Work Horse, Not Show Horse
Wednesday, December 4, 2019
WORK HORSE, NOT SHOW HORSE: Instability continues in local elections with the announced departure of Jeff Morris, the senior representative of the 40th Legislative District.
Murmurs had suggested Morris—with a long and distinguished 23 years of service in Olympia—would not seek reelection in 2020. The Democratic lawmaker upended that expectation last week in a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, announcing he had accepted a position with one of the largest companies in the world developing smart grid, decarbonization and artificial intelligence technologies.
“The greatest professional honor I have had is serving the community I grew up in the State Legislature,” Morris commented. “I will not be able to take time away from this position to serve in our part-time citizen legislature this coming January. After 23 years of service, I have made the decision to step down from my House of Representatives seat effective January 6, 2020.”
The timetable presents a challenge to appoint a replacement for Morris for the upcoming session of the Legislature. It likewise suggests a frenetic race to more permanently fill his vacated seat in the 40th District in state elections next year—with a slight incumbent’s edge to whomever is selected to replace Morris in the interim.
The blue 40th District includes San Juan County as well as portions of Skagit and Whatcom counties. Candidates to replace Morris will be narrowed and recommended by 40th District Democrats in consultation with their state party leaders, then that list will be decided upon by a vote at a special joint meeting of the three county legislative bodies. San Juan and Skagit have three-member commissions; Whatcom County has a seven-member council, each member with a fractional vote in this decision.
A similar procedure in 2019 appointed Anacortes City Council member Liz Lovelett to replace Kevin Ranker in the state Senate following his resignation. And with that incumbent’s edge, Lovelett beat out several challengers in an August primary and was easily elected into a full four-year term by voters in November.
With Bellingham as its nucleus, the southern portion of Whatcom County comprises about 40 percent of the 40th District; and Bellingham would dearly love to have enlarged representation in Olympia. However, the same forces of chaos that fractured the coordination and coherence of the earlier Whatcom County Council vote may resurface in this appointment.
Morris’ declared departure date of Jan. 6 is prescient—it allows the current Council to vote on the selection, before a new and more conservative alignment of incoming members take their oaths of office early next year.
Quiet, self-effacing and extraordinarily effective, Morris leaves large shoes to fill. His style was remarkably indifferent to the politics swirling around Olympia—he kept his head down, he made friends not enemies, and he focused on issues that mattered.
Over the years he brought considerable attention to infrastructure, including transportation and high-speed telecommunications. Morris showed outstanding leadership in technology and innovation, focusing on modernization of Washington’s energy infrastructure, advocating for stronger consumer protections, and data protections and privacy.
Morris made his mark out of the gate in 1997, when he went from being sworn into office to being thrown into a fight against the state ferry system, joining with Anacortes to save the Anacortes to Sidney, BC ferry run. In the last several years Morris was the sole sponsor of a bill that found a permanent funding source for Washington State Ferries. While modest, it provided the revenue to build the remainder of the Olympic-class vessels.
While co-majority floor leader during the deeply paralyzed 49-49 split in the state House of Rrepresentatives, Morris worked with Republicans and Democrats in minute detail to pass what was then called the best net-metering law in the country. A few years later he led the creation of the first laws in the nation that required fossil-fuel-based electric generation to mitigate part of their lifetime emissions, and requiring utilities to consider carbon risk in integrated resource planning.
“These are two laws that have had the most significant impacts on carbon reduction but are not easily understood in political terms,” Morris said.
For a man disinclined to politics, Morris held a time-honored pedigree for office: He was a protege of another gifted leader, and he learned a lot from him. He also worked with the best—state Sen. Harriet Spanel, Rep. Dave Quall, and the community to save the Blanchard Mountain forest, protect the Lake Whatcom watershed, and protect nature of all types in the San Juan Islands.
“I learned about working across party lines to find solutions from my years working for Congressman Al Swift in Washington’s congressional delegation,” Morris said. “That experience has served the 40th District well.”
A work horse, not a show horse was how Morris described his work.
“I have only been allowed to work on these issues because of the people of the 40th District,” he reflected. “They raised, educated, supported, and elected me to represent them in Olympia. My new position—while covering all of North America—allows me to still live in the place I have always called home. I will continue to work to serve the community that has given so much to a local boy of mixed race and very modest means.”
He will be missed. He will be difficult to replace. But if any group can make the difficult impossible, Whatcom County Council may again show themselves able to the task.