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The Two Baumgartners 

There's the state Sen. Michael Baumgartner who makes deals with the other side — and the Baumgartner who insults them

click to enlarge State Sen. Michael Baumgartner has received bipartisan praise for fighting for the WSU medical school, a transportation package and a state tuition reduction. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • State Sen. Michael Baumgartner has received bipartisan praise for fighting for the WSU medical school, a transportation package and a state tuition reduction.

Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm spent her entire Monday last week — and nearly $600 from her council budget — flying to Olympia, renting a car and driving to the state capitol to testify before the Commerce and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane.

Sending an email, of course, would have been cheaper and easier. But being present was important to her. The city council — overriding opposition from local business groups and a mayoral veto — had recently passed a bill mandating most businesses to offer three to five days of paid sick leave. Baumgartner wasn't a fan.

"They're antagonizing small businesses and driving business away from Spokane," Baumgartner says. In response to Spokane's sick leave policies, and minimum wage hikes on the west side of the state, Baumgartner proposed a bill banning cities from regulating business wages, hours or leave policies.

Mumm fully expected to be able to testify against it. "Not only am I a city councilperson, I'm a constituent of [Baumgartner's] 6th District, and I own a business in the 6th District," Mumm says.

But Baumgartner was crunched for time — and even after a lobbyist passed him a handwritten note, letting him know that Mumm wanted to speak — he never called her up.

"She's not going to get special treatment," Baumgartner told the Inlander. Mumm says that Baumgartner apologized out in the lobby, and let her know that she could hand in a written statement. Mumm sent out a press release objecting to not being asked to speak.

The incident is only the latest clash between Baumgartner and the city he helps represent, showcasing his penchant for flashy conflict.

In making the case for his bill, Baumgartner could have concentrated primarily on his practical argument that navigating different regulatory systems in each city can be a nightmare for large businesses. Instead, he launched rhetorical salvos at Washington's two biggest cities.

On Twitter, Baumgartner posted an image of Dr. Evil and Mini-Me from the Austin Powers franchise, suggesting that Spokane was a small-scale imitation of Seattle's left-wing agenda.

"I know that the day he dropped [his bill], he was all over the airwaves in Seattle," City Council President Ben Stuckart says. "He was calling us socialists. He was calling us 'Mini-Mes [of] Seattle. Really denigrating us."

This is the inherent contradiction of Michael Baumgartner: In public, he's a firebrand, firing off insults, condemnation and trolling Democrats on social media. But behind the scenes, he's forged significant alliances to accomplish major gains for Spokane. The question is whether his penchant for burning bridges will constrain his ability to build them.

"It seems like he's schizophrenic," Stuckart says. "He wants to pick fights, but he wants to get along as well."

THE TROLL

This past Friday, Senate Republicans declared loud and clear what tone to expect from them in this session when they fired Gov. Jay Inslee's transportation secretary, Lynn Peterson.

Republicans blamed Peterson for the rocky rollout of Interstate 405 tolling lanes and for continuing problems with Seattle's tunnel-boring drill. Baumgartner went further, arguing that Peterson was unqualified, a result of Inslee's political patronage. Her fate was a warning to Inslee's administrators.

"Shape up," Baumgartner wrote on Twitter. "Do your job. Serve the people with accountability. Or more heads are going to roll."

In a text message, Stuckart sends a link to a Publicola editorial that calls Baumgartner's "chest-thumping tweet" about Peterson's firing a "crass act." (The author, Josh Feit, is the same Publicola writer who Baumgartner told to "go f--- yourself" in a 2012 email.)

When Inslee fired back Monday, accusing Republicans of conducting a "dishonest, partisan and frankly scurrilous political campaign," Baumgartner mocked it as a "whiny press conference" and a "temper tantrum."

"I think he gets very frustrated that we've had a state run by one party for thirty-some years, and that probably comes out in his language," says Michael Cathcart, Baumgartner's former legislative aide. "I don't think his language is offensive. I just think it's very direct and dramatic, and it makes a good point."

Baumgartner has proclaimed that Inslee considers the state pension fund a "left wing toy," said that it's "time to quarantine the radical leftists" on the Seattle City Council, opined that the Washington Education Association "would make a banana republic dictator blush," and has asked whether "[Zimbabwean dictator Robert] Mugabe or Putin" were advising the Washington State Supreme Court.

The court, which ruled charter schools unconstitutional and fined the legislature for failing to fully fund basic education, is one of Baumgartner's favorite targets.

Beyond penning a bill in 2014 that mocked the court's McCleary education funding mandate, he's called the justices "mushy-headed WEA puppets." In 2014, he posted a picture of a hammer and a bag of sand, meant to communicate that the court should go pound sand.

Yes, these sort of comments and stunts make headlines. That's partly the point, Baumgartner says. To shine a spotlight.

"If you have a policy idea you believe in, it's good to color it in with bright, bold colors," Baumgartner says. "I really think the Supreme Court is overstepping its bounds. ... I really do think our Spokane City Council needs to be put on notice that these things are bad for the community. ... Seattle really has gone off the deep end, and does have the socialist tail wagging the dog."

And yet, even local liberals say that when Baumgartner does agree with Spokane's agenda, he's been one of the most effective legislators at pushing it.

THE DIPLOMAT

There's a very different side to Michael Baumgartner. In a 2008 letter praising his role as economics affairs officer with the State Department in Baghdad during the Iraq surge, political officer James Miller wrote that Baumgartner "refused to respond to provocations, defused brewing conflicts, negotiated shared language, and repaired bruised egos."

Baumgartner says he has drawn on those same skills to build coalitions in the legislature. "The legislative record speaks for itself," he says.

He says he helped lead a Senate Republican effort to enact perhaps "the most historic reduction in college tuition... in American history." He teamed up with state Rep. Marcus Riccelli last year to push for a medical school for Washington State University. And he was the only Spokane-area Republican to defy intense, local conservative anti-tax sentiment and support a hike in the gas tax to pay for a major transportation package.

That vote earned him criticism from the right. "I wasn't a huge fan of the gas tax," says Mike Fagan, the Spokane City Council's sole conservative. "Not a huge fan at all."

But Baumgartner says that support for the transportation package resulted in massive gains for Eastern Washington, including more than $860 million in funding for the freeway project Spokane has been anticipating for 60 years.

"If you ask most community leaders and they're being honest with you, I think they'd tell you the only reason we're getting full funding for the North-South Freeway is because of Sen. Baumgartner," Cathcart says. "He's a guy who will triangulate."

State Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, partnered with Baumgartner this year on a proposal to try to save charter schools.

"He's shown more political courage, and as a result, gotten more results than any other Spokane-area Republican legislator," Billig says.

Which is why Baumgartner's recent string of attacks has baffled Billig.

"I'm scratching my head a little bit at the volume and tone of the comments from the past two weeks," Billig says. "Any time you ramp up the rhetoric, it can hurt your ability to collaborate in the future."

By contrast, Mumm's prepared remarks for Baumgartner's committee were measured, listing anecdotes of Spokane residents who the ordinance would impact. "Please respect our ability to care for the health of our city," Mumm had written.

That's an argument against Baumgartner's bill — local control should take precedent — that's actually fundamentally conservative. "No city wants to have ... their ability to govern taken away," Stuckart says. (Despite Baumgartner's claims of economic calamity, during last year's election both Stuckart and Mayor David Condon pointed to the single-year 11 percent jump in median income as evidence Spokane was heading in the right direction.)

Baumgartner says he knows his bill is unlikely to get past the House or the governor, saying that he's "not obtuse to the political realities." But as Democrats examine increasing the minimum wage statewide, he says his bill could be part of the discussion in a theoretical compromise deal.

For her part, Mumm notes Baumgartner's support for the WSU medical school and motion-picture incentives and roots for a restored relationship. "I'm hoping Sen. Baumgartner will send me flowers and we can start over again," Mumm says.

The senator doesn't sound particularly driven to make amends. Baumgartner chuckles at Mumm's choice to send out a press release announcing she hadn't been able to speak at the hearing.

"Who sends [a] press release that, 'I didn't get to speak at a meeting?'" Baumgartner says, laughing. "When you're an elected official, [you] get to speak whenever you want?"

Baumgartner says that he doesn't closely follow the Spokane City Council, dismissing their business as a ¨bunch of dog leash laws and statements on whether Cambodia should build oil pipelines.¨

But he expects to continue to remain engaged in at least one respect: "I look forward to telling them where they're wrong when they drive small business out of Spokane." ♦

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