This Washington

On the Road to Leadership and Accountability

By Aaron Ostrom September 22, 2010

Editor's Note: Forget the Tea Party. A few recent Cola posts have zoomed in on the other intramural squabble of Election 2010: Democrats vs. Democrats. Aaron Ostrom, Executive Director of local progressive group Fuse, took issue with our take on the D on D action and so, we asked him to write an editorial. He took us up on it.

What’s going on with progressive advocacy groups and labor unions? In a year when preventing a conservative landslide is a massive challenge, Washington’s leading progressive interests are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in fights between Democrats.

It’s been described as “Democrats eating their own.”

It isn’t.

Progressive advocacy groups and labor unions are finally getting serious about leadership and accountability. The painful truth of the last several years is that simply electing Democrats is not the key to progress.  The key to progress is electing forward-looking leaders—regardless of party—who will champion policies that strengthen our communities and promote opportunity, equality, and justice for everyone in Washington.

The most important ingredient in any legislative victory is always legislators who lead the charge and bring their peers with them. Whether it’s Ross Hunter (D-48) closing tax loopholes, Hans Dunshee (D-44) securing the healthy schools referendum, or Ed Murray (D-43) fighting for equality for gay and lesbian couples, every successful bill has a champion behind it.

On the other hand, Democrats like Jean Berkey (D-38)—a “champion” for Wall Street Banks, big insurance companies, and conservative business interests—have also been major obstacles to progress. Indeed, the legislators who killed predatory lending reforms, blocked efforts to limit global warming pollution, and protected tax loopholes for powerful corporations were all Democrats.

Which is not to say that a Democratic majority isn’t important.  The Republican Party is on the verge of becoming a right-wing freak show in our state.  Republicans are consistently nominating people like Hans Ziegler (R-25), who has called the Girl Scouts “a gathering of radical feminists, lesbians, and cookie peddlers” (and who is endorsed by Republican AG Rob McKenna). Putting Republicans in charge of the legislature would be a disaster for equality, opportunity and forward progress in Washington.

As the Republican party has moved from conservative to far right, Democratic majorities have become a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for progress. That’s why progressives are investing serious resources into defending moderate Democrats in swing districts. We are working to support legislators like Senators Eric Oemig (D-45), Claudia Kauffman (D-47), and Chris Marr (D-6) who aren’t always with us, but regularly stand up and fight for progress.

But a Democratic majority is not enough.  We also need more Democrats who are progressive leaders, especially from safe Democratic districts in places like Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma.

Effective champions are rare in the legislature. When there is an opportunity to elect a strong leader like Joe Fitzgibbon in the 34th, we have to jump on it, even if his opponent isn’t that conservative. In fact, if a progressive group is dedicated to a specific issue–like social justice or the environment—it often makes sense take sides even in a contest between progressive leaders.  No group can afford to pass up a chance to elect a real leader who shares their priorities.  Which explains why progressives are split in the Tacoma race between Laurie Jinkins and Jake Fey, two progressive leaders with different priorities.

Leadership and accountability are usually a package deal.  If you want people who will stand up for you, it’s hard to find success in backing legislators who almost never do— regardless of party. That’s why Democratic legislators like Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44) and Rep. Troy Kelly (D-28) aren’t finding much support from progressive stakeholders this year.

When we have an opportunity to replace a legislator who consistently blocks progress with someone who can be an effective progressive leader, it must be a top priority— regardless of party. That’s why so many groups invested significant resources into Nick Harper’s race against Jean Berkey.

Electing some moderate Republicans would definitely help the cause.  Republican leaders who can pull some votes from their caucus for a good cause on occasion are invaluable– and many progressive groups will support their re-election.  But they have generally been evicted from or left the party, unfortunately.

In the end, “what’s going on with progressive stakeholders this year” is pretty straightforward and hard to argue with.  We are doing the same thing any thoughtful voter does—looking behind the party label to the values and qualities of the person running for office, and taking a common sense approach to promoting leadership and accountability.


Aaron Ostrom is the Executive Director of Fuse Washington. Fuse is the largest network for progressive change in Washington, giving more than 100,000 people a stronger voice in government, online, on the ground, and on the issues that matter most. For more information, visit http://www.fusewashington.org.
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