The election of Laurie Jinkins to be the new leader of the House Democratic Caucus is a milestone in Washington State politics.
There are the obvious reasons, of course. She’s the first woman speaker. She’s the first out lesbian speaker. Much has been written about those elements.
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But, as much as Jinkins will be a new face and demographic cohort to hold the gavel, her election signals the House will be a somewhat different place compared to the period under now-former Speaker Frank Chopp.
Here are a few subtle things we might expect to change.
1. You might need to start counting votes again…
Having a bill fail unexpectedly on the floor of the House doesn’t happen very often – as in hardly ever.
That’s in part due to the iron hand that has guided the chamber in the form of Frank Chopp. Things were a little more of a challenge for him 12-15 years ago, with larger caucuses and a broader scope of opinion among his members.
But both during those times of larger caucuses, and more recently with narrower majorities, if a bill got out of Rules in the House, it was likely headed for final passage. If a bill got to the floor, you could bank on it happening.
That iron fist is not a quality that comes to mind with Jinkins.
So, the manner by which the chamber is run may start to shift a bit. It may start to appear a bit more like the Senate, where amendments and bills – and indeed majorities – might get changed unexpectedly on the floor.
Neither is a better or worse way to run a chamber. It’s a matter of culture, style, and what the caucus members will put up with.
But it means that advocates, lobbyists, and stakeholders may need to start to learn to count votes in the House in a way they haven’t really had to since the early 1990s.
2. Expect a more collegial approach to members from the Speaker’s office
Frank Chopp was known to keep things very close to the chest, even from his allies. One legislator conveyed to me recently that Chopp tried to keep this legislator “off balance,” in spite of being allies.
“I always feel like Frank is trying to push me one direction or another, mostly because I think he wants to read my reaction. But he hardly ever will tell you the side he’s on until he’s got things figured out and knows where the votes are in caucus.”
“I like Frank and I don’t think he gets enough credit for the amazing leadership he’s provided to the state. But, I won’t miss him trying to push me off balance.”
That isn’t how Jinkins operates. There isn’t any Machiavellian subterfuge with Jinkins’s politics, at least as far as I can tell in working with and getting to know her over the last decade.
She’s authentic and sincere. Like Chopp, Jinkins is passionate, dogged, and hard working. But her approach to leading her colleagues will likely be much more collaborative in nature and more congenial that it grew to be under Chopp.
3. We may see more ambitious legislation from the caucus under Jinkins than under Chopp
Jinkins’ Long Term Care Trust Act was a big, meaningful bill that passed this session. It was a multi-year project that was a central focus of Jinkins’ recent legislative energy.
It was also a “first-in-the-nation” kind of bill that has drawn perhaps more attention in other states than in our own. It’s kind of a big deal…
That legislation came out as a result of Jinkin’s sheer doggedness. But, it also came from her thoughtful approach to policy, to identifying problems, and working to put together solutions that were more than modest, incremental approaches.
Certainly, the Speaker’s job is different than a policy-focused legislator. And, certainly Chopp moved significant policy, too. His fingerprints have been on a range of bills that otherwise lacked his formal sponsorship in name.
At the end of the day, though, Chopp was fundamentally a conservative-by-nature liberal, that would not let his caucus stretch too far toward progressive goals until the time was right.
It may be under Jinkins we see a new style of leadership, one that stretches more. It’s likely to be a style that advocates more and builds public support more constructively (something Chopp seldom did). The result might be a slightly more ambitious policy agenda in both substance and timing.
4. Taken together, it’s possible we see the allied funders more aggressive in demands for policy changes
Legislative politics on the left is funded in significant part by just a handful of labor unions and organizations: public employees, fire fighters, service employees, nurses, teachers, machinists, building trades, trial attorneys, etc.
These are groups that inform the Democratic policy agenda in the state, and in turn, fund – to varying degrees – political action come campaign season.
Many of the political leaders of these entities have been in their positions for almost as long as Chopp served as leader. They are no pushovers. And, some of the pent up frustration many of them had with Frank Chopp won’t likely stay pent up with a new leader.
They will likely push harder in pursuit of their policy goals than they may have a few years ago. This is particularly true now that Democrats control the legislature again.
If House Democratic Caucus members are no longer controlled with an “iron fist,” so to speak, they may be more likely to take up the cause of various groups that would have otherwise been stymied under the previous leadership.
In other words, we may see more “bottom-up” legislating and policy making than the “top-down” approach that has characterized a portion of Chopp’s leadership style.
Bottom line: The changes we can expect to see in a Jinkins-led caucus versus a Chopp-led caucus are probably subtle. Nevertheless, they will make a meaningful difference in the operations of the House and the dynamics in the caucus.
For members of the House – and the Third House, in particular – today’s election is a milestone for more reasons than one.