Doug Ericksen is trying to hold down two jobs in two different Washingtons. And it’s not going terribly well.
Ericksen was an early backer of Donald Trump who shares the president’s skepticism of environmental regulations and climate change. In January, he was rewarded with a job in Washington D.C., running communications and helping to reshape the Environmental Protection Agency.
But he didn’t leave his old job to take on the new one. Erickson remains a top Republican in the Washington state Senate, which is currently in session 2,808 miles due west in Olympia.
Ericksen is not just another state senator. His absence is the linchpin to party control of the state Senate, since Washington state Republicans control the chamber by just one vote. Without him, party-line votes are tied, with the Democratic lieutenant governor in a position to break the tie in Democrats’ favor.
But Ericksen has pretty much been missing in action for the first month of the legislature’s 105- day session. The Senate environmental committee he chairs had to wait until he showed up last week after several weeks in D.C. to pass about nine bills.
His dual roles are legal, since his EPA appointment helping run the agency’s “beachhead” team is temporary and can last only 120 days — or until the new administration offers him a permanent job, perhaps as administrator for the EPA’s Northwest region. He just can’t push Trump administration policies that benefit his state.
That hasn’t stopped Democrats from pouncing.
Ericksen’s absences have become a hot local news story, propelled by environmentalists who don’t like his support for the oil and gas industry, for example. Now, though, they seem to want him around Olympia. A “Where’s Doug?” Twitter account features an image of Ericksen on the back of a milk carton: “Whatcom County’s Missing Legislator. Should be in Olympia but Isn’t.”
On Tuesday a prominent climate change skeptic was scheduled to testify before Ericksen’s environment committee — while he’s in the nation’s capitol — enraging progressive lawmakers and activists.
“We can’t stay on Trump time forever,” said Sharon Nelson, the state Senate’s Democratic leader. “Basically, we’re waiting for Doug. He continues to commute, although I can’t use the word commute because we haven’t seen him much. It appears he will occasionally make an appearance in the Washington state Senate.”‘
Presidential transition experts say they cannot recall a precedent for the unusual arrangement of a politician with a day job serving in a temporary federal job. And it’s put Ericksen on the fault line between parties, the coasts and the rift between federal and state governments that Trump’s election laid bare.
Mark Schoesler, the Senate majority leader, played down the senator’s absence as a small but surmountable logistical challenge, noting that the Senate passed a major school-funding bill last week with Ericksen there. Right now legislators are doing mostly committee work, Schoesler said. “Doug will be there when we need him.”
He said in an interview that he’s able to take care of business both for his constituents and the EPA without shortchanging either.
“It’s an incredible honor when the president asks you to be one of the first 200 people on the transition team,” he said, then blamed Democrats who disagree with his policies for fomenting a brouhaha.
“They’re not Trump supporters,” he said. “They’re looking for a way to lash out.”
He said the constituents in his rural district on the U.S.-Canada border are behind him and “very excited” about his association with the Trump administration. “Overall I’ve received an outpouring of support on this.”
Ericksen said he doesn’t know what the EPA is paying him. Back home, he is forgoing his legislative per diem but collecting his $42,000 state salary.
He told reporters last week that in bad weather it can take some lawmakers who live on the other side of the state the same 5 1/2 hours to drive to Olympia as his flight takes from Reagan airport in D.C.
He scheduled a morning news conference in Olympia last Wednesday to explain to local reporters how he plans to juggle his national role while serving his constituents back home. After his flight out of Reagan was canceled, his office put out a press release nixing the event and rescheduling it for the next day.
Ericksen faced the cameras Thursday after a second delay Wednesday afternoon –but not before committee meetings and a floor vote had to be hastily rearranged to accommodate the traveling senator.
Meanwhile, the senator, who says he does a bit of house construction, farming and child care when he’s not working, said he has no plans to resign his state Senate seat. He’ll fly 5 1/2 hours on Alaska Air back and forth between the Washingtons on his own dime, he said, returning for votes in Olympia when he can.
The Evergreen State is reliably safe for Democrats. Trump lost to Hillary Clinton there 38.2 percent to 54.4 percent in November, and the president lost by 18 points in Ericksen’s rural district of Whatcom County north of Seattle.
Democrats control the governor’s mansion, the House and the U.S. Senate and House delegations — and the attorney general’s office, which filed a challenge to Trump’s controversial travel ban that led a federal judge last Friday to freeze the president’s decree from being implemented nationally.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat and one of Ericksen’s staunchest adversaries in the legislature, previously chaired the Senate’s environment committee.
“I don’t believe there’s much at all we agree on,” Ranker said. [But] when he’s been here, he’s been an extremely engaged chairman, he’s done his homework, he’s at every meeting. I’ll give him credit for that. He’s been ruthless at pushing his agenda.”
But in the last month, Ranker said, Ericksen missed three quarters of committee meetings and has been present in Olympia only a handful of days as legislation piled up.
“I actually believe that government is supposed to govern,” he said. “[We can’t] achieve goals of the citizens we represent if we can’t function.”
Some of Ericksen’s constituents in Washington’s 42nd Legislative District have gone from displeasure to action. They’ve drafted a petition to recall him and a legal brief they plan to file with the Whatcom County auditor this week. They’ve filed an official complaint with the legislative ethic board that claims he has “violated his ethical and constitutional obligations” by spending so much time working for Trump. And Thursday they plan to stand at an exit off Interstate 5 in Bellingham “to remind Doug that we’re still looking for him,” said Michael Shepard, who filed the complaint.
“We just believe the work he’s doing, trying to hold two positions at the same time, is really giving the voters of Washington state – particularly in his district – the short end of the stick,” Shepard said. “He’s hired by the voters here to represent us in Olympia, to represent our interests and needs.
Shepard said it is “particularly maddening,” given that Ericksen prides himself on being a fiscal conservative, that “he’s asking us to allow him to double dip on the taxpayer dime.”