In a stunning, surprise move this afternoon, the Republican controlled state senate voted against confirming sitting Washington State Department of Transportation secretary Lynn Peterson. Peterson was appointed by Governor Jay Inslee in 2013 and unanimously approved by the Republican-controlled transportation committee just last year. With no warning, the GOP decided to finally bring her confirmation directly to the floor this afternoon in order to reject it.
After state senator Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) gave an oddly and ominously emotional speech seconding her confirmation ("I'm hoping that people deep in their hearts and their inner humanity will vote to confirm Lynn Peterson"), Republican budget leader state senator Andy Hill (R-45, Kirkland) rose to kick off Peterson's beheading ("one-hour notice that she's lost her job" as state senator Marko Liias, D-21, Edmonds, described the "surprise Friday move.")
Hill said it was "nothing personal" but the senate needed to use its "blunt instrument" (its confirmation powers) to "impose accountability" on an agency that was responsible for imposing unpopular tolls on I-405. "I have no confidence that this agency is in any position to fix the problems it has," he said about an agency he accused of unfairly executing its tolling program. (For the record, the tolling program has improved travel times.)
Several Republicans, calling the move strictly "business," hit the same themes: Senator Don Benton (R-17, Vancouver) read from the state constitution, outlining the senate's role for "holding the governor accountable." Saying WSDOT ignored the legislature's rejection of the the Columbia River Crossing by continuing to spend money on planning work, Benton likened WSDOT's move to "a dictatorship" for ignoring "the will of the people."
Republican senator Michael Baumgartner (R-6, Spokane) said Peterson "wasn't capable" to do the job. He said while, yes, she inherited the "Bertha fiasco" and the tolling program, things "have gotten worse."
Senate Democrats gave an emotional defense for confirming Peterson saying Peterson worked in a bipartisan way to craft last year's $15 billion transportation package, along with "stepping up immediately" during the 2014 Oso mudslide and the 2013 Skagit river bridge collapse. "It would be shameful" not to confirm Peterson, senator Kevin Ranker (D-40, Orcas Island) said.
Democrats also noted how fishy it was that Peterson's confirmation "suddenly" came up in 2016—an election year—after Peterson was unanimously confirmed in committee last year with no further discussion. "Why wasn't any of this brought up last year?" senator Steve Conway (D-29, Tacoma) asked. State senator Karen Keiser (D-33, Kent) pointed out that no committee level hearings had been held to directly confront Peterson with the GOP's five-alarm concerns. State senator Annette Cleveland (D-49, Vancouver), a transportation committee member, protested that "Lynn Peterson was never given the opportunity to respond to any of these concerns in public."
State senator Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Ballard, Queen Anne), in fact, read testimony from last year's unanimous committee level confirmation, quoting Republican chair Curtis King (R-14, Yakima): "'I want to thank you for the job you have done over the past two and a half years and I can't say thank you enough.'"
Transportation committee member state senator Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds) proposed a couple of motions to save Peterson—first he simply tried table the confirmation for now. It failed along party lines. Next he tried to send the confirmation to the transportation committee to stall the "star chamber mentality" of the floor vote. That lost along party lines as well.
In another attempt to stall Peterson's imminent demise, state senator Christine Rolfes (D-23, Kitsap) tried to postpone the vote for two weeks. Senate minority leader state senator Sharon Nelson (D-34, West Seattle) used that opportunity to appeal to the GOP's business sensibilities by pointing out that Wall Street bond markets would freak out about the fact that the state confidently passed a $15 billion transportation package last year without any complaints about Peterson—and then suddenly "fired her." Rolfes's motion failed along party lines.
"If you feel WSDOT is doing a good job," state senator Doug Erickson (R-42, Ferndale) summed up, "you can vote to confirm her. If you think the department needs new leadership than you can vote that way too."
Good line. But Democrat Carlyle had a rejoinder that exposed some apparent GOP hypocrisy: "Every member of this body will go to a ribbon cutting in their district" to unveil one of the projects in the $15 billion bipartisan transportation package, "but the architect of it won't be there."
The final vote to fire Peterson was 25-21.
After the vote, Governor Inslee's spokesperson Jaime Smith issued the following statement:
Today’s vote by Senate Republicans is a blatant misuse of the confirmation process for political purposes. Republican’s actions today do nothing to engender confidence about their ability to focus on the important priorities facing legislators this session.
Less than one year ago, the Senate Republicans most familiar with Lynn’s work to bring much needed reforms to the state’s transportation system voted in favor of her confirmation. Senate Republicans then voted in favor of – and celebrated – the state’s largest transportation package that has since drawn praise from leaders all across the state. Yet today, after two unequivocal votes of confidence in Secretary Peterson and her ability to manage historic new transportation investments, Republicans are now saying they feel compelled to take the extraordinary step of voting against this eminently qualified woman’s confirmation. Local leaders around this state have praised the secretary’s work on emergencies including Skagit, Oso and the projects of importance to people in every corner of the state.
This about face by Republicans is shameful.
The house, which is controlled by the Democrats, has no say in gubernatorial appointments.