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A Donald Trump-Style Firing And A New Tone In Olympia

Jon Connell
Flickr -

It was a Donald Trump moment straight out of The Apprentice.

Last Friday, the Republican-led Washington state Senate effectively said, "You're fired" to Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson.

It was the first time in 18 years that the Senate had voted not to confirm a gubernatorial appointment.

Since then two narratives have emerged.

From Republicans: this is the price to be paid when an agency director, "nice lady" that she may be, lacks management skills and the governor is unwilling to do the firing himself.

From an outraged Governor Jay Inslee: this was a "decapitation" of an effective leader designed to score points in an election year.

Shared blame

Now that a few days have passed, it's worth pausing to consider a couple of key questions:

Have legislative Democrats been playing "Washington nice" for too long when it comes to agency screw-ups, or did Senate Republicans just overstep and play executioner without due process?

Did firing Peterson give Senate Republicans a lasting cathartic release or should we grab the popcorn and tune in every week for an Apprentice-style elimination round?

In the war of words that's followed what happened last Friday any soul searching has been behind the scenes, with one state senator admitting that firing Peterson had kept him up at night.

And Republicans are promoting two different storylines: on the one hand they say there's no imminent plan to put someone else on the chopping block. But at the same time they say they have a list of agencies--and agency heads--they're not pleased with.

Is Teeter teetering?

Apparently topping the watch list is Dorothy Frost Teeter, director of Washington's Health Care Authority since 2013. Republicans are furious that her agency's budget is several hundred million dollars out of whack because of health care savings that didn't materialize and rising pharmaceutical costs. Their litany of complaints is ready for the cameras--and microphones.

And then almost on cue, word broke Tuesday of a data breach at the agency that potentially compromised the private health information, social security numbers and birth dates of 91,000 Medicaid clients.

Teeter could be especially vulnerable because Senate Republicans have already pulled her confirmation out of the Rules committee. In fact Teeter was up for a vote on Friday along with Peterson, but the Senate never got to her.

Hunter confirmed

If Friday was “you’re fired,” Tuesday was “you’re hired.” Two more gubernatorial appointments hit the floor and were quickly and cheerfully approved in bipartisan fashion. It was almost as if blood hadn't been spilled just four days earlier.

One of the confirmations was a very familiar name around the Capitol -- former House budget writer Ross Hunter, now head of the Department of Early Learning.

And for the flashback segment of this reality show, Republicans point back to right before Peterson’s ouster Friday when they unanimously voted to approve two other Inslee appointments, including his Department of Revenue director. The subplot here is that the GOP is not out to get everybody, they say.

Appointed just last August, Hunter skipped the line of several fellow cabinet members still awaiting approval, some after years of waiting.

As one longtime Olympia insider told me, "You need to have one good friend in each caucus" when you're an agency director. Kind of like a reality show contestant who’s ostensibly not there to make friends, but actually needs a few.

Copyright 2016 Northwest News Network

Austin Jenkins
Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."