Lisa Brown: From legislator to educator to serious challenger for Congress
Lisa Brown has always had one foot planted in academia, and the other in politics.
Supporters point to Brown’s bona fides as an economist and a college administrator, as well as her work in political leadership in Olympia, as leading the 62-year-old to this moment in her political career. Long rumored as the Democratic Party’s best chance to retake a red district, Brown ended speculation in August of last year and has since mounted a money and vote-chasing battle with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers that is closer than Eastern Washington has seen in decades.
Along the way, Brown has had to battle claims that have spanned her political career, dealing with work as a young academic writing about socialist economic systems and a trip to the Central America political hotbed of Nicaragua.
Between then and now, Brown has led a political and scholastic career that she’s argued puts her in a position to be the new blood in Congress that Eastern Washington needs.
Early activisim, scholarship
Brown’s career speaking politically didn’t begin in Olympia.
In a video that was seized upon by conservative critics after being published online last month, Brown told a gathering of Washington State University students in May that she “started on the activist side of politics. I worked in opposition to U.S. policy in Central America, which I felt was supporting governments that were not supporting the human rights of the people in the countries, and creating war and refugees that I became friends with.”
That included participation in a demonstration outside the U.S. courthouse in June 1986. Brown was one of 12 people who pleaded no contest to misdemeanors after reportedly blocking entry to the courthouse in opposition to the U.S. sending $100 million in aid to the Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua, according to an account in The Spokesman-Review.
Brown said her critics are conflating a later trip to Nicaragua, as an observer of the 1990 elections and as a college instructor, with those activist years.
“Those were two separate periods of time,” Brown said. “I was talking about Iran-Contra, and I was referring to opposition to U.S. policies that I didn’t think were helping to create democracy and human rights.”
The sale of arms to the rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, then led by Daniel Ortega, resulted in the indictments of more than a dozen officials in the Reagan administration.
She said publicly in a debate in September that she didn’t support the regime of Ortega, the current and former head of the government in Nicaragua where hundreds have been reported killed in political violence both the United Nations and U.S. State Department have condemned. A March 1990 story that appeared in The Spokesman-Review, cited in national media stories on Brown’s ties to Nicaraguan politics, indicated she’d joined a pro-Ortega march then after his defeat at the polls to Violeta Chamorro, a candidate who promised an end to the ongoing bloodshed.
Larry Winters, former pastor of the Cheney United Church of Christ, visited Nicaragua with Brown in 1990. Winters, who has made political contributions to Brown’s campaign, said she, like all other members of the delegation, met with a variety of people on the trip.
“We talked to people who supported various candidates,” Winters said. “We just really wanted information.”
Brown’s political activism also wasn’t relegated to courthouse protests or international travel. In the pages of The Spokesman-Review, the associate professor of economics made the argument to raise the state’s minimum wage, then $2.30, in an op-ed published in February 1988.
“The 1980s have seen a disturbing trend toward greater inequality in income and wealth distribution; the U.S. Census Bureau reports that not only are the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, but the middle class also is relatively shrinking,” Brown wrote at the time, in a statement that could very well reflect her current thoughts about the GOP’s latest tax bill.
Conservatives continued to link Brown to socialist ideas in subsequent races for office. That included her first run for office in 1992, against Chuck Potter. In a story that ran Oct. 26 of that year, Brown denied claims of being a Marxist, comparing them to the “red-baiting of the past.”
“My economic views are pragmatic. They are not ideological,” Brown said at the time. “I want something that works for people, that’s fair, that’s efficient within the framework of the system.”
Brown repeated that message in an interview last month, saying the latest round of attacks is a distraction from what she called “a compelling human rights issue” that has been developing at the American border, and with the uncertainty of people brought to this country illegally by their parents.
“It’s distracting people with a very bizzare claim, that I’m sympathetic to Communists,” Brown said. “Which is absolutely not true.”
An early instigator
in the Legislature
No one wanted to admit they’d cried foul about a single mother comforting her baby boy on the floor of the Washington House of Representatives.
Alan Thompson, then-chief clerk of the House of Representatives, said several lawmakers had objected to then-freshman state Rep. Lisa Brown bringing her 1-year-old son, Lucas, onto the floor during a late vote in March 1993. He wouldn’t reveal their names to an Associated Press reporter at the time.
“But this week, it was hard to find an anti-baby politician,” an Associated Press reporter wrote in her account of the incident on March 25, 1993. Brown had been in her seat just 12 weeks.
Brown’s day care dilemma became her rallying cry in her first year in Olympia in 1993, prompting calls for more day care options for young mothers. But the mystery of the legislator who’d complained about Lucas Brown’s appearance during an after-hours vote quickly gave way to an issue that fellow Democratic lawmaker Dennis Dellwo said typified Brown’s early years as a lawmaker.
“I just remember that she was such an advocate for the poor, the hungry, and trying to help the students,” said Dellwo, who served with Brown as a seatmate for four years ending in 1996. “Those were her key issues at the very beginning.”
Dellwo remembered Brown as a strong candidate right out of the gate. She won her first election handily over Potter with 65 percent of the vote. She’d later earned her seat in the Senate by defeating incumbent Repbublican Sen. John Moyer with 55 percent of the vote.
That seat had been held by more centrist Democrats in the past, said Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican who joined the Senate in 2011 toward the tail end of Brown’s time as majority leader.
“I remember the more conservative Democrats, like (William S.) “Big Daddy” Day, who lost in 1980, and Lois Stratton,” Padden said. “Margaret Hurley and Lois were both very strong, pro-life Democrats, and Lisa was 180 degrees on the other side of that issue.”
One of Brown’s early legislative victrories was a push to allow local governments to levy their own property taxes to support housing for low-income residents. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Mike Lowry, and since then has been adopted by the city of Bellingham and Jefferson County. Some Spokane lawmakers hinted at its possibility to address the growth of the homeless population as recently as last year.
The vote created an ideological divide among Spokane’s lawmakers, one that has become a sharp contrast in this year’s congressional campaign. Republicans were concerned about the possibility of a simple majority raising local taxes, and said it should be a 60 percent threshold instead, the same as a school levy. The issue would rear its head again, on a much bigger scale, 15 years later when Brown led the Democratic Party in the Senate.
Alex Wood, who joined the House of Representatives on urging from Brown after she’d decided to leave for the Senate in 1996, put it bluntly.
“That’s the basic difference between the two parties,” he said. “People say Democrats are tax and spend, and Republicans are don’t tax and don’t spend.”
After being named leader of the Senate’s majority party in 2004, Brown the economist was about to tackle that question head-on.
Leading the Senate, then WSU Spokane
Brown found herself in the most powerful position of her political career just in time for Washington state and the country to experience a generational economic downturn.
Budget shortfalls totaled in the billions of dollars, and Brown took the state to court in 2008 to press the issue of how many votes were needed to raise taxes to bite into that deficit. Voters had approved several initiatives requiring a two-thirds majority of legislators to approve a tax increase, which Brown believed allowed a small number of lawmakers to prevent efforts to balance the books in a state without an income tax.
“I don’t want to be logjammed by a minority of legislators,” she told reporters after a hearing in Olympia on the case. Justices tossed that lawsuit, saying it could be solved by the actions of lawmakers. The high court would later reverse that ruling in 2013, after Brown had left to head up Washington State University’s Spokane campus.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, the longtime Democratic lawmaker who represents the same district as Brown, said the lawmaker’s efforts amounted to “trying to get the trains to run on time.”
“We were trying to find the money for critical government services, when our normal revenue was inadequate,” Ormsby said. “We were going to be having glaring gaps in our service delivery.”
Among the ideas floated by Brown, which are now being highlighted in ads by McMorris Rodgers, was a push for a state income tax. That plan was never floated in a vacuum, Brown responded in an interview last month, but she continued her criticism that Washington’s sales- and business-tax-only system hits the poor the hardest. In 2002, she chaired a state committee that supported installing an income tax, but only if the state’s property tax was done away with and sales tax amounts were reduced.
Brown pushed a tax proposal in 2009 that would have taxed earnings of greater than $250,000, what was referred to as a “high-earners tax” at the time.
“Low-income people pay a lot more in sales and property taxes,” Brown said. “Property taxes are passed on to renters.”
While navigating these contentious taxation waters, Brown as leader kept her eye on a planned medical campus in Spokane’s University District, supporting several pieces of legislation that laid the groundwork for what has become WSU’s medical school. At the end of 2012, after announcing she wouldn’t seek another term in Olympia, Brown was pegged by then-WSU President Elson Floyd to lead the development of the medical school as chancellor of the university’s branch in Spokane.
Sen. Andy Billig, the Democrat who would succeed Brown in the Senate and watched the negotiations as a member of the House of Representatives, pushed back on claims by opponents that Brown didn’t deserve significant credit for the school’s arrival in Spokane.
“It was a team effort, and Lisa was the quarterback,” Billig said. That included her time as chancellor, he said, helping Floyd usher through authorizing legislation that allowed the school to open its doors.
After five years, however, Brown’s interests swung again to the political. After being rumored as a candidate for several offices, Brown made it official in August 2017, declaring her intention to run against McMorris Rodgers.
For Wood, it’s a pairing that has been decades in the making, since the two were on the same floor of the House of Representatives 20 years ago.
“Sooner or later it was probably going to be those two butting heads,” Wood, the former Democratic lawmaker, said.