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Wednesday, March 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Floyd J. McKay / guest columnist

Will public reward Dems for a productive session?

In this highly partisan age, sometimes it seems as if our leaders — and perhaps many of the rest of us — would rather see opponents take a nosedive than to see them do something for the public good.

They (we?) say one thing when asked what we want from political leadership, but sometimes our actions say something else.

Cases in point emerge from the recently concluded Washington Legislature's short session and the continuing efforts of Gov. Christine Gregoire to gain a solid footing with the public.

With Democrats in control of both houses and the governor's office, the short session accomplished a great deal and won the plaudits of editorial voices and others who pay attention to legislatures. Perhaps most significantly, nearly $1 billion was set aside to protect against economic downturns, while about $522 million went into added funding for education, health care and other traditional Democratic issues.

A rising tide does not always lift all boats, however, and in this case a good performance by the Democrats brought complaints from Republican leaders that the Dems had, well, acted like Republicans — or like Republicans would have acted if they had the gavel. They stole our issues, the GOP complained, sounding a bit like the Grand Old Party when Bill Clinton took up issues such as welfare reform in the '90s. Foul was called.

Perhaps there were some traditionally Republican ideas in the Democratic package — good ideas are hardly the monopoly of either party and once upon a time the parties were able to work together to pass them. Partisan divisions in recent years have meant that if the two legislative houses are under different leadership, nothing happens. And if they are under the same leadership, the minority is shut out.

The best the public can hope for is what apparently happened this year in Olympia. With the Legislature and governorship in one party, things happened. And in large measure the public benefited, even if Republican campaign-designers did not.

Most citizens don't really care who gets credit, and many won't pay that much attention in any event.

Democrats will carry into the fall campaigns a positive legislative record, one that will be hard for the GOP to counter, forcing its members to agree with their opponents or to resort to hard-line views on gay rights and other hot-button topics. Not a great choice, particularly in the volatile suburbs.

Will the public, then, reward what we all tell pollsters we want in government, that is, a responsible fiscal policy with a priority on education, health care and the environment? Or will we do what we say we won't do, and reward negative campaigns based on fear of "the others"?

The governor faces a similar challenge. She entered office with a lot of folks upset at the way the 2004 election was run, which was not her fault but which came to rest at her door.

Rather than embark on a series of hand-shaking, ribbon-cutting trips to show the flag, Gregoire has stuck to Olympia and used her proven skills as a lawyer and a negotiator to get some solid things done for the public.

It was a good session for her, in which she was the key player in a modest reform of medical-insurance practices, and in water allocation for Central Washington. She has now turned her attention to the Washington Assessment of Student Learning and to beefing up the quality of education across the board.

That is precisely what people say they want in a governor — to make things happen, to work for priorities that benefit most people.

Demands on a governor's time are almost unreal. Only a governor is seen as representing the entire state. Members of Congress are necessarily gone most of the time, and other statewide officers are less known, with lesser responsibilities. Few groups are mollified when a governor cannot be there to cut a ribbon, open a school, speak to a civic club or entertain an important business prospect. Everyone knows you cannot expect the president to attend every coffee klatch, but governors, well, they are expected to be all things to all people, all the time.

Choices must be made. Gregoire has chosen to stay closer to home, try to live a normal family life and get things done in Olympia.

The sacrifices in "face time" on the road may hurt her dearly in 2008. Because, once again, we say we want the governor to be dedicated to getting things done but what we really want is to see her at the ribbon-cutting.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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