Wednesday, January 16, 2013
OLYMPIA — A lot of things happened Monday in the Washington state Senate.
A coup d’etat was not one of them.
Despite the rhetoric from a member of the Senate Democratic caucus who used that term to describe what was happening, there wasn’t anything undemocratic about it.
What happened instead was the rather anticlimactic culmination of a deal cut weeks ago by 23 Republicans and two Democrats to reach a 25-vote majority in the Senate. Those 25 members can pass rules that give them the run of the joint. And if they can stay together, they can pass bills and budgets.
Even though they knew it was coming, the 23 Democrats outside the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus used a debate on the coalition’s rules to complain about the situation. One member called the bipartisan coalition a BINO (Bipartisan In Name Only).
And Seattle Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles called it a coup.
A wise person once advised that quoting from the dictionary is something that should be done sparingly. Still, it seems appropriate here. Webster’s defines coup d’etat as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics; especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.”
Kohl-Welles concluded that because the voters had decided that Democrats should control the Senate, along with the House and the governor’s office, any result that differs from that is a coup.
I suppose there are voters across the state who voted for a Democratic Senate candidate because they think Democrats should run the state. But there are also others who voted for the winning Democrat because they like him or her, they’ve known him for a long time or because the other candidate was a dolt.
These voters probably don’t much care who the chairperson of the Senate Ways and Means Committee is, or who the majority leader is. They will never give a thought to who gets the biggest office or which party chooses the secretary of the Senate or the body’s president pro tempore.
To say there is some magic to whatever party label is worn by a winner also forgets the fact that Washington has a top-two primary. Under the top-two system, candidates simply say which party they prefer. They are not nominated by their party, and any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary, regardless of their own party preference.
If political parties, political office holders and political constituency groups put their efforts into helping elect people from their party, they do so out of self-interest mostly. There is no binding contract that the candidates must always act, vote or think along party lines.
Once the winners all get to Olympia, they can decide which group they associate with.
Sure, we all expect that those who said they preferred the Democratic party would prefer to join up with the other Democrats. But we have now seen that that might not always happen.
One of the disappointed Democrats, Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, viewed the situation more calmly. Hargrove quoted an old political saying about how math dictates the action: “When you don’t have the votes, you talk; when you have the votes, you vote.”
The remaining Democrats talked, and then the Republicans-plus-two majority voted. And while Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray of Seattle feared that the creation of this coalition could disrupt the stability of the Senate, that outcome didn’t materialize Monday afternoon. They quickly returned to the joking and mutual congratulations that often mark Day One.
To be fair, Kohl-Welles used the term “coup,” and I assumed she meant coup d’etat. Perhaps, though, she meant “coup de grace.”
Webster’s defines that French phrase as “a deathblow or death shot administered to end the suffering of one mortally wounded.”
Or, less graphically, “a decisive finishing blow, act, or event.”