This year, legislators in Olympia will grapple with a gamut of issues, large and small. Two of those are likely to be particularly thorny. One is funding the replacement of the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, a daunting mega-project that combines safety concerns, economic necessity, reflexive anti-Seattle sentiment, and a daunting multi-billion dollar price tag in one politically untidy mess. The other is a culture war-moral values issue: specifically, will Washington State finally ban discrimination based on sexual orientation? It is a touchy subject to begin with, but even more so this year, given the ongoing national backlash over gay marriage.

At the center of the political firestorm that threatens to engulf both issues is one man: Rep. Ed Murray of Capitol Hill. A veteran legislator currently entering his 10th session, Murray, himself gay, is Olympia's long-standing point man on gay rights. He is also the forceful, and sometimes volatile, chair of the House Transportation Committee.

Gay civil rights and viaduct funding are long-standing concerns for Murray. But in previous years, Murray has routinely come up short. The setbacks have been galling for man who describes himself, with some under- statement, as a "competitive person," and who is known for his forceful and prickly--some would add stubborn--personality. But with Democrats again in control of the levers of power in Olympia, this could finally be the Year of Ed.

That is no sure thing, however. The opportunities for advancing Murray's agenda have never been better, but the hurdles he faces remain daunting, and will serve as a test of his deal-making skills and his ability to work with those across the aisle. It could be a defining moment. Murray covets higher office-- in particular, Jim McDermott's seat in Congress-- but whether he realizes his ambition could well depend on whether he delivers this year.

Here, then, are the issues Murray is driving this session, and the roadblocks he is likely to face in reaching his intended destination:

Transportation: In recent years, Murray has emerged as the House Democratic Caucus' undisputed leader on transportation. That is a crucial role this year, as the issue of viaduct funding has come to the fore, with Seattle legislators making a concerted push to find funding for the $3 billion replacement cost for the elevated roadway (Seattle politicos would remain on the hook for the additional $1 billion required for their preferred tunnel option). Powerful House Budget Chair Helen Sommers (D-Seattle) says the viaduct is a top priority given the safety issues involved.

Finding the money won't be easy. It will require a significant boost in the gas tax, which legislators raised by a nickel only two years ago. Given the voter resistance to tax increases, that will necessitate bipartisan support--and it is far from clear if Republicans will sign on. Sen. Luke Esser (R-Bellevue), a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, says that Republicans may be willing to look at hiking the gas tax again, but not solely on Seattle's behalf.

"We are not going to raise the gas tax 30, 40, or 50 cents to meet the transportation needs of the Puget Sound region," Esser says. "The concern for some of us outside Seattle is that our friends in Seattle want to do the viaduct first and nothing else, and that then their appetite for other major highway projects might be gone."

Murray could face problems within his own party as well. Both House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) are inclined to favor a tax increase to close part of the state's $1.8 billion operating budget hole, and may not back a gas tax increase without first getting tax hikes to fund their own budget priorities. As Sen. Ken Jacobsen, vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee puts it, "Everyone is grabbing hostages in this fight. It's a classic pattern. If I don't get what I want, you don't get what you want."

Murray says he is aware of the challenges, but hopes a plan that funds projects around the state, including the viaduct, that are threatened by seismic activity could break the logjam. "There are 145 bridges with load restrictions," Murray says. "Those bridges are just as important to the small counties as the viaduct is to Seattle." He has no price tag yet, but says he is willing to proceed incrementally--even a 10-cent hike in the gas tax "seems like a lot to ask people to swallow."

Gay Civil Rights: For 28 consecutive years, legislators have torpedoed the idea of enshrining basic anti-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian citizens in Washington State law. Murray has led that fight for the last nine years; while his bill routinely passes the House, it has just as routinely died in the Senate. Even with Dems now narrowly in charge, the Senate remains a potential stumbling block. "It's not a done deal," Murray cautions. "Today, I don't have the votes. It's going to be a nail biter."

That assessment is echoed by Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), one of Olympia's most liberal legislators and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I think it's going to pass, but I do worry about it," he says. The risk of spillover from the gay marriage issue, which could make some Democratic legislators in swing districts leery of voting for a gay rights measure, is real. In order to more clearly differentiate the legislation from the marriage-rights battle, Murray has taken to calling the legislation an "anti-discrimination bill." Similarly, Rep. Dave Upthegrove, another gay suburban Democrat, refers to it as "job discrimination" legislation.

Still, Murray says he is cautiously optimistic. "I think we'll have the votes," he says, adding that some Republicans might eventually support the bill if it becomes apparent that it will pass. He says, "I need to have a lot of conversations, particularly with Republicans. I have to make sure they don't feel they're being jammed by this bill."

Whether Murray can sell his agenda in controversy-shy Olympia remains to be seen. "I find Olympia to be a place where, despite all the posturing, compromise does happen," Murray contends. But he makes no predictions: "I could come out of this session a winner, or I could come out with nothing."

sandeep@thestranger.com

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