GOP House minority leader calming the waters
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say House Republicans have been less combative since Rep. Dan Kristiansen took over as leader of the caucus in April. Not everyone thinks that’s a good thing.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — When Rep. Dan Kristiansen meets someone, he hopes they don’t ask about his job.
“Put ‘politician’ next to anyone’s name, and they might as well be carrying the plague,” he said.
The Snohomish Republican and House minority leader doesn’t care much for the politics of politics. He’s a conservative who isn’t afraid to work with Democrats — or at least consider what they have to say.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say House Republicans have been less combative since Kristiansen took over as leader of the caucus in April when Chehalis Rep. Richard DeBolt stepped down for medical reasons.
“I think the minority has this tendency to react to whatever the majority is doing,” Kristiansen said. “As I took over this role last April, what I wanted to do was help in leading the state, not just reacting to what the majority is doing.”
But some in the Republican Party say Kristiansen’s approach won’t help the GOP win a majority in the House.
Kristiansen, 51, says he’s just a regular guy with an odd job.
He went to college but never graduated. Instead, he started a small construction business his dad and two younger brothers still run today.
He grew up in North Seattle but moved to Monroe — part of the district he’s represented in the state House for 12 years — because he wanted to live where the houses were more than 10 feet apart.
That’s where he raised three children with his wife of 29 years, Janis.
He says he never wanted to be a politician. Before he took office in 2003, Kristiansen never declared a party. He grew up in a conservative family and usually voted Republican. He said he thought about politics but never as a job.
“Then I started to think ‘maybe I could have influence; maybe I have something to offer,’ ” he said.
With Kristiansen, the House Republican caucus has changed, state representatives from both parties say.
When DeBolt vacated his post, the caucus unanimously elected Kristiansen. He’d spent seven years as caucus chair, a top leadership position responsible for organizing party members in the chamber.
“I’m not one of those guys who will say, ‘This is how you’re going to vote,’ ” Kristiansen said. “I want you to be educated so you can go out there without the luxury of tunnel vision on your own issues.”
It’s an approach that seems to have carried over to his new role.
House Democrats say he’s more willing to negotiate.
When the state House and Senate Republicans struggled to finalize a budget last year, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said House Republicans were a “useful go-between.” He expects the caucus will be more open-minded under Kristiansen’s leadership.
“He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s going to show up just to vote ‘no,’ ” Hunter said.
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said Kristiansen is a gentleman.
“Their caucus is evolving, and their leadership has clearly made a decision to work hard to play a very relevant role in bridging some of the divides,” he said.
Bridging divides will be important this year, said DeBolt, the former minority leader.
Kristiansen “comes at things with a more collaborative approach,” he said, and that’s a good way to deal with the new structure of the Senate majority — an unusual bipartisan coalition with two Democrats and all 24 Senate Republicans.
Not everyone shares that sentiment.
Washington state has a long legacy of voting Democratic. Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature only four times since 1931 — the last time in 1982. Democrats have controlled 30 times in the same span.
Chris Vance, former chairman of the state Republican Party, said the caucus should push harder to win the majority. Republicans have regained eight House seats in the past two elections — rising to 43 out of 98 representatives — but Vance said the seats were “low-hanging fruit.” It will take a combative approach from now on, he said, to persuade voters to replace Democrats with Republican candidates.
“You win an election, you drive the ship,” Vance said. “You lose an election, you’re the opposition. There, you can oppose, vote ‘no’ and blame the other guy for everything that happens.”
Kristiansen doesn’t agree. He said that, while House Republicans are in the minority, they are still representing people in Washington who want results — which don’t come from stalemates.
“It’s the political thing that drives me crazy,” he said. “If you’re going to be effective for the citizens of this state, I don’t believe you can have tunnel vision on your own issues. Those issues are important, but if you’re too narrowly focused in this job, it can be to the detriment of the majority of folks in Washington.”
House Republicans are working hard to regain seats. Most of the state, geographically, is red but there are huge urban numbers who tend to vote Democratic, said Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda.
“We need to figure out ways to connect with those people,” he said, and most of those efforts happen outside the Legislature.
Vance said that opportunity has been missed so far. He criticized Kristiansen for speaking out against the state Supreme Court, which issued a court order in January telling the Legislature to do more to increase funding for public schools. Court justices said lawmakers weren’t moving fast enough to meet requirements of a 2012 ruling known as the McCleary decision, which said the Legislature was not meeting its constitutional duty to fund education.
Vance said House Republicans now have a chance to outflank Democrats on education.
“The Republicans should be thanking the court for highlighting the fact that Democrats haven’t been spending enough on education,” he said. “That’s one way the House Republicans are going to get through the door and get more votes outside rural areas.”
But Kristiansen doesn’t believe in backing something just for votes — he said they come with trust.
“The citizens of this state, regardless of party affiliation, have a lack of trust — they are fed up with the government and don’t want to be involved with complacency,” he said. “We’re falling down on the job by not trying to regain trust.”
Kristiansen said his goals haven’t changed with his new role. He wants to be solutions-oriented and work with whoever is at the table.
“I’m not saying I stick my finger in the poll winds to see how I’m going to vote, but I think you need to look at all of the issues.”
It’s important for him to reflect his district — which includes much of Snohomish and Skagit counties and some of King County.
“You have to be someone that really represents the values of your district; someone who can relate with them and have the resolve that people in your district have,” he said.
And when he’s done, he said, that’s it for his political career.
He said he thinks of his job as a relay race, and when it’s time for him to pass the baton, he’ll enjoy walking out the door.
Ashley Stewart: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ashannstew.