When left-leaning isn’t left enough | Jerry Cornfield | The Petri Dish

Jean Berkey, the former Everett state lawmaker who died last month, was a nice lady. Like most in her caucus she leaned left on social issues. Unlike most, she leaned right on fiscal matters. And it became the target on her back.

Jean Berkey, the former Everett state lawmaker who died last month, was a nice lady.

She loved to barbecue oysters and collect agates and had a zeal for neatness and organization.

She had a deep commitment to the values and candidates of the Democratic Party, helping elect others then serving herself. She spent a decade in Washington’s Legislature landing first in the House then the Senate.

Like most in her caucus she leaned left on social issues. Unlike most, she leaned right on fiscal matters.

“That was kind of her cross to bear,” the Rev. Dennis Niva told 125 family members, friends and former lawmaking colleagues at a memorial service in Everett on Saturday.

And it became the target on her back.

In 2010, Berkey lost her bid for re-election to the Senate seat representing Everett, Tulalip and part of Marysville.

Losing is part of politics but defeat is harder to accept when supposed friends have a hand in it and, as the state attorney general proved, they cheated.

Berkey failed to advance out of the primary in no small part because a Seattle political consultant dumped a wad of money into pounding her conservative stances then secretly spent thousands of dollars to drum up votes for an unknown Republican candidate. Many of those dollars came from the coffers of unions Berkey aided in her tenure.

The political legacy of Jean Berkey is not the loss, but what followed it — the ascension of Nick Harper, the decline of Democrats’ power in the Senate and tougher campaign finance laws.

Harper, a left-leaning Democrat, won the seat and is rapidly climbing the ladder of power in the caucus. He is deputy leader and could succeed Sen. Ed Murray as the leader should Murray be elected mayor of Seattle in November.

He’s also gaining recognition statewide. In August, he was named the state Democratic Party’s male elected official of the year, an accolade which will ensure Harper receives all the support he’ll need in his re-election campaign next year.

While Harper’s win kept the seat in the Democratic column, the manner in which it occurred is a cautionary tale for his party as it reveals how far the left-wing will go in its pursuit of a more liberally pure caucus.

Arguably it’s cost Democrats — who hold 26 of the Senate’s 49 seats — control of the chamber. This year two moderate Democratic senators defected to form a coalition with Republicans to run the Senate. Last year, three Democrats did the same thing.

They don’t cite Berkey’s election as a reason, but will say the policies of their party’s left-wing are too hard line for them. Unless and until the Democratic Party finds a way to embrace these less liberal members, it will be the Senate’s minority party for an extended period.

Another imprint on state politics left by the 2010 election is its exposure of a gaping hole in campaign finance laws.

Moxie Media, the firm hired to take out Berkey, had created several political committees then set about passing donations from one to another. It was a shell game which made it difficult to identify the original source of the money.

Moxie Media wasn’t the only one to do it but did it more prolifically than others. It prompted state lawmakers to limit how many committees one group can form and stiffening rules for disclosure to help the public figure out where the money is coming from.

At the memorial service, no one mentioned the 2010 election.

Niva may have had it in mind when he spoke of the ripple effect Jean Berkey had on the circle of friends around her and in the political world, which she served.

“She changed who we are,” he said.


Jerry Cornfield is a political reporter who covers Olympia for The Daily Herald in Everett, which is among the Washington state newspapers in the Sound Publishing group. He can be contacted at jcornfield@heraldnet.com.