This Washington

Olympia Outtake: Week 2, Unified Theory

Why the environmental community's top priority bill and labor's top priority bill are being sponsored by the same first-term Democrat.

By PubliCola January 24, 2014

Every Friday, I'm going to identify a startling moment from the week in Olympia—something that clarifies the legislative session story line, changes the debate, or captures a larger political trend in motion. (Last week's installment about the drift toward local governance, call it tactical localism, is here.)

For my money, Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-46, N. Seattle), the first-term legislator who is the prime sponsor on the high-profile bill to raise the state minimum wage to $12 (from $9.32) by 2017, was the big story this week. (Farrell says she supports $12 as a state floor, but thinks more expensive areas like Seattle should be able to raise the wage higher, and says she supports the city's effort to raise the city minimum to $15.)

Farrell isn't this week's star simply because raising the minimum wage is such a hot topic (and something Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee himself prioritized in his State of the State last week before Farrell and the house Democrats promptly rolled it out).

Nor is it that Farrell, announcing the bill at this week's press conference (totally worth watching in full here) was the most articulate speaker on the issue as anyone I've seen yet, including Service Employees International Union leaders (they've been heading up the cause for a year), bleeding-heart social justice Catholic Mayor Ed Murray (who's convened a Seattle task force on it), and even socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant (who can fire up low-wage workers themselves into CenturyLink Field highs).

"A day's work should really produce a living wage," Farrell said, deftly pointing out that low-wage employers are welfare addicts, relying on government assistance as part of their exploitative business models: "If you work full time at minimum wage in Washington state, you are still at the federal poverty level. That means you qualify for food stamps and other assistance ... And the goal here [is that] people should be able to pay their rent, pay for child care, pay for food, without government assistance. ... We know that certain fast food companies have on their website how to access government benefits because they know [workers] can't get a living wage on the wages they're currently being paid"—a reference to a McDonald's web site that advised employees to take advantage of government benefits.

The once-derided Democratic party of 1,000 special interests, has suddenly melded those interests into one coherent agenda.

So, yes, Farrell's as on point as Che Guevara.

But here's the news. Farrell, the former director of Transportation Choices Coalition and the newly minted vice chair of the house transportation committee, isn't seen as a class-war Democrat; she's well-established as a green transit champion who pushes nerdy smart environmental bills like last year's transit-oriented development legislation.

I don't think PubliCola, which certainly prioritizes Jane Jacobs over Jane Six-Pack, has ever written a more effusive candidate endorsement than when we picked Green Metropolis all-star Farrell over the rest of the crowded Democratic field in 2012: "An experienced transit wonk like Farrell ... will be invaluable in the fight to make sure dollars don't continue to be skewed backward toward the 20th Century's cancerous social engineering experiment in highways."  

But, and here's the significance in all this: Taking up the Democrats' (and labor's) biggest economic bill this session hasn't taken Farrell off the environmental beat at all. She's also the prime sponsor on the Environmental Priorities Coalition's top bill this session—Farrell's bill to regulate rail and tugboat oil transport (check out Fizz for a report on this week's hearing on her oil regs bill.)

It's a new Democratic Party, where the young rising stars of the party (Farrell is 40) seamlessly promote once disparate priorities as interconnected. (In a similar vein, you also hear the Democrats, fighting off the GOP's insistence that the education funding mandate is a green light to cut social programs, explaining that child care and food assistance for poor families are tied to education spending, helping kids show up at school ready to learn.)

Having one young Democrat, Farrell, as the lead on the two distinct Democratic priorites doesn't just ID an obvious rising star in the party, it symbolizes that the once-derided party of 1,000 special interests has melded those interests into one coherent agenda.

Sure, the minimum wage bill faces a rough future in the Republican-dominated senate, but—as evidenced by the GOP bill to take away local control to head off minimum wage increases—it highlights the fact that the Republicans are on the defensive against a coherent Democratic message.

"One of the things I helped do [as a government affairs staffer] at Pierce Transit when were making our cuts was making sure the agency was talking to vulnerable populations and communities of color and perserving as much transit as we could for those communities," Farrell says, explaining her holistic veiw of transit politics and 99-percenter politics, "and it was very controversial [because] suburbs lost a lot of service, but communities like Parkland and Lakewood were really able to retain that service because those are the people that really need it—that's how they get to work and appointments. And that's just one concrete example of how transit and economic justice tie in together."


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