New-look Republicans gear up for '04 session and beyond

DAVID AMMONS The Olympian Online

•Election 2004


Olympia, WA - Hungry House Republicans have installed new leaders, and their Senate brethren might follow suit, as the caucuses gear up for an aggressive 2004 legislative session in a run-up to the do-or-die elections.

The musical chairs could provide a high-visibility post for Sen. Dino Rossi, who is pondering a party draft to run for governor on the Republican ticket.

The House leadership shuffle was occasioned by the pending departure of the caucus' first female leader, Cathy McMorris, to run for Congress in Eastern Washington. The Senate GOP, too, could well have big changes caused by an election -- Majority Leader Jim West is favored to become Spokane's next mayor in a few weeks and would resign from the Legislature.

"We're energized -- absolutely," enthuses Senate GOP Caucus Chairwoman Pat Hale of the Tri-Cities.

It's unusual to see midterm turnover of a party's leadership teams in both chambers -- and it had nothing to do with dissatisfaction or failure of the old team. Indeed, West is credited with masterminding the Senate Republicans' best session in years, and McMorris and her cohorts got high marks for making the most out of being in the minority.

With an assist from Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, legislative Republicans rammed through a no-new-taxes state budget and managed to pass much of the pent-up business agenda, stiff-arming organized labor and running over top of the Democrats.

Their entree was a perceived need to improve the business climate so that Boeing wouldn't build its next-generation jet, the 7E7 Dreamliner, in another state.

The new leaders say they won't rest on those laurels but rather will run an aggressive agenda.

"We're here to solve problems," says the new House GOP leader, Richard DeBolt of Chehalis.

Democrats hope the Republicans won't get carried away and will work collaboratively, says House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

"Obviously, politics will be played out, but if it turns into general warfare just because it's an election year, it would be a big mistake for all of us," she says.


House Republicans have their third leader in as many years. DeBolt, a high-octane, often-quoted spokesman for his party, rose to the top spot at age 37 after McMorris decided to step down as party leader to concentrate on her congressional bid.

DeBolt previously was her top lieutenant, and they worked as an Eastside-Westside team. In keeping with that trans-Cascades approach, DeBolt's successor as deputy leader is Bruce Chandler, 51, an orchardist from Granger in the Yakima Valley.

The caucus will work on economic, rather than social, issues.

"It's all about jobs," says DeBolt, former head of the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce and now community relations manager for the Canada-based energy company Trans Alta. "We have to put Washingtonians back to work. We have to make Washington more competitive, not just for big business, but for all our companies."

Republicans will be aggressive in dealing with health care availability and cost and malpractice, as well as regulatory issues, he says. Education legislation and renewal of high-tech-business tax breaks also are on the agenda.

Chandler says the new GOP team will try to build on the successes of the 2003 session, but concedes that the 2004 gathering, limited to 60 days, will provide little time to show results.

Senate shakeup

Senate Republicans might have a new look, too.

Presuming West wins his mayoral bid in Spokane and his floor leader, Larry Sheahan, gives up his leadership post to run for Congress, the hand could be shuffled like this:

-Dino Rossi, Sammamish, now the budget chairman, would ascend to majority leader, the No. 1 caucus post in the Senate.

-The budget committee would go to Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield. He's now construction budget chairman and vice chairman of the GOP caucus. His star is on the rise again after weathering a blowback from news that he drew unemployment checks while serving in the Senate with its $30,000-plus salary.

-Deputy majority leader Bill Finkbeiner of Kirkland would take over Sheahan's high-visibility post of floor leader.

-The two highest-ranking women, President Pro Tempore Shirley Winsley of Fircrest and caucus Chairwoman Hale, would stay in their posts. Other slots, such as the posts vacated by Zarelli and Finkbeiner, would need to be filled. Caucus insiders say Jim Honeyford, the whip, could move up, and his deputy, Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla, is considered a rising star.

This line of succession, of course, depends on Rossi staying in the Senate for another year. The rumor making the rounds last week was that if Rossi decides to run for governor, as he's believed to be leaning toward, he would leave the Senate.

Friends say he doesn't intend to resign. Rossi won't flat-out say but sounds like he's staying, whether he runs for governor or not. Hale says the majority leader post apparently is Rossi's for the asking.

Rossi already talks about Zarelli as his budget successor and clearly has thought about the upcoming session.

"Front and center, we're going to look at everything through the prism of whether we're moving the economy forward or backwards," he says.

Next stop: ballot box

Republicans control the Senate by a lone seat, 25-24. Half of the seats are up -- 13 held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats, with most incumbents heavily favored for re-election.

In the House, Democrats have a 52-46 edge -- two seats more than the bare majority. All 98 seats are on the ballot next fall.

Both parties, of course, are spouting optimism.

Odds and ends

-Senate candidate George Nethercutt's unfortunate choice of words about Iraq -- seeming to make light of soldiers' deaths while reprimanding the media for underreporting reconstruction glories -- beamed around the world quickly. Demos seized on it. Matt Drudge put it on his Web site. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote dryly, "Nethercutt puts the casual back in casualty."

No backtracking by Nethercutt so far, but he did schedule a patriotic event in Tacoma, to present more than 30 veterans with medals recognizing their service during the Normandy invasion in World War II.

-Sen. Patty Murray, the Democrat Nethercutt is challenging, meanwhile, is unhappy with a vow by the Senate Republican campaign chairman to make Washington their "2004 Georgia."

Murray's office helpfully reminds that the GOP "questioned the patriotism of U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a bona fide war hero who lost three limbs serving his country in Vietnam, and compared him to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein."

-Hate to fly? Gov. Gary Locke can relate. He says his China trade mission included 15-hour crossings and umpteen time-zone crossings, not to mention 16-hour days. "Grueling," he said at week's end.

-U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn signs on as President Bush's state chair, and appoints Commerce Department official Pierce Scranton as her new congressional chief of staff. Dunn's Bush-Cheney co-chairs are U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of the Tri-Cities and former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay of Seattle, where Bush is expected to win about three votes.

-Tim Eyman, the initiative guru who drives liberals nuts, is chosen "Best Activist/Hell-raiser" by readers of Seattle Weekly. "Does this prove he's not a horse's ass?" the newspaper wonders.

-State GOP Chairman Chris Vance, described by the Seattle Times as trying to steer the party beyond the grip of the Religious Right, is blasted by a fellow Republican, Senate candidate Reed Davis.

"Chris Vance apparently wants to be known as the biggest religious bigot in Washington state," he wrote reporters last week. "All I can conclude is that the big tent Vance keeps hoping to build is open to everyone but people of faith."

Vance pleads innocent, saying he's not reading a single person out of the party -- but is trying to lead the GOP in pragmatic, winning ways.

David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered the statehouse since 1971. He may be reached at P.O. Box 607, Olympia, WA, 98507, or at


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