My colleague Ed Friedrich is being criticized today because of the story he wrote reporting that state Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, was on a cruise during part of the special session. “Nice hit piece,” was one of the more succinct complaints. Others came to the defense of Friedrich and the newspaper generally. I take exception to the idea that this was a hit piece. Friedrich stated the facts. She was gone because she was on a cruise, and one day because she was sick.
From my experience, a legislator missing consecutive days of voting because of a vacation is rare. In the years I have covered government I’ve heard of elected officials serving in year-round positions, such as the city council or county commission, taking off for vacation and missing legislation.
Not so for legislators in a session that has a designated beginning and end. I’ve spoken to several who missed votes because they were sick. Bill Eickmeyer, a Democrat who represented the 35th District as a legislator, missed a lot of votes in 2007 because of back pain. He said, and the record showed, he would make it to the chamber if he was needed on a close vote.
Friedrich also gave Angel ample opportunity to explain the circumstances of the cruise, how she won it and that she told House party leadership of her possible absence beforehand.
The idea that this is not news is wrong, though I am certain no one would be surprised that I would make that case. In the Eickmeyer example we reported the legislator’s absence, despite his excuse that I think most would agree carries more absolution than a cruise. We essentially did the same thing then as Friedrich did today. We allowed the legislator to explain and we provided context.
The same argument, “This is not news,” was made earlier this year when state Rep. Jim Jacks, D-Vancouver, resigned abruptly from his elected position, was out of touch for about a month, then re-emerged to reveal that he quit because he had an alcohol problem. Lou Brancaccio, Columbian editor (and my former jefe), was blistered by some commenters who said that because Jacks was now a private citizen his alcoholism was now his private business. Never mind the fact that his alcoholism affected his public role, I guess.
The Jacks incident is substantially more newsworthy than Jan Angel’s cruise, but I might point out that the Associated Press version of the Angel cruise story appeared online in just about every Washington news outlet today, including the Columbian.
In those publications are commenter arguments that also appear on our site, questioning whether Angel should have accepted the cruise at all. I agree that it would be tough to turn it down. Nonetheless, there is a solid argument to made that Angel should never have put herself in position win that thing. Or at least once she did perhaps she could have chosen to decline or offer it to someone else.
No question that legislators and politicians are different than journalists and have different responsibilities. There is also no question that there are reporters out there who would not toe the same line I do on this. I would not put myself in a position to win this trip. The trip was a prize in a raffle. People bought $25 tickets. The organization that runs Fathoms O’ Fun netted about $3,000 from the venture, thanks to Holland America selling a cruise package worth up to $10,000 at a substantially reduced price.
According to Jessie Turner, who ran the raffle, there were no set times on the cruise. The prize was as stated above, up to $10,000 in credit toward a Holland America cruise. As reporters we would not buy a ticket to that raffle. Our biggest fear, I believe, is that we would win. Granted, it could all be luck of the draw, but someone could see it as the Fathoms O’ Fun organization now being in a position to seek favors from us. I admit we’re not perfect at this. Over the years I’ve had a cookie or two provided by organizations I cover, but not many.
On the other hand a politician is different. Politicians are supposed to blatantly support organizations like Fathoms O’ Fun. Angel bought a raffle ticket. I don’t think anyone would criticize her for that. Where they can, though, is in her acceptance of the prize. A legislator has some influence over what a local organization can do, and a local organization can seek to sway good legislation from an elected representative.
There is no reason I see to suggest there is any quid pro quo going on here. No bad intentions are apparent. And this doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as questionable as members of Congress getting paid trips to exotic locations for seminars or golfing, junkets paid for by big-money lobbying firms. This is not that. There is an appearance that it could be, though, and for that I think those who believe Angel should have directed the prize elsewhere are not necessarily misguided. That’s especially true if they’re willing to hold legislators in their own party to the same standard.
If you want to address whether a Republican legislator in a Democratically-controlled chamber can have any influence anyway, I suppose that’s a debate worth having, too. The last session I covered Republicans were able to stop a major policy shift in education funding exactly because they had enough members speaking who could press the session up against a deadline it was not going to meet. Angel was part of that group. So it isn’t as if the minority has no sway. They don’t go away just because they lose most of the controversial arguments.