The only people who enjoyed the process to fill the legislative vacancy created by Roger Freeman’s passing might be chess players, or people old enough to remember the 1963 movie “Charade.” As in the movie, solving the riddle is more fun than the actual ending.
And the twists and turns in this local legislative political thriller rival the movie for false clues and misdirection.
It should have been easy. Freeman was a Democrat and the law requires the King County Council, which has a 5-4 democratic majority, to fill the position with another Democrat. Because a small part of the district is in Pierce County, the Pierce County Council — which has a 5-2 Republican majority — gets to vote on the appointment as well.
The end of the game would yield a Democratic appointment. The only questions were, who would it be and what could the Republicans get out of the process for themselves?
The 30th District Democrats nominated three well liked candidates on Dec. 1 in preferential order: Carol Gregory, a school board member; Richard Champion, a Democratic district officer; and Shari Song, who had just run for the state Senate.
If the two County Councils couldn’t agree on one candidate, then the appointment would be elevated to Gov. Jay Inslee to make the selection. Remember, legislators cannot raise money while the Legislature is in session and the session started Jan. 12. And with Democrats holding the state House by only a couple of votes, the sooner the person is appointed the better for the Democrats to begin. This seat will be the most valuable position on the ballot this fall and both sides will spend a lot of money to win it.
But the Republicans had their game plan set, and it appears that everything that happened after the Democrats announced their three finalists was choreographed by Pierce County Republicans to achieve the following goals.
Get front runner Gregory to agree to step down from the school board if she got the appointment to the Legislature. Since the Democrats have a 3-2 advantage on the school board, that would open the door for a Republican candidate. If Gregory agreed, and she then lost the legislative position, she would be out of public office altogether.
Gregory felt she had no choice and agreed to step down during her interview with the King County Council, if she was appointed. Secondly, the Republicans wanted to stretch the process out as long as possible so the Democrats and their candidate would have less time to raise money for the race. Lastly, they wanted to try and force the appointment to go to the governor. Not only did that buy more time, more importantly it would put the governor in the awkward position of making a choice that could divide the local party loyalties among the three candidates.
To achieve their goals, the Pierce County Republicans’ misdirection of the public’s attention was played out in the media for several weeks. They raised questions and disagreements with the King Country Council on whether or not the two Councils had to meet together or could meet separately, over the selection process, timing, competing legal opinions on when the position actually became vacant, constitutional questions, accusations of arrogance toward King County over meeting schedules and availability. In short, anything that would delay the process.
The King County Council finally went ahead and voted to appoint Gregory on Dec. 8. Although Freeman passed away a few days before the November election and the nominees were known by Dec. 1, the Pierce County Council didn’t schedule the candidates for interviews until late December. Even the theatrics of the meeting were more misdirection as the Pierce County members had places set for the King County Council members, even though they knew they would not be attending.
Since the King County Council had already nominated Gregory, Pierce County appeared poised to nominate either Song or Champion to ensure that the issue would go to the governor. However, they may have gotten caught up in their own misdirection over a constitutional argument they raised. They maintained that separate meetings of the two Councils for appointment purposes were unconstitutional, as a result it would be awkward to now nominate a candidate.
It didn’t really matter as their main goal was to stall and put the governor in a difficult political position. They still achieved their goal of delay, but didn’t box the governor in as tightly as if there had been two names. Inslee could still name any of the three but with Gregory as the top local choice, choosing another candidate might have proved unnecessarily problematic.
While all three candidates are capable, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Inslee undoubtedly figured out what the Republicans were up to and had already discussed who the governor would choose. Inslee, as expected, selected Gregory on Jan. 8 in time for the legislative session.
But since Gregory can’t raise any campaign money until after the session ends, which may not be until May, valuable time has been lost for fundraising to retain the seat in the November election. Republicans have been circulating potential candidate names for weeks and will have a four-to-five month head start on fundraising.
This may not be how you think an appointment to the state Legislature should be made, but it’s always about power and control. Who has it and who wants it and this is how the game gets played. Everybody got something.
In Gregory, the Democrats got a good candidate and the Republicans got what they wanted.
They undermined her candidacy by hampering her fundraising efforts and will get a chance at a vacant school board seat.
We’ll see how the charade ends next November.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: firstname.lastname@example.org.