In December an independent investigation determined that Matt Shea committed domestic terrorism and produced a pamphlet that advocated for a Christian theocracy and the “killing of all males who do not agree.” Forty-three days later, he took his seat as an elected representative on the floor of the Washington State Legislature.
The actual seat was different from his old one. The GOP leadership moved Shea to the back of the chamber, barred him from the party’s caucus and committees, and removed his name and contact information from the House Republicans’ website. But on January 13, there he was in a suit and red tie, ready to vote. The legislator, who has represented the Spokane area in eastern Washington since 2009, has refused to resign and is even discussing his 2020 reelection plans. The state House needs the votes of at least two-thirds of its members for expulsion. While Republicans may not want to sit next to him, it is extremely unlikely that nine or more of them would vote to unseat him.
That’s probably because Shea is as popular as ever with his far-right base. Among the state’s Republican candidates, he ranks second in the number of individual donors listed, behind only the House minority leader, according to The Seattle Times.
If this feels the slightest bit familiar, it’s because a similar situation is playing out with President Donald Trump and his impeachment trial. Shea himself has made the comparison, writing on his Facebook page in December that the investigation into his actions was “a sham,” “just like with Trump.” The question is, if even a left-leaning state like Washington isn’t able to remove a lawmaker who has been linked to multiple white supremacist groups and was found to have committed domestic terrorism, what does that say about the situation nationally?
At the state and federal levels, there has incredible “partisan polarization,” and both parties are “closing ranks,” explains Christopher Parker, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “Republicans are scared, their constituents are scared, and they’re willing to do anything and everything to maintain, hold on to political power.” That apparently includes refusing to eject alleged criminals from office if they keep their conservative support and are never convicted in a court of law.
In December the Rampart Group, a private investigation agency, published a 108-page report that alleges Shea “planned, engaged in, and promoted a total of three armed conflicts of political violence against the United States (US) Government in three states” from 2014 to 2016.
The report emerged from a months-long investigation commissioned by the state House of Representatives, and it highlights Shea’s support for the 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Alongside such well-known militia members as Ammon Bundy, Shea helped with “planning and preparation” for the takeover, according to the findings.
Although investigators concluded that Shea presents no “imminent direct threat to any individual or group,” they did find “considerable evidence” that since 2014, he has “presented a significant threat of political violence against employees of the Federal Government and state and local law enforcement officers, carried out through intermediaries sympathetic to the Patriot Movement.”
The investigators gave Shea the opportunity to respond to the allegations made against him, but he declined to participate. Nor did he answer my requests for an interview.
Washington state House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat, called the report “incredibly disturbing” and said that Shea should be kicked out of office. But she added that it’s too soon to say whether the legislature will have any type of expulsion proceedings. “Republicans are going to have to be interested in this too, and thus far, I have not heard any interest from the minority leader nor from hardly any member of their caucus in doing this.”
Jinkins said Shea can’t be an effective representative now that he’s not allowed in Republican caucus meetings, doesn’t sit on any committees, and is restricted from using staff.
But Parker said the dangerous repercussions of Shea’s remaining in office and potentially being reelected go beyond his influence in the statehouse. It “just emboldens people who are like-minded to continue to practice or display behaviors and attitudes that are consistent with his, because he’s setting an example,” Parker said. “People follow their leaders. People follow elites.”
Since the legislative session kicked off, Shea has posted live Facebook videos defending himself against the report’s findings and highlighting some of the issues he opposes: gun control, mandatory vaccinations, and abortion. The videos have received dozens of supportive comments from people in his district and elsewhere across the West.
In one clip posted at the start of the session, Shea stood in front of the Washington State Capitol with a handful of supporters behind him holding signs that read, “We stand with Matt Shea.” With a microphone in his hand and a smirk on his face, he announced, “I’m still the state representative for the Fourth Legislative District in Spokane Valley, Washington, and we are keeping up the fight.” He then thanked his supporters for the “thousands of messages, the thousands of e-mails and phone calls, and all the things that have been coming in.”