OLYMPIA — The state Senate on Friday rejected the gubernatorial appointment of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, ousting her from the job she has held since shortly after Gov. Jay Inslee took office in 2012.
The rare move was taken by the Senate as majority Republicans and a Democrat who caucuses with them voted 25-21 to not confirm her appointment. Some Democrats argued the act was a political ploy.
“I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish,” Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said after the vote. “This is like a political execution that’s made public here on the Senate floor, because, simply, it’s 2016 and it’s an election year.”
But Republicans cited problems with the state’s toll lanes, ferries and the Seattle tunnel as some of the problems that the agency has not adequately dealt with.
Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, specifically cited problems with billing with the state’s tolling passes as an example of a lack of accountability at the agency.
“This is a very, very serious decision,” he said. “But I have no confidence that the agency is in a position to fix the problems they have without a change at the top.”
Department of Transportation spokesman Lars Erickson said Peterson would not be commenting Friday about the decision.
Peterson, who came to Washington after working as a transportation adviser to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, has had a tenure filled with controversy over problems surrounding transportation projects like delays on the new 520 bridge and the ongoing troubles with the Seattle tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Inslee issued a written statement Friday night calling the vote “a politically-motivated attack.”
“Senate Republicans today took an action wholly unfitting of the expectations of the people of this state,” he said.
Democrats defended the transportation secretary on the floor, and made several motions to try and delay the vote, but failed.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, cited Peterson’s quick response following both the Oso landslide and the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge.
“She made sure that that bridge was rebuilt under budget and faster than any of us ever could have predicted,” he said. “It is shameful that this body would consider not confirming such an incredible and tireless champion for mobility and public safety in Washington state.”
Democrats repeatedly noted that several of the senators who voted to remove Peterson included those who voted unanimously in committee last summer to confirm her: Republican Sens. Curtis King, Joe Fain, Doug Ericksen, Steve Litzow, Mark Miloscia, Ann Rivers, and Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, who caucuses with Republicans.
Rivers explained her vote in committee last year as one of wanting to give Peterson “the benefit of the doubt.”
“As it turned out, she was unable to rise to that occasion,” she said after the floor vote.
The last rejection of a gubernatorial appointee was in 1998, when former U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld was removed from the state Fish and Wildlife Commission by a 26-22 vote in the Senate.
Tensions were high during the two-hour debate and continued beyond the vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, came to the press table after the vote to show reporters a letter that was sent by the state Civil Rights Coalition to the speaker of the House expressing concern that Department of Transportation policies as they relate to contracting with minority-owned small businesses were unfair.
Jaime Smith, the governor’s spokeswoman, was standing at the press table and challenged Schoesler on why no one had any indication of the Senate’s plans until moments before the vote started.
Schoesler ignored her and continued talking about the letter from the coalition that criticized Peterson, and he ended the conversation by saying “she’s racist,” as he walked away, causing vocal outrage from Democratic senators and governor’s staff who had gathered nearby.
“I think that right there says everything you need to know,” Smith said.
Erickson wrote in an email that the agency has long been working with the coalition about their concerns.
“Any suggestion that Secretary Peterson is ‘racist’ is absurd,” Erickson wrote.
Afterward, Schoesler said by phone that he “spoke things that I probably didn’t want to say.”
“I regret what I said in the heat of the scrum,” he said.
In his statement, Inslee said Schoesler’s comment was a “personal insult’ and “simply inexcusable and not worthy of his position as a leader in the Senate.”