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Q&A: Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox discusses getting COVID-19, convening the Legislature during a pandemic, and his takeaways from the primary

In a Facebook post earlier this week, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox revealed that he tested positive for COVID-19. Rep. Wilcox’s announcement was received against the backdrop of primary results and continued questions over when the Legislature should reconvene.

As legislative Republicans lobby for a special session to address the state’s cash deficit and revenue shortfall, I spoke to Rep. Wilcox about what convening during a pandemic could look like. He also offered his analysis of the primary results and the issues he thinks could power Republicans to victory in November.

Michael Goldbeg: How are you feeling?

Rep. JT Wilcox: I’m feeling 100%.”

MG: You said that prior to testing positive, you were isolated on your farm and were interacting with very few people. Any theories about how you contracted the virus?

RJW: I’ve thought a lot about it. I looked at my calendar and I have no clue. I was meeting with almost nobody and actually, I was hardly ever going to a store. I think this a somewhat random event. Thank goodness I did follow up with everyone I might have come into contact with when I was contagious and so far, nobody has tested positive or exhibited any symptoms. I will say this: it was really painful to think that I had exposed friends. It really bothers me, but I’m glad to say there have been no ill effects so far.” 

MG: To what extent will this experience inform your view of how the Legislature can safely reconvene – whenever that may be – during the pandemic?

RJW: I know the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House have worked on this extensively. Most states now have already had a special session. I think every west coast state has except for us. There are a lot of examples of states that have done it, some with success, some with less success. There has been a practice run for a  “at a distance system” and they ran into some challenges, but that’s why you do a practice run. 

I absolutely believe we should do a special session. Putting off this budget catastrophe is going to make things so much worse. I met recently with House Republican Caucus Ranking Members, and every single Ranking Member had examples of agencies or business segments that have no understanding of what their budgets will be going forward, or whether they will even operate in the future. One example was the Higher Education Committee. A huge amount of cash flow for universities comes from room and board. They have fixed costs that will be ongoing, but of course, parents and students can’t afford to pay for housing that they aren’t going to be able to use. So, we’re concerned that we’re going to watch the collapse of some institutions. To ignore this is a big mistake.” 

MG: Keeping all of that in mind, what about the argument made by some legislators that the Legislature does its best work through big, inclusive stakeholder processes followed by public hearings with a lot of testimony. Building off the hearings, legislators also often host smaller meetings in their offices. This level of engagement would presumably be quite difficult to achieve in a virtual setting. 

RJW: I would say that we’ve all spent the last five months figuring out how to get together with people without being face-to-face. The truth is, politicians are pretty good at Zoom because we already have a discipline in place that says that you wait your turn. I did a Zoom with my family that was a disaster because everyone talked at once. Every single one I’ve done with people who are used to being around the Legislature has been really smooth and productive. In a caucus room or in a hearing, you already have this system in place that allows people to be heard. I see the collaboration as being very possible and in fact, it will be easier. There will be people that were geographically closed out in the past that are going to be able to participate productively now.”

MG: Going back to your experience coming down with COVID while being isolated on your farm, I’m curious about the conversations you’ve had with your rural constituents. Do you have a sense of how perceptions of COVID differ across the state?

RJW: I’m glad you asked this. People that are in more urban settings find it harder to isolate and are much more likely to know people who have had COVID. There’s a higher sense of awareness there. But, I think there are lots of people in less urban settings that are pretty sensitized. I think businesspeople in general are extremely careful about their workforce, with some exceptions. There are people who may not even themselves be very concerned about masking, but when it comes to their workforce, they’re very concerned. People with vulnerabilities or with older family members are also naturally more aware.” 

MG: I want to get your reaction to the results of last week’s primaries. My colleague DJ Wilson argued that the results don’t fit the narrative of a banner year for Democrats. What do you make of how Republicans performed? And what do Republicans need to do ensure promising primary results carry over to November when turnout will almost certainly be higher?

RJW: First of all, I think it’s a little bit of a reversion to the mean. Democrats picked up seats in districts that had leaned Republican for quite some time. That’s what happens in off-year elections. Now we’re seeing many of these districts go back to their roots. So I think some of this is natural. 

Washington is a state where the two parties have to run their campaigns differently. Democrats can, especially statewide, win by running a base election. That doesn’t work very well for Republicans statewide or in swing districts. I think the Democratic playbook is to say ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ all day. That has a shelf life. It’s motivating to some people, but Washington has a strong history of ticket splitting. There are a few areas right now where I think Republicans are on the side of the majority of swing voters. 

I’ll give you three examples. One has to do with police reform, and defending the police rather than defunding. Next, I think we’re going to see even more interest in the sex ed overreach. That was not a big issue in this part of the election but when it’s on the ballot, it will be. There are an awful lot of people in swing districts who signed on to that record setting effort to get R-90 on the ballot.

The last thing is, and there are a lot of problems with the Republican brand, but one thing that nobody questions is that Republicans are going to stand up against taxes and they want to promote jobs in the economy. For a while, this state was not very anti-tax, at least not swing voters. You saw lots of tax levies passing with pretty strong majorities. But I think people are deeply concerned that while the private economy is collapsing, they don’t want to be forced to fund keeping the public sector whole. They trust Republicans to stand up for a frugal government. I think the swing voter understands that better than the politician right now.” 

MG: Picking up on your point about vote splitting and the type of Republican “brand” that can win statewide in Washington State. What is different about the Secretary of State race and Kim Wyman? The general election could go either way, but she’s having better results than other statewide Republican candidates, including one other incumbent. Does it offer a roadmap for Republicans?

RJW: To me, a party is more like a trade association than a brand, even though I just used that word. A brand is something you build over time. I know this because I’m part of a family that has a generational brand. You build it over time and you do everything you can to preserve the value of the brand. A trade association is a group of people that come together to do the hard things to protect their brand. To me, that’s what a political party is. 

We just did a big data project and the numbers show there are quite a few more base Democrat than there are base Republican voters. But I’m not a statewide guy, I care about districts. It’s much more even when you get out to the districts that are really competitive. I always think about how we get to 50 seats. How do we be competitive and win in the 25-30 districts that we need to have to add up to 50 individuals.

Going back to Kim and Jay, they are so close to each other when it comes to actual votes. If you think of those two as standard bearers, and I would argue that for Kim because she’s in a race where there’s not a huge group of Republican candidates, it really shows that when you have these two skilled politicians talking to the voters of Washington, they can attract an almost identical number of voters. That tells me we are not the blue state we were in 2018. We are much more the purple state that we were in the ten years before then.”

MG: Any final thoughts about the primaries or a potential special session?

RJW: We have some unique Washington issues right now that don’t fit into the national narrative, though in some cases we’re starting to create the national narrative. I think we are going to have some unique results. I’m excited that Republicans are being recognized during this huge turnout. A big turnout is supposed to be bad for Republicans but we just had one of the better primaries than we’ve had in some time. I have confidence that people in Washington will differentiate the different positions and it won’t be a straight ticket kind of election.

It also helps me understand, in a way, how Dan Evans got elected. He was elected in Washington in a year when Barry Goldwater got his butt kicked. I don’t know if the Republican is going to get his butt kicked this time but either way, we’ve got Republicans that are looking pretty good in a state that is, according to polling, not a bit happy with the President. 

The other thing I feel strongly about is that the government has to function the way the constitution calls for it to do. States and our national government have operated through pandemics before, through two world wars, and all kinds of turmoil in two and a half centuries. It’s important that we not give up on three functioning branches of government right now. We may not have a session that’s exactly like we’re used to. But it’s really important that we don’t give up and that we have a functioning Legislature.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length

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