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Originally published March 5, 2013 at 4:36 PM | Page modified March 5, 2013 at 4:35 PM

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Legislature’s moderate House Democrats looking for traction

The last two years in Olympia have been defined by the rise of the political moderate, writes Jonathan Martin.

Times editorial columnist

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The middle of the road, as state Sen. Steve Hobbs says, is dangerous ground in politics. “You can get run over by the far right and the far left, and end up as roadkill,” he says.

It’s a nice rhetorical flourish, but the last two years in Olympia have been defined by the rise of the political moderate.

Last year, three Democratic members of the Senate’s middle-of-the-road “Roadkill Caucus” engineered a once-in-a-generation budget coup.

This year, fiscally conservative Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch took over from the start, famously joining the Republican minority to create a governing coalition.

All this furor in the Senate. Wither the Roadkill Caucus in the state House?

If there’s a similar revolt brewing in the House, it’s a very quiet one. In fact, it’s tough to even nail down a roster of House Roadkill Democrats, let alone an agenda. They do meet regularly, but there is no spokesperson for the cause.

Cue the crickets.

It’s too bad. Moderates can be the relief valve for ideas bottled up by a party’s core funders. That happened in 2011, when business-friendly moderate Democrats split with labor to allow lump-sum settlements for workers’ compensation claims.

That fight left scars, said Rep. Christopher Hurst, a self-described “Independent Democrat” from Enumclaw. The majority caucus had skidded to the left in 2010, as labor had helped Democrats weather the rise of the tea party.

That help, however, included the labor-funded DIME PAC, which targeted incumbent Democrats viewed as insufficiently friendly. “You know what it felt like? It felt like ethnic cleansing,” Hurst said.

The tone has softened this year, said Hurst. He repeated the word “respectful” over and over, praising Speaker Frank Chopp. Though he opposed Initiative 502, he seemed reasonably happy chairing a committee overseeing marijuana legalization.

Rep. Jeff Morris, a Mount Vernon Democrat who lost a bid for majority leader in 2010, agrees that the tone has shifted. “People are speaking freely in caucus, and not ostracized or punished. That’s different than it was two years ago.”

Smoothing the rough edges of a disparate majority seems a special talent of Chopp, now speaker or co-speaker for 14 years, the longest tenure in state history. Even state Republican party chair Kirby Wilbur admires Chopp’s managerial skill. “You might call him a boss or authoritarian, but he runs a smooth shop.”

“I don’t take anything for granted, in elections or day-to-day,” said Chopp, D-Seattle, taking a break from the House floor. But he shakes off any worries about disaffected moderates. “I’m not worried about it — we’ve spent a lot of time and effort learning from our members.”

Washington has a long history of Democrats from farmland or the suburbs mixing with urban progressives.

But a leadership vacuum opened with the death of Rep. Bill Grant of Walla Walla to cancer in 2009 and retirement of Hoquiam’s Lynn Kessler in 2010. Kirkland’s Deb Eddy, who galvanized moderates, retired last year.

By my count, there may be six or eight potential House Roadkill Democrats, depending on the issue, out of 55 Democrats in the 98-member House.

That is down from the Democrats’ near-supermajority margin of 63 in 2008. It could become thinner if Republicans finally purge social-issue fanaticism that has made their brand toxic to young urban voters.

But that hasn’t translated into an agenda this session. Asked what it is, Hurst, a garrulous ex-cop, said, “No one knows.”

Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, hopes such an agenda will move past labor-business conflicts and include proposals to help fisheries and logging.

He’s also interested in seeing the Senate budget — the first one written by Republicans since 2004. It could be prime time for moderates to throw around what weight they have and steer the Democratic House budget to the middle.

“I think good things could happen,” said Blake.

Jonathan Martin's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email jmartin@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @jmartin206


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