Mid-Columbia political parties regroup with new leaders

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 10, 2013 

Benton County's Republican and Democratic parties are under new leadership this year -- and though their politics are different, many of their goals are the same.

Retired Energy Northwest CEO Vic Parrish took the reins of the GOP this year, replacing former Chairman Patrick McBurney Jr., who chose not to run for chairman again.

Jay Clough, who ran unsuccessfully against Congressman Doc Hastings in 2010 and state Rep. Brad Klippert in 2012, is the new chairman of the Benton County Democrats, replacing outgoing Chairwoman Regina Speer.

Both new chairmen are asking themselves how to bring people into the party fold and make them feel included in the party's platforms and objectives.

Parrish said some local Republicans feel alienated from the party after a poorly planned presidential caucus in March 2012 shut out hundreds of people who wanted a say in which of the four GOP presidential hopefuls at the time would win the state's nomination.

"I think that was part of the frustration," Parrish said.

Another part was the wording of the oath of office to which Republican precinct officers were asked to swear late last year. The oath asked precinct officers to vow to vote only for Republican candidates, and some thought that violated their rights to free speech.

Parrish said he agrees in principle with asking precinct officers to swear an oath of loyalty to the party, but plans to re-work the one used by the Benton County organization.

The net result of drama about the caucus and the loyalty oath was that some party members felt left out in the cold. Parrish said he wants to reunite the local party and ensure that all members feel their voices are heard. That includes reaching out to members of the conservative Tea Party who have moved away from the Republican mainstream and bringing them back under the tent.

It'll take a united party to get Republican candidates elected statewide, he said.

Republicans don't have that problem in the Mid-Columbia, where the GOP has swept elections for nearly all county and legislative elections for the past several years. But GOP candidates were defeated for nearly every statewide position up for election in 2012 -- including governor.

"I was disappointed with the way the general election went," Parrish said. "I supported Rob McKenna. (His loss) caused me to ask the question, 'Why did that happen?' ... The problem with the Republican party in general is we have lost the things on which we can agree."

Democrats have the opposite problem. They swept virtually every statewide race, but their candidates for Congress and the state Legislature -- including Clough -- were defeated by significant margins by Republican incumbents.

Clough said his challenge will be to convince local voters that Eastern Washington Democrats are a different breed than their counterparts in Seattle.

"We need to do a much better job of explaining our issues," he said.

For example, Clough describes himself as a conservative Democrat who supports gun rights. But Tri-Citians have the perception that all Democrats are liberal and want to restrict gun ownership or ban guns altogether.

"Democrats in Eastern Washington -- the vast majority are hunters and support the Second Amendment," he said.

He added that sending the Tri-Cities' breed of Democrats to Olympia would create a bridge between liberal and conservative wings of the party and give the Tri-Cities a stronger voice.

And the party needs to work with candidates to make sure they're ready to take on powerful, polished incumbents, he said.

Clough also believes the Benton County Democrats need to bring their message to moderates -- who don't believe they're being represented by either party in an age of increasing political polarization -- and try to come together to advance the interests of the community, he said.

"I think we need as a community to focus less on the rancor we have had over the past decade or so and focus more on how to move our community forward," he said.

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