Is Lisa Brown a radical firebrand or a pragmatic moderate?

Is Lisa Brown a radical firebrand or a pragmatic moderate?
Young Kwak
Lisa Brown

There was a moment, during a rally in Pullman last year, when Lisa Brown seemed like a different kind of candidate. She's talking about political courage, about leading outside of the mainstream, even when it's risky. She points to her fight in the Washington State Legislature, first when she pushed for a law against discrimination by sexual orientation and then when the Legislature legalized same-sex marriage.

"I think the issue of our time right now, that has the same resonance of having a logjam that needs to be broken, is health care — universal health care!"

There's a torrent of applause and whooping and cheering from her audience. She quotes liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, that "health care is a basic human right and it's time to fight for it."

"How can a country that talks about life, liberty and pursuit of happiness in its founding documents not see health care as fundamental to all three?" Brown says.

At these times, Brown almost sounds like Bernie Sanders.

But that's not the case a year later, at a town hall debate with U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. A reporter presses Brown on whether she supports the Sanders' version of getting to universal health care, Medicare for All. At first, she dodges. So the reporter presses again: Does she favor Medicare for All? "I think we need to strengthen and expand Medicare," Brown says.

She later clarifies with the Inlander that she doesn't "think you can practically take the whole health care system and reinvent it."

It's an inherent tension in the race. Brown has to show herself as liberal enough to inspire a Democratic base to turn out and vote, but conservative enough to win in solidly red Eastern Washington. And she's been in the public eye long enough that there's a lot of material for critics to draw on.

For years, Brown's critics mocked her as "Sandinista Lisa," noting newspaper articles about Brown's stint teaching in Nicaragua in 1990 that feature her cheering "viva la revolucion!" and fretting that the defeat of the Sandinista government would result in the privatization of state-owned banks and fewer subsidies to the poor.

"If they let the market control credit, it will go to the wealthy," Brown is quoted as saying in one article.

Today, Brown claims that reporting was inaccurate.

"I don't believe in state-owned enterprises and never have," Brown says.

She's critical of media outlets for focusing on three-decade-old controversies like these instead of, say, her role in bringing a medical school to Spokane or her 20 years in the state Legislature.

But her legislative record, too, gives her critics fodder. An early series of attack ads referred to her by the Trumpesque alliterative moniker "Liberal Lisa," citing her passion for bringing a progressive income tax to Eastern Washington and her lawsuit that tried to overturn a voter initiative that required a supermajority for the Legislature to raise taxes.

Brown has countered by pointing to her bipartisan bills and her role bucking the Democrats to establish a rainy-day fund in the Legislature.

Yet, a dozen years ago, even the Inlander referred to Brown as a "liberal, pro-environment senator" who was "surprisingly progressive to Seattle types."

So, the Inlander asks Brown today, does she consider herself "liberal?"

"I have considered myself a 'progressive' since before it was a term," Brown says. "I've always emphasized bringing people in who have been left out."

She says she's neither a Hillary Clinton-style technocrat nor a Bernie Sanders-style firebrand.

"I'm not the person who's going to come in with the 10-point plan," Brown says. "But I'm not just going to stand out waving the flag."

Instead, she says, she'll be the dealmaker behind the scenes, listening and responding to constituent concerns. Different settings require differing strategies, she says.

That is, she says, why her health care rhetoric sounds so different at a rally than when answering a debate question.

"When I'm meeting with my supporters and my base, they want to be inspired by a vision," Brown says.

But when she's asked about specific policy questions, she says, she goes into policy-making mode, grounded by the limitations of political reality.

"I'm going to work with people, and sometimes I'll accept less progress than I'll ultimately like to see," Brown says.

And so sometimes Brown strikes comparatively moderate positions. She's against defunding Planned Parenthood, yes. But unlike Hillary Clinton, she says she's not in favor of changing the law to allow taxpayer funding for abortions.

And even though Brown says the Republican tax cuts were a mistake, she says that she'd vote to keep the tax cuts for individuals in place. She says she'd want to focus on closing corporate tax loopholes instead of upending the entire tax bill.

Sometimes, Brown declines to take a binary position at all: U.S. Senator Patty Murray has endorsed banning the AR-15. But when the Inlander presses Brown whether she'd vote for or against such a measure, she refuses to say: Instead, she pivots to more modest and popular measures, like improving background checks.

"I understand you want to focus on the most controversial one, 'Yes or no?'" Brown says. "That's just not where I'm at. I'm right here in the spectrum of, 'What are all the things that there's absolutely no excuse that Congress has not done in the past 14 years?"

And sometimes, Brown sounds a lot more ambitious, arguing that, as a freshman representative, she'll be able to bend the entire party toward her region's needs.

"I'll be helping to define where House Democrats go," Brown says. "If the agenda is not good for Eastern Washington I will change the agenda." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...