Rifts, not gifts: Habib, Republican senators at odds this holiday season

OLYMPIA — Stuck on what gifts to give Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib and Republican state senators this holiday season?

Consider one present they can unwrap together: an intervention.

Theirs has been a rough relationship since Habib, a Seattle Democrat, began wielding the gavel as lieutenant governor in 2017.

Habib is far more progressive in his politics than his Democratic predecessor Brad Owen. And he’s much less inhibited about voicing his views and using his position to advance them than the man he succeeded.

While at times the manner in which Habib exercises his authority stirs bipartisan discomfort, Republicans are the ones most likely to publicly react.

With each legislative session they’ve shown an increased aptitude for getting on each others’ nerves, manifested into clashes on the Senate floor in which the line between professional disagreement and personal disdain is barely perceptible.

Their battles have continued in the interim on the unsexy issue of appointments.

In May, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, wrote Habib to request he appoint Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, to represent the caucus on the Washington Horse Racing Commission. Each of the four caucuses of the Legislature gets one ex-officio member on that panel.

Schoesler asked twice more in June and two more times in early July, noting the commission wanted Fortunato and that Emerald Downs is in his district.

Habib had a different plan. He appointed a different GOP senator who resigned after becoming aware of what had transpired.

”It is my practice to afford weight to the recommendations of caucus leadership in deciding whom to appoint, but under the law the appointment power is vested in me as President of the Senate,” Habib wrote Schoesler on July 11. “Giving due consideration to your preference, I respectfully decline to appoint Senator Fortunato.”

Schoesler didn’t take kindly to the rejection. He’s served in the Legislature since the 1990s and lieutenant governors don’t act this way, he wrote back. He knew Habib has the power to appoint. He was perturbed that he chose to wield it rather than follow the longstanding custom of going with the choices of caucus leaders. The result is the seat is still empty.

Almost as soon as that episode ended, a new one began.

A bill enacted this year created a new bipartisan, bicameral task force looking at staffing levels and training needs for counselors in the state’s community and technical colleges. It says the president of the Senate will appoint two members to each of the Democratic and Republican caucuses.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, submitted names of Sens. Marko Liias of Lynnwood and Emily Randall of Bremerton and both were appointed.

Schoesler didn’t put forth names before the panel’s first meeting in November. Habib proceeded to appoint two members, which surprised them and angered Schoesler.

In a letter sent earlier this month, he unloaded on Habib for once again trampling on tradition.

“Your disregard for this practice is a direct threat (to) the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches,” he wrote. “It also is likely to further erode the congeniality for the chamber to function properly.”

Schoesler went further to assert Habib’s actions on the task force and commission appointments “overstepped the constitutional role of your office, which, as former Lt. Gov. Owen pointed out, is intended to be ministerial and not dictatorial.”

Habib has not replied to Schoesler. His spokesman responded to me, reiterating that Habib is carrying out powers entrusted to him in state law.

“Regarding the senator’s concern about tradition and protocol, it is worth noting that his office was invited, as always, to make recommendations for the committee in question, but in a highly unusual move has declined to do so,” emailed Matthew Mauer, the director of external affairs.

“Given the Lt. Governor’s statutory obligation to make this appointment, given that the task force itself contacted our office requesting the appointments, and given the importance of the work of the task force itself, the Lt. Governor made the appointment.”

It’s going to take quite a bit of gift wrapping to cover the chasm between these folks this holiday season.


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