the Senate press table with a letter from a constituent group expressing concern about DOT policies on contracting with minority-owned small businesses. As he walked away, Schoesler said, “She’s racist.”
Stunned Senate Democrats repeatedly attempted to table or postpone the decision, just for two weeks, to allow Secretary Peterson to respond to the criticisms. But these reasonable efforts to restore some decorum and fairness to the proceedings were summarily rejected on party-line votes.
This is what bullies do. They don’t recognize things like fairness or justice. They simply act with the arrogance that they are right, all of the time. To allow Secretary Peterson time to defend herself and the hardworking public servants at the DOT would, of course, challenge their perception of correctness and expose them for the disingenuousness of their political attack.
The Republican action to immediately discharge Secretary Peterson from her position touches on a wound that still festers among American workers who have repeatedly suffered the swift and certain decisions of hedge-fund managers who have shut down factories and pink-slipped workers with no notice. This level of disrespect for workers, no matter their position or the perceived grievance against them, is simply shameful.
Tim Shelton, the Potlatch senator who runs for election as a Democrat but caucuses and votes as a Republican, waxed about making swift and certain decisions as he joined the GOP in Friday’s surprise attack. What he didn’t say is that those same decisions can be made with a degree of humanity and respect.
Secretary Peterson should be on the job this morning, leading our hardworking state employees in the important work they do to keep transportation system working as well as it can given the resources it is provided. Instead, this critical agency has lost its leader and an urgent search will commence for someone willing to take on that critical task knowing that their position will be precarious and subject to this kind of cynical D.C.-style partisan politics.
It is a setback to everyone trying to solve problems at the state DOT. It is a setback for financing of the $16 billion transportation package as we seek favorable terms for bond sales from lenders who are left to wonder if this is how our state does business. And it is a setback for the institution of the Legislature, as good governance and responsible oversight was set aside for a shameful election-year stunt.
Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 600 local unions and approximately 450,000 rank-and-file union members.
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