I wasn't allowed into the Phoenix ballroom at the Southcenter Doubletree on Saturday, January 27, for the annual state GOP meeting, but I could hear the results through the door: "Luke Esser, 71 votes. Diane Tebelius, 43 votes. We have a new chair." Raucous applause.
Indeed, former Eastside Republican state senator Luke Esser—he lost his reelection bid in November to former GOP state house member turned Democratic senator Rodney Tom—reemerged last weekend by ousting one-term GOP state chair Diane Tebelius in a rout. (Tebelius took over from Chris Vance last year and watched the Democrats advance to a devastating majority in the state legislature.)
At a time when the GOP is struggling to appeal to the mainstream—even its antitax message seems to have lost its magic—Esser, currently the outreach director for state attorney general Rob McKenna, may seem an odd choice. Esser, 45, is a stern antitax and social conservative. As a senator he voted against the nine-cent gas tax for roads—the same tax that was upheld by a huge majority when conservative balloteers forced it to a public vote. Similarly out of step, Esser voted against the gay civil rights bill (that repeal effort couldn't even get enough signatures to make the ballot); he voted against increased education funding, teacher pay raises, and smaller class sizes; and he supports pharmacists who believe they don't have to fill prescriptions they object to, like Plan B. Like national Democrats resorting to ideologue Howard Dean when they were feeling pushed around, the local GOP has taken the same tack by picking someone like Esser.
I got a chance to talk to Esser outside the Phoenix room after Saturday's vote and again a few days later after he'd taken the first step to make "an imprint," he said, by removing the GOP's current communications director, Carrie Shaw. Esser, who says his first move is to have a communications staffer working full time in Olympia to coordinate messages with the caucus, believes the GOP needs to do a better job getting its message out.
What's the message?
The GOP is for limited government and responsible spending.
Do you really think people don't know what the GOP is about and that your message doesn't get out? The fact that you think Gregoire's $30 billion budget is unsustainable was the front-page Seattle Times story the Sunday before the legislative session started. Could it actually be that your message has lost its appeal?
I think fiscal issues are strong issues for Republicans. But the big deficits in D.C. undercut the credibility of Republicans everywhere. The Republicans are the fiscally conservative party, and we need to reestablish that identity on the state level.
I don't think a lot of people understand that we were the minority party at the local level. If you're unhappy about the way things are going locally, people need to know who's in charge in the state of Washington.
Do you think people are unhappy that Governor Gregoire has increased spending on education and children's health care?
Those programs are priorities, but I don't want to measure our commitment to those issues by the amount of money we spend on them. I want to focus on outputs, graduation rates, and WASL scores.
Would you cut her spending on education and health care? Where would you cut the governor's budget?
One example, off hand, I would cut health care for illegal immigrants. It's not an appropriate government responsibility. Look, it feels good to spend on education, but there's a responsibility to not spend at an unsustainable level. Both Democrats and Republicans can fall prey to that, but Gregoire is setting us up for levels of spending that can't be sustained.
The governor's budget is the smallest state budget in 10 years as a percentage of our economy.
Democrats make that argument because they want us to spend more. But Democrats have to say, here's our plan on the revenue side. They want to make it through the next election cycle without having to explain that—to tell us where the money's going to come from in the long term.
Is Dino Rossi going to be the GOP candidate for governor?
I'm doing everything I can to encourage him to run. That is one of my highest priorities. He says he won't make up his mind until the end of the year.