State House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox discusses public records with the Peninsula Daily News editorial board. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

State House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox discusses public records with the Peninsula Daily News editorial board. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Legislation ‘classic mistake:’ House GOP chief talks about public records, 24th District

PORT ANGELES — Washington House Minority Leader J. T. Wilcox said he was wrong to support a law exempting state lawmakers from the state Public Records Act, which was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Wilcox, a Yelm-area Republican, said he did not write a letter to the governor urging the March 1 veto although he “wasn’t unhappy” that Inslee did veto it.

“What you learn in this business is, when you make a mistake, you try to leave it as far behind as you can and do whatever is best for the state,” Wilcox said of SB 6617.

“Clearly, it was one of the classic mistakes that the caucus has made in my time there,” he said, adding that he has begun publishing his calendar in recent weeks.

Wilcox spoke in a wide-ranging interview with the Peninsula Daily News on Thursday.

The 2nd District representative was joined by 19th District Republican Jim Walsh of Aberdeen and John Handy, House Republican Caucus communications director.

They visited Port Angeles during a swing through the Olympic Peninsula before heading for Port Townsend. Wilcox said House Republicans hope to gain seats in the 24th District, which now is represented by Democrats. District 24 covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

The candidate filing week is May 14-18 for the Nov. 6 general election.

The legislation Inslee rejected was prompted by a Thurston County Superior Court ruling that lawmakers are subject to the state Public Records Act.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit against the Legislature by The Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Sound Publishing, Inc. — which owns Peninsula Daily News — and other media organizations.

The media organizations had sued last year for lawmakers’ internal communications and records pertaining to alleged sexual harassment incidents.

More than 18,000 emails and phone calls against the bill were received by Inslee’s office, and 13 daily newspapers across the state published editorials calling on him to veto it.

“You guys absolutely kicked our ass,” Wilcox said.

Walsh said he voted against the measure because of the process used to approve it.

“It was a bill about transparency that was rushed through in a nontransparent way,” he said.

“It was an easy vote for me.”

Wilcox said Walsh’s vote was an indication of the broad base of views held by House Republicans.

Democrats hold a 50-48 majority in the House.

Two-year House seats held by 24th District Democrats Steve Tharinger of Sequim and Mike Chapman of Port Angeles — the district includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County — are up for election in November.

Tharinger faces a challenge from Jim McEntire of Sequim, who said he is running at the behest of the House Republican Caucus.

Wilcox described an urban-vs.-rural, Seattle-area-vs.-rest-of-Washington divide that runs counter to rural-area 24th District voters who consistently vote for Democratic state lawmakers such as Tharinger and Chapman.

“This is one of the last parts of rural, small-town Washington that is represented by Democrats,” Wilcox said.

The one person recruited by House Republicans “reflects the district pretty well,” Wilcox added, not identifying McEntire by name, adding he is “not allowed” to talk about or name specific candidates.

“It’s not healthy for parties to be so geographically homogeneous,” he said, while citing the GOP’s strength in representing rural interests.

“Democrats represent urban areas,” he said.

“It’s hard for them to take into account rural Washington,” he added.

Wilcox said that’s reflected by the Democratic majority in the House.

“One thing that has really happened is the dominant perspective is the one that comes from one of the wealthiest places in the world, which is Seattle,” said Wilcox, who is on the board of directors of the family business, 1,500-acre Wilcox Farms in Roy, where he also served as chief operating officer.

“I just don’t believe that the wealthiest people are the right people to tell some of the poorest people who are overwhelmingly rural what their opportunities are supposed to be.

“That’s where we really want to bring balance back.”

He and Walsh said the answer to the housing shortage that has affected urban and rural Washington is fewer regulations and more density-friendly land-use rules.

Wilcox said he opposes what he sees is the Democratic Party’s plans for the next legislative session to enact “more of the same agenda.”

That agenda includes strengthening public unions and a “Seattle social agenda being brought statewide” as symbolized by such issues as rent control and first-come, first-served rental requirements for landlords, ideas that go against the grain of “free individuals in a free market,” Wilcox said.

Rural voters, he added, are forced to mitigate environmental challenges faced by marbled murrelet habitat by being asked to set aside habitat because not enough is available in the Seattle area.

“There’s not a habitat problem out here,” he said. “The economy has to bear the cost.”

Wilcox said Republicans were against a ban on bump-stock devices that allow semi-automatic rifles to fire more rapidly. The legislation was co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim and received “yes” votes from all three District 24 legislators.

He said the ban can be easily circumvented “by anyone with an internet connection and a small set of tools at home.

“We are just not interested in doing symbolic stuff,” he said.

“Why vote for something that arguably infringes on one of the [constitutional amendments] in the Bill of Rights and accomplishes nothing?

“We’ve got a tradition of supporting a suspension of gun rights when people are adjudicated for being irresponsible in some way,” he said, adding, “as long as it’s on an individual basis.”

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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