Joseph Zarelli’s track record in the Washington Legislature is basic: He was the Beethoven of bean-counters. While more combative lawmakers put on the full armor of partisan warfare and wandered off in angry pursuit of political dragons, Zarelli would quietly don his figurative green eyeshade, sharpen his pencil, burn the midnight oil and try to turn state budgets into classical concertos.That dedication more than thunderous oratory — strengthened his influence. Over 17 years in the state Senate, Zarelli’s fiscal intensity helped him become the GOP’s leading budget writer. So when the Ridgefield Republican announced on Friday that he would not run for re-election, legislative shock waves were felt across the state for the second time this month. (Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane announced May 3 that she would not run for re-election after 20 years in the Legislature).
Republicans will miss Zarelli’s calm demeanor, collaborative skills and innovative budget solutions. But his departure also leaves a void at the local level that will be difficult to fill. The 18th Legislative District (mostly north Clark County) will be hard-pressed to replace that level of clout, at least anytime soon. State Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, filed last week to run for Zarelli’s post and will be challenged by Democrat Ralph Schmidt of Camas in the Nov. 6 election. Folks in the 18th have come to know Zarelli as one of the few voices of reason in budget and spending matters in both the House and Senate. His voice will be missed, particularly in these financially turbulent times.
Zarelli leaves on top, politically speaking. No electoral challenger really came close. He won four Senate races, each by no fewer than 9 percentage points, twice by more than 14 percentage points. In political terms, those are landslides.
But his greater impact has been statewide, helping orchestrate the passage of two constitutional amendments that created and strengthened the state’s rainy-day fund. He also helped write major fiscal reforms. This year, Zarelli helped reduce the cost of public pensions, helped make health insurance for educators more efficient and was part of the effort to require the state budget to be balanced over four years rather than two.
Those accomplishments plus Zarelli’s age (50) lead us to believe his role as a public official is not over. Perhaps a new role will emerge in an appointed position; many winners of statewide offices on Nov. 6 could benefit from his fiscal expertise. “A lot of work is still needed to get the state’s finances under control, but I think we opened the door this year in a way that will bring more progress next year. I’m satisfied to leave with that,” Zarelli said Friday. He also said there is “no reason I’m leaving other than I think it’s a good time to leave.”
Clout-replacement tasks prevail for voters in all three legislative districts that serve Clark County. (The 14th serves a sliver in east county; the 20th a small piece of north county.) One open race (no incumbent) exists in each of the three districts, including two positions in the state Senate.
The Columbian urges voters to become informed on these crucial races. For today, our stronger message is one of praise to Joseph Zarelli for 17 years of admirable service. Anyone waiting for Zarelli’s first emotional outburst or hysterical tantrum will have to concede that cause as lost. Zarelli sets a strong example of how public service should never be mistranslated as public performance.