Callaghan: Bipartisanship alive and well in Washington Legislature

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

The increasingly rare “old-timers” often lament the decline of bipartisanship. In the old days, Republicans and Democrats worked together, they say. Compromise hadn’t yet become a dirty word.

I have no reason to doubt the recollections of such old-timers, especially because I am one. But it isn’t hard to find examples of lawmakers from different backgrounds, with different political beliefs, finding common cause.

Alexis Krell of The News Tribune in Tacoma wrote about just such a circumstance over the weekend. A Democrat from the Seattle suburbs and a Republican from La Center first took opposite positions on a bill to open up some birth records to adults adopted as children. After discovering that each had personal experiences with the issue -- Democrat Tina Orwall as an adoptee, Republican Ann Rivers as a birth mother -- they began working on a compromise.

They also became friends.

We’ve become conditioned to think of such things as rarities, but there are other instances when politicians gradually realized that the other party isn’t always the enemy, that the lawmakers from the other side aren’t caricatures (though many are characters). Sen. Joe Zarelli is a Republican from Ridgefield. While he was first known as a social conservative, he soon discovered an aptitude for the complexities of state budgeting. Sen. Ed Murray is a Democrat from Seattle who, after rising to become House Transportation Committee chairman, turned his attention to the general budget. From a distance, these might be the last two legislators you’d want in the same room with the assignment of finding a balanced budget in the midst of the Great Recession. But they’ve been working together long enough now that their diverse biographies hardly get a mention.

Other examples

Democratic Sen. Derek Kilmer from Gig Harbor and Republican Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee are still trying to forge long-term fixes to the way the state borrows money for construction projects.

Tacoma Democrat Debbie Regala and Lakewood Republican Mike Carrell may come from neighboring districts but are miles apart in politics and temperament. Still, in 2007, they wrote reforms to the way the state supervises felons after their release.

On many issues involving corrections and social services, Hoquiam’s Democratic Sen. Jim Hargrove and Lake Stevens’ Republican Sen. Val Stevens figure out compromises.

Going back a few years, one of the Legislature’s first and most prominent social conservatives, Ellen Craswell, found a way to work with former state schools Superintendent Judith Billings on education matters. Billings, an abortion-rights advocate, even lost the endorsement of the Washington State Women’s Political Caucus after she endorsed anti-abortion Craswell’s re-election.

And the state’s pioneering (and once again endangered) Basic Health Plan might have been crafted by Democrat Jim McDermott when he was in the state Senate but it wouldn’t have become law without the cooperation of Yakima Republican Sen. Alex Deccio.

I’m not sure why most of these examples come out of the Senate. Perhaps folks need to be around awhile before they realize the limits of always taking hard partisan positions. Or maybe four-year terms provide enough insulation from the next election that risks are more manageable.

Orwall and Rivers show it is possible, though, for even second-term and first-term House members to set aside partisanship to further mutual interests.

In the Venn diagrams of each set of lawmakers, there are usually places where the circles overlap. Discovering the intersections of interests is one of the benefits of forcing people of different backgrounds and politics to spend months at a time in close quarters.

Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also has a way of breeding understanding.