On Tuesday, December 13 – for the first time in 22 years the Washington State Legislative Ethics Board convened their full board to put on trial 26-year old Republican Representative Melanie Stambaugh for the great ethical crime of sharing public videos from Youtube on her campaign Facebook page. This hearing/show trial/ circus was every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. In the end, Representative Melanie Stambaugh, currently the youngest legislator in the Washington State House of Representatives, and clearly the youngest person involved in this silly scene, looked like the only adult in the proceedings.
For those who wish to see the entire event on video as it transpired, you can go here. It is about as exciting as watching paint dry and almost as wincingly painful to watch as it sounds. If you torture yourself with the entire show, you will realize those four hours of your life are never coming back, and it will not restore whatever faith you may have lost in government. Our tax dollars were certainly being spent, but few would consider it money spent well on Tuesday.
Preparing for the circus
For a good background on this event, you can read this article. Here are the highlights for the back story:
Earlier this year, an Ethics complaint was filed by Mina Mercer, who is the Deputy Director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, against a variety of Republican candidates running for house seats in the state legislature in 2016. One of these complaints was against Representative Melanie Stambaugh for the great ethical crime of embedding videos produced by house caucus staff and posted on public Youtube sites during the legislative session. The purpose of these videos are to help the legislators communicate with their constituents about happenings at the state capital during the legislative session. Most people of all political parties appreciate these videos even if very few people watch them. It is generally acknowledged that they help improve the openness of government and make it more accessible to those who are not the insiders.
Unlike many Republicans, I don’t blame Mercer for filing these complaints. It isn’t her fault that pointless and archaic rules still exist on the books, and despite the fact that the original referenced rule predates the Al Gore-invented internet age, it still is the law. Mercer didn’t write the laws – elected officials and bureaucrats did.
This is hardly the first time this has happened, and the usual way things are done in Olympia is the targeted legislators scroll back and remove the videos from their facebook pages, then they plead guilty to the great ethical crime of sharing the videos (that are already public for the whole world to see on Youtube) on their Facebook site. This guilty plea is then used by their opponents to prove that they are unethical slime-balls, and the campaign season continues as normal. Until now.
Generational Change at the State Capital
Melanie Stambaugh was elected in 2014 in the 25th legislative district (Pierce County, Puyallup) at 24 years of age. She defeated a long-term Democrat incumbent and Stambaugh’s political victory was shocking to the Democratic Party. Understandably, the Democrat Party is still reeling from this defeat. She was also recently re-elected in 2016 in her legislative district with 58% of the vote. Obviously, competent effective Millennial Republicans holding political office doesn’t exactly fit the political narrative for the Democratic Party of Washington State, so in an effort to demonstrate the coolness of their Millennial outreach strategy, they are attacking the youngest legislator in Washington for using social media to communicate more effectively with her constituents (not to mention her generation). I am not sure how that is supposed to work, but they can’t be very happy with the imagery they are creating.
I have met Representative Stambaugh on a few occasions in the past. I do not know her well. I suspect we would have some policy disagreements on a few issues. However, I have become a huge Stambaugh fan after watching her in action at the Ethics Board show trial on Tuesday.
First, Representative Stambaugh decided to fight the silliness – something that is almost never done in Olympia. Insiders argue that she should just rolled over and plead guilty to the great ethical crime of posting public Youtube videos on her Facebook page. However, she did more than just fight it – she created (appropriately enough) a Facebook page dedicated to this silliness and a variety of very effective videos outlining the whole saga. I defy anyone to watch these videos and not be sympathetic to her cause. You will find few elected officials anywhere able to communicate on an issue this effectively.
Secondly, part of the silliness here was how the Washington State Attorney General’s office approached this case. I understand they have to take every complaint seriously. However, their demeanor and approach during the Ethics Board show trial was just not effective. Particularly when Representative Stambaugh’s attorney confronted them on the obvious unconstitutionality of the rules. When both the AG and the Ethics Board refuse to even comment on the constitution because they are “not qualified” to do so (even though all of them swore an oath to uphold the constitution and the AG’s office is uniquely qualified to do exactly that), something is seriously wrong.
Thirdly, the Ethics Board quasi-judicial administrative law hearing process helped demonstrate one of the biggest problems with the administrative legal process in the first place. Unlike in a real court setting, where the evidentiary rules and the courtroom process is well-defined and clear, there really are no rules in an administrative legal hearing like this. The person who acts like a judge gets to make up silly rules as they go along and reject arguments and evidence in a whimsical manner with no oversight or appeal. Additionally, by creating a confusingly undefined process, the “record” being created is arbitrarily biased depending on the goals and objectives of the Ethics Board itself. While it operates with a legal patina under the statutes and rules, the actual process is so full of loopholes and legal challenges that the end result is usually pre-ordained and more political in nature than anything else. This is particularly troubling with potentially $220,000 worth of fines they could inflict on Representative Stambaugh. Anyone who has ever sat through a Growth Management Hearings Board scene knows this is serious. The Washington State Legislative Ethics Board demonstrated the clear failing of the Administrative Law process once again.
Finally, there really are ethical scandals and problems that can occur with our elected officials and they can be very serious indeed. The Washington State Legislative Ethics Board can fill a very important (hopefully semi non-partisan) role in this process. However, the significance of genuine real ethical problems are diminished when the entire apparatus of the state can be mobilized over something as silly as this. The problem is not Representative Stambaugh’s desire to defend herself. The problem is not Mina Mercer’s complaint against Stambaugh. The problem is the failure to fix the archaic rules and outdated process that allows a farcical show trial like this to happen over such a petty insignificant issue in the first place.
From a political perspective Stambaugh wins
From a purely political perspective – Representative Stambaugh wins. It doesn’t matter if the Ethics Board finds her “guilty” of the great crime of sharing public Youtube videos on Facebook. She will be either a heroic martyr or an effective legislator who fought the power and won. She also appears to be the only adult in the room crying out that the emperor has no clothes – and doing this in an effective, modern, and transparent way – using Youtube and Facebook and Twitter – the communication tools of today. It is impossible not to admire her for her willingness to fight the archaic bureaucratic machine – win or lose. The Washington State Legislative Ethics Board mocked itself and looked as foolish and silly as possible. It is difficult to even conceive of a scenario which would diminish this board more than Tuesday. This is unfortunate because they actually have an important role to play, but this farcical show trial did not demonstrate this. The Attorney General’s office looked even more silly and desperately in need of deep and aggressive budget cuts.
The Democratic Party’s attack on Melanie Stambaugh has clearly backfired, and if they don’t realize it yet – they certainly will when Stambaugh gets re-elected with an even bigger margin in two years. I didn’t pay much attention to Representative Stambaugh before, but I’m a huge fan now. I doubt I am alone.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party can continue to claim the mantle of the millennial generation, but it is hard to see how giving a platform to the youngest legislator in the state to defend herself of the great ethical crime of using Youtube and Facebook will enhance that narrative. If Representative Stambaugh is indicative of the future of the Republican Party in Washington, then their future looks brighter than it ever has in recent memory. Heck, she should run for Governor next time…
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.” It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people. It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government. It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.” Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed…
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