New House Republican leader charts a path in Democrat-dominated Legislature

Rep. Drew Stokesbary’s selection to head his caucus marks a generational shift. But the GOP faces a tough climb to gain power in Olympia.

By: - May 9, 2023 5:00 am
Washington state representative Drew Stokesbary, a Republican, is seen making remarks on the House floor in Olympia.

State Rep. Drew Stokesbary speaks on the House floor in Olympia. (Washington State House Republicans)

The end of the legislative session in April brought a new Republican leader in the state House of Representatives. 

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, was elected last month to lead his caucus after former leader, Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, stepped down. A King County Republican, Stokesbary’s election could usher in a new era for the House Republican party, which in recent years has been concretely in the minority in Olympia, wielding little power. 

Stokesbary is part of a younger generation of GOP lawmakers but described priorities similar to those of the caucus in recent years, including public safety, housing affordability and funding public education.

Still, the party undoubtedly faces an uphill battle in the state as it seeks to regain seats in the Legislature – especially with a national election cycle approaching that could see polarizing GOP candidates, including former President Donald Trump, competing at the top of the ticket. 

The Washington State Standard sat down with Stokesbary last week to talk about his goals, a looming special session to pass a new drug possession law, the future of the caucus and how a Republican leader can help win new support from voters. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Republican leaders sent a letter to Democratic leaders with five concerns on a Blake bill that, if fixed, could turn House Republicans’ no votes into yeses. It included ensuring prosecutorial involvement, allowing more local government control and allowing public notice when siting opioid treatment facilities in communities. Is it going to take all of those in a final bill to get support from your caucus?

I don’t want to over- or under-commit to anything. I think with any version, even one where all of those items are ostensibly included, the important thing is what the actual bill language says. We articulated that list of policy priorities to help the other caucuses and the governor’s office understand what was important to us, but I don’t think anybody in my caucus is willing to make a definitive statement that they’ll either vote for or against it until they see some actual bill language.

Politically, Democrats control everything at the state level in Washington and have been increasing their margins. As the minority, how do you try to create a balance? How do you get people in the state to care about your party?

I don’t think there’s a single one thing that we can just magically do to change hearts and minds. We just have to show up to work every day working hard for the people of Washington. For example, on the Blake fix, I think Republicans have been playing a really integral role. We’ve said that we’re willing to vote for something that does work. We are playing a role in pushing the policy towards our priorities. It comes up in other issues too. Another one I was really proud of this session was the really vocal advocacy role House and Senate Republicans played with respect to special education funding. Every time that came up, House Republicans proposed an alternative version that would have given more funding to schools more quickly to help fund special education services. We gave speeches and reminded our colleagues across the aisle of our paramount duty and the need to fund these kinds of things first and foremost. It took the third time for it to come to the floor to finally get the version we wanted, but we were able to stand up for our principles and, in the end, walk away with a bill that we think was the best version that ever came to the House floor.

What is your strategy for trying to push your policies forward?

It’ll sort of depend on what the actual issue is. There are certainly going to be some topics where there really isn’t a lot of common agreement and Republicans are just going to have to oppose it and explain why. There’s going to be other topics, where large portions of both caucuses share a similar goal but sort of differ about things like how to implement that goal or the urgency of that goal. When we share common ground like that, we can help drive the narrative and reach a compromise that is better for the Republican view of the world. Republicans want to make sure that even when we are opposing something, we can explain not just why we’re opposing it, but what we would do instead. Being able to propose those kinds of solutions, rather than simply saying no, I think will go a long way towards building up credibility with 7 million Washingtonians, including ones that haven’t voted for Republicans or aren’t represented by Republicans, and helping them realize that the Republican Party here in Washington state is comprised of serious people with good ideas.

What are some other issues where you might be able to get votes from the other side or push your ideas forward?

Another good one that I am personally familiar with is the Working Families Tax Credit. It was enacted in about 2008 as a policy, but it was always subject to budget appropriations, and over a 15-year period – almost all of which Democrats controlled both chambers in Olympia – the Working Families Tax Credit was never once funded. That was never a priority for the majority party. Two years ago, I started going around in every single meeting I was in, every panel, every conference, and I said that ought to be the Legislature’s No. 1 goal. I was able to get an amendment attached on the House floor, through a lot of consternation and arm-twisting and brinkmanship, and probably a little showmanship, that removed the requirement in law that it be funded subject to appropriations in the budget, and instead it would be automatically funded. So, for the first time in the program’s 15-year history, it was funded. 

How do you gain more House seats?

I think one of the goals of the entire caucus and the leadership team is to get a majority in the House. There isn’t another election until November 2024, and the margin is 58 to 40. There are very rarely elections that the balance of power swings by eight seats. So, realistically there’s not a path to get a majority until at least 2024. And practically, it might take even longer than that. In the meantime, separate from running campaigns and running elections, we’re going to try to accomplish as many of our conservative policy objectives as we can. 

How is what’s happening here in Washington and the Republican Party different from what we’re seeing at a national level or in other states where some Legislatures have been passing quite extreme policies in recent years?

I don’t have the bandwidth to spend too much time thinking about what happens in D.C. or other states, but I think that Republicans’ work here in Washington state speaks for itself. I think voters are certainly welcome to have their opinions about what’s going on at the federal level. It is notable that the last couple of presidential elections have been between individuals that are about the most unpopular individuals in American public life right now. The unfavorable ratings for Trump, Clinton and Biden are absolutely through the roof. There is a lot for people to find disagreeable about national politics and national politicians, but my hope is that Washington House Republicans can remind our constituents and the people of Washington that we can’t control national politics, but we can make their lives better here at home. 

How are you anticipating seeing the caucus shift in the coming years?  

I think as our 40 members inevitably change, there will be candidates running in other districts, and we will continue to try to seek out candidates that are thoughtful, intelligent people that have served their community before and want to continue to serve their community and their state. Inevitably, you will have more and more folks from my generation, and it won’t be long until we see more and more Gen Zers. I think that’ll be a priority for House Republicans to recruit. We want to continue to make sure that accomplished women can find a home in our caucus. We have one of the first-ever Latinos representing central Washington in our caucus. I think we will continue to make sure that the House Republican caucus is as representative of the state as possible. I’m really proud of who’s included in our caucus now and look forward to finding some more talented people that might want to join us in coming years.

Are you planning to throw your hat in the ring for governor in 2024?

No, my focus right now is being the best House Republican leader I can be. I have no intent but to run for reelection and hopefully get reelected as House Republican leader after that.

Anything else you want to add?  

I don’t think Washington is unique in this, but it’s an unfortunate trend that the balance of power ends up resting, not with the median or 50th vote in the body, but with the median vote within the majority caucus. You would think that with 98 legislators if you can get 50 of them to agree to something, that should pass. But instead what is going on is the majority caucus and the majority leadership team decide what bills come to the floor and what don’t, and generally speaking, they won’t bring bills to the floor unless the majority of their caucus wants to do it. You end up with scenarios where you could have 70 members want to do something, but if 30 Democrats don’t, it won’t see the light of day and I think that’s unfortunate that a minority can block the will of the majority. And I think that’s too bad. I think it would be a lot better off if what mattered was what could get 50 votes, not what could get you know, 30 votes within the majority caucus.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.