OLYMPIA, Aug. 29.—Former state Auditor Brian Sonntag, the state Democratic Party’s top vote-getter in four out of five runs for statewide office, is no longer a Democrat, declares state Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz.
For those of you keeping score, that makes three prominent Democrats this year who have gotten the treatment from the movers and shakers at state Democratic headquarters in Seattle. Sonntag, who served 20 years as state auditor and an equal amount of time in Pierce County government, joins Democratic state senators Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom in the wilderness of official Dem disdain. Cracks Sheldon, “Pretty soon we’ll have enough for a poker game.”
The Democratic-Party disapproval might be natural in the case of Tom and Sheldon, who bolted from Democatic Party ranks in the state Senate this year to form a new Majority Coalition Caucus with the Republicans. But it is an odd thing indeed in the case of Sonntag. By the most reasonable of measures – the number of votes cast – Sonntag was the most popular Democrat in the state for years on end. Sonntag got more votes than any other Democrat on the Washington ballot in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. In his four-decade political career and now in private life, Sonntag enjoys a rep for independence, as an advocate for good-government measures who forged across-the-aisle alliances numerous times.
And that’s the big problem. In a series of rather blunt emails circulating among Democratic-party regulars, the state party chairman appears to be saying that Sonntag is no longer welcome at the annual crab feed. In one widely circulated message addressed to Sonntag, Pelz declares, “The lone act of integrity available to you is to simply pay your dues to the Republican Party.”
Sonntag, stung, says, “My offense was being his party’s top vote-getter, I guess.”
Works for the Koch Brothers
Last month Sonntag joined with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, as its “senior fellow” for government accountability. At long last, Washington’s favorite Democrat has finally gone too far, Pelz says in his email of excommunication. When you consider all the other acts of apostasy Sonntag committed in public life, Pelz argues, it is finally time for a public shunning.
Pelz notes that the Freedom Foundation went to court to challenge the Washington Education Association’s ability to use member dues to promote Democratic campaigns. The battle lasted a decade, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and ultimately the Freedom Foundation won and the teachers’ union lost. Curiously, Sonntag had nothing whatever to do with that case. But former attorney general and Democratic governor Christine Gregoire decided the legal argument had merit and argued against the union at the appeals-court level. Apparently Gregoire remains a Democrat in good standing.
Other offenses include the fact that last year Sonntag chaired Democrats for Rob McKenna, a coalition of Democrats who favored the Republican candidate for governor over Democrat Jay Inslee. And in 2005, in a somewhat nuanced political argument, Sonntag’s office was the beneficiary of an initiative sponsored by Democratic bogeyman Tim Eyman, which ended years of legislative and political resistance to independent performance audits by the auditor’s office.
In his letter to Sonntag, Pelz appears to drag in every name that gives good Democrats the heebie-jeebies.
“Brian, if you are a fan of transparency, it is time to acknowledge that you are a moderate Republican now working for a far-right think tank,” Pelz writes. “As auditor you worked for Tim Eyman in attacking state and local government. Today you work for Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers – your new job is to bring Washington in line with Wisconsin and Texas and North Carolina as another state that adopts the ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] agenda.”
Not Joining in Conspiracies
Sonntag, now executive director of the Tacoma Rescue Mission, says he has always been a supporter of organized labor. Nothing will ever change that, even if he goes around the state making speeches in favor of government accountability and transparency at meetings organized by the Freedom Foundation — pretty much the same sort of thing he did in office. He points out that as auditor he was always a defender of prevailing wage laws that benefit labor and was quick to point out when local governments were in violation. And he says he never promoted an Eyman initiative, though he certainly agreed with the point made by I-900.
“It is absolutely unfair,” Sonntag says. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me or my advocacy for open government, but rather Dwight’s narrow view that if you ever support a Republican candidate like Rob McKenna for governor, or you ever hold an opinion or view different from the party platform, then you can’t be a Democrat in this state, no matter what. His definition of a Democrat is so narrow and so far removed from where most real people are that really he is out of touch.
“If I were as narrow as Dwight wanted me to be, I don’t think I would have been in a very good position to govern on behalf of all the citizens in the state.”
Sonntag says he has nothing to do with any anti-union position taken by the Freedom Foundation. Arguably the think tank does take a number of stands labor might find anathema, including support for making Washington a right-to-work state. But what counts to Sonntag is that the Freedom Foundation also has taken an aggressive position in legal battles for open public records. “These are the things that I am working with the Freedom Foundation on, working with local officials on making sure that government stays open and people have access. I am not working on whatever conspiratorial issues Dwight has with them.”
Strips Elder Statesman Title
It probably ought to be noted that no party official in this state can decide who gets to be a member of the club. In Washington state, political parties have no control over who runs for office, and anyone who wishes to declare him or herself a Democrat may do so. That certainly goes double in retirement – after stepping down last year, Sonntag now has no connection to the day-to-day battles of public life.
But what Pelz’ declaration does is to strip away the respect that generally is accorded a long-serving public official at the end of his career, by members of his own party and others in the public arena. Others in Democratic ranks are cheering for Pelz.
In another email, Joseph McGee of Professional and Technical Employees Local 17, says “Thank you, Dwight, for calling it what it is and telling it like it is. Mr. Sonntag is yet another glaring example of the huge and treacherous gap between actions and words. We who struggle daily to fight for the ever-more-endangered middle class have a much tougher job because of all of our so-called ‘friends’ who love to talk about how much they value organized labor and working people while actively supporting agenda and a party that are completely adverse to the interests of workers and unions. I am sure their hollow words help them sleep better at night, but coupled with their disingenuous and hypocritical actions, they do damage. So again, Dwight, thanks for not letting the soothing words go unchallenged by actual facts.”
A Rather Narrow Tent
Actual facts? Trent England of the Freedom Foundation says he can only wish the Koch Brothers were writing big checks. He says Sonntag has long been an ally on issues of government accountability and transparency, and there are many local-government officials who are excited by the opportunity to work with Sonntag. The funny thing is that the Freedom Foundation seems more open to divergent viewpoints than the Democratic Party, he says. “It is not our policy to impose an ideological litmus test on our staff because we don’t want to become as narrow and bitter as Dwight Pelz’ version of the state Democratic Party. It is kind of funny. Having Brian on our staff is no stretch because we have plenty of disagreements among ourselves at the Freedom Foundation. We are happy to celebrate diversity whenever we can.”
The Pelz attack says more about the state of the Democratic party than it does about Sonntag, Sheldon says. As far as leadership is concerned, he says there is no room for dissent. It might be a little easier for Sheldon to deal with it, after 20 years of disapproval from his fellow Dems. When Pelz read Sheldon out of the party earlier this year, Sheldon’s wife fired off an email telling Pelz to “put on his big-boy panties.”
Sheldon says, “Dwight is grasping again, breathing hard about non-issues. Brian is probably the premier state auditor we have ever had in this state. His reputation and character are unimpeachable. And I don’t think you could find an auditor or statewide official with more popularity and more integrity than Brian Sonntag. And to trash his name and assign motives to him without any proof or credibility, you again show how partisan you are, and I guess you are partisan because that is your job, to be the partisan attack dog for the weakened Democratic Party in this state.”
So now there are three. Tom, Sheldon and now Sonntag. “We’re the Three Amigos,” Sheldon says.