This column is going to piss you off. You're not going to be mad at me, though. You're going to be pissed at the Democrats. You know, the party you just handed a 32—17 majority in the state senate and a crushing 26-seat (62—36) advantage in the house—where they picked up seven seats, mostly in the former Republican suburbs.
Democratic house leadership held a three-hour meeting on Sunday, November 19, at the Sea-Tac Doubletree Hotel to introduce the new representatives to the rest of the caucus. The mood, according to the representatives I talked to about the shindig, was celebratory... that is, until the party leadership addressed the group. "We were toasted on our big majority," says one Democratic state house representative, "and then told not to use it." That at least was the muttered reaction from a handful of the progressive representatives to the leadership's mandate to be "cautious," "restrained," "prudent," and "to work with the Republicans."
Indeed, Democratic leaders like Majority Leader Lynn Kessler (D-24, Jefferson and Clallam counties) told the group "no new taxes" and warded them off pushing an uppity liberal agenda.
For leadership, the 1992—94 term—when the Democratic majority in Olympia sparked a GOP backlash at the polls by raising taxes and pushing health-care reform—is an instructive reminder not to overreach. But house progressives—who pitched legislation last session, only to have leadership say, "Well, I support it, but we don't have the votes"— feel like they have a mandate to act now. This goes for things that Democratic leadership tabled last year like a bill which would have forced large companies like Wal-Mart, that skimp on employee health-care coverage (thus taxing the state's Medicaid bill), to pay into a health-care fund.
Mandate sounds accurate. Not only did voters pack the state house with Democrats this year, they overwhelmingly rejected two GOP agenda items—the estate-tax repeal and a "property-rights" initiative that would have pounded the environment. Additionally, voters passed an initiative from the left—a renewable-energy mandate for utilities. And last year, defying dire predictions of an antitax backlash, voters thoroughly rejected the gas-tax repeal.
Girls often accuse boys of being too dumb to know when girls are flirting with them. Well, I'd say the voters are flirting with the Democrats and the Democrats should take the hint and go for it. The Democratic agenda includes promoting smart growth and enacting strong environmental protections, more funding for public schools, scaling back corporate tax breaks, reassessing the drug war, accurate sex ed, ensuring women's access to birth control like Plan B, and yes, even gay marriage.
Would fighting for this agenda constitute "overreaching?" Well, certainly there is wisdom in playing to the center to avoid the risk of a backlash that would knock the Democrats out of power. But the point of having power is to use it. And with a Democratic governor and fat majorities in both houses, it's time for the Democrats to do just that. Voters, I believe, will be more likely to abandon Democrats for not getting stuff done, than for taking the hint and going for it.