Shift’s Newsmaker Interview this week is with Representative J.T. Wilcox, who announced on Sunday that he is stepping down as the Leader of the House Republican Caucus, a position he has held since March 9, 2018. (On Monday the caucus elected Representative Drew Stokesbary to become its new Leader.) Representative
Wilcox will remain in the House serving the 2nd Legislative District (includes the communities of Lacey and Yelm and the rural Eastern portions of Pierce and Thurston Counties), which he has served since 2011.
In his annual interview with Shift, Representative Wilcox provided his thoughts on why he chose to step down from his leadership position and shared his insights on the major issues that were debated during the 2023 legislative session. He was critical of the Democrat legislators, who caved to the extreme members of their caucus, by not passing a much needed drug possession law and not supporting meaningful police pursuit reform. The former caucus leader praised the efforts of some of his colleagues to pass legislation to ease the housing shortage in the state and for rejecting Governor Inslee’s expensive and ineffective $4 billion housing proposal. He shared his thoughts on Republicans fighting efforts by Democrat lawmakers to reduce state government transparency and accountability, while at the same time rapidly increasing its size and power. Finally the representative describes a few of the positive bills which passed during the session.
On Sunday morning you surprised many people by announcing that you will be stepping down as House Republican Leader. What caused you to make this decision?
It is time. That was the subject line of the email I sent to my colleagues in the Legislature on Sunday. While I value experience, elected office has a shelf life. You do your best for as long as possible, and then it’s time for someone else to lead. I have said in the past that if my leadership didn’t result in better results and a more balanced Legislature for our state, then it was time for a change. I also saw a new generation of leaders who were ready. Rep. Drew Stokesbary and Rep. Mike Steele stepped up and were elected Leader and Deputy Leader of the House Republican Caucus the following day. I’m excited to see what they will do in these new leadership roles.
Prior to the start of the 2023 legislative session, it appeared there were some Democrat lawmakers willing to fix some of their mistakes from their reckless 2021 anti-police package. Specifically, there appeared to be momentum for police pursuit reform. Why do you think Democrats settled for a very watered-down version of the reform bill and do you believe what passed will have any impact on reducing crime – especially car thefts?
There is no question that policies passed by Democrats in the 2021 legislative session made our communities less safe. If you recall, we fixed some of these problems in 2022 – but our vehicular pursuit solution died at the end of that legislative session.
We were optimistic earlier this year when 20 House Democrats, including the Majority Floor Leader, signed on to bipartisan, common-sense legislation. I think Democrats settled for a watered-down version because an influential group within their caucus decided to, and the Speaker wouldn’t challenge them. If House Bill 1363 had been brought to the floor in its original form for a vote, I believe it would have passed. House Republicans tried to bring it to the floor on March 7, but House Democrats locked up against the motion.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the watered-down bill is going to reduce crime. I hope I’m wrong. One of our biggest problems right now is auto theft. This bill won’t help. Our communities want more. We made these points, and others, in our floor debate on Senate Bill 5352. As this public safety debate continues, it offers a clear contrast between Republicans, who are united, and Democrats, who are divided.
What are your feelings on the drug possession law failing in the last day of the legislative session?
It was the biggest storyline. Senate Bill 5536 came to the floor on the last day. After a floor debate, the Speaker opened the vote on the bill, left if open for a while, and it died on a 43-55 vote. It wasn’t even close. I don’t know exactly what the Speaker was thinking, but it was a serious miscalculation. I have never seen anything like it in my time in the Legislature. It is shocking to me that Democrats would take this issue into the last day of the legislative session and then fail. They tried to blame Republicans, but that failed too. No one is buying that line; even Danny Westneat called them out.
I sent an email to the Speaker saying we had a significant number of votes possible for the version of the Blake bill that was negotiated in the Senate. She chose a purely partisan approach. It didn’t work. House Democrats are just too divided on public safety, and I assume they are now feeling the full weight of this failure. House Republicans have made their views clear. And we’ll continue to be at the table with solutions. A special session seems likely at some point. We’ll see how it plays out.
Do you believe the 2023 legislature made any gains to improve the state’s housing availability crisis?
Yes, I do. This was a priority for House Republicans this year. I’m proud to say House Republicans, including Rep. Andrew Barkis and Rep. Mark Klicker, played leading roles. Andrew helped negotiate the middle housing and accessory dwelling units bills. And Mark’s legislation to streamline development regulations was delivered to the governor.
However, we did see early momentum stall and I believe ideology invaded the process. For example, Andrew’s lot-splitting measure passed the House on a 94-2 vote and died in the Senate. The transit-oriented development legislation, while not perfect, passed the Senate on a 40-8 vote and died in the House. House Republicans also introduced bills to expedite housing permits and expand development boundaries, but they didn’t move forward. So, we missed some opportunities.
Sometimes success can also be measured by what didn’t happen. Republicans and Democrats came together to reject the $4 billion housing proposal introduced by Governor Inslee. We were able to make major investments in housing in much more responsible ways, including funding in our operating and capital budgets. We took some steps forward this year but still have a long way to go. Keep in mind: For years, Democrats have passed harmful policies that have contributed to our housing crisis. This crisis didn’t happen overnight and won’t be fixed quickly. I think everyone understands we need to do more.
We have seen a troubling trend by Democrat lawmakers who have slowly eroded public involvement and transparency in state government. We saw it with Governor Inslee abusing emergency powers for 975 days, Democrat legislators including an “emergency clause” in their 2021 capital gains income tax legislation which prevents a public referendum on the tax, and their commissioners’ shenanigans’ during the redistricting process. The governor has already signed the 2023 bill (SB 5082) which eliminates public advisory votes on tax measures. What are your thoughts on the Democrats’ actions?
House Republicans once again introduced reasonable, balanced emergency powers reform similar to what other states have in place. Washington state continues to be an outlier. We have been calling for reform since 2020. Some Democrats showed interest last year, and we had editorial board support. But our bill couldn’t even get a hearing this year. Like I’ve always said: There will be a Republican governor someday. And another emergency. This should not be about Republicans and Democrats; it should be about the separation of powers and the voice of the people – through their state lawmakers – in an emergency.
House Republicans fought hard against the bill to abolish advisory votes. I have always found the results of these votes to be important and informative. Advisory votes were approved by voters through I-960 in 2007. We also opposed Senate Bill 5217, which repealed a voter-approved initiative from 2003 that repealed ergonomic rules. Democrats act as if voter sentiment has an expiration date. It’s brazen and reveals the mindset of the majority party. Republicans are trying to tell these stories. And we appreciate platforms like this one that expose these issues.
Open government, transparency and accountability continue to be important to House Republicans. It has been a rough year for Democrats in these areas. I encourage you to learn more about House Bill 1856, sponsored by Rep. Peter Abbarno, which would streamline access to public records and make government more accountable to the public.
Let’s finish on a positive note. In your opinion, what are some of the positive highlights during the 2023 session?
The bipartisan collaboration on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources, Transportation and Capital Budget committees. In fact, the chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Mike Chapman, said at the beginning of the legislative session that no bill would come out of his committee unless it had bipartisan support. I appreciate that mentality. More importantly, it produced some great results. Imagine if every chair had that mindset. And then the transportation and capital budgets, with our leads – Rep. Andrew Barkis and Rep. Mike Steele – playing central roles again in developing these state spending plans. It’s too bad House Republicans weren’t allowed to be at the table for the operating budget negotiations.
(Editorial note: Shift would like to thank Representative Wilcox for being accessible to the members of the media and his willingness to share his thoughts, even on tough issues. He has been an intelligent, inclusive, and honest leader of the GOP House Caucus. We hope he continues to serve the public for many years to come. You can read our past interviews from 2020, 2021, and 2022 in our Newsmaker Interview archives)
For more information on Representative Wilcox and to contact his office, please visit his official website.