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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

'A necessary precaution.' Washington's blind lieutenant governor wants security at public events

Jeanie Lindsay
Northwest News Network
Lt. Gov Cyrus Habib is requesting money in the next two year state budget to hire security.

Washington Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who is blind and has faced vitriol online, is requesting funding in the next two-year state budget to hire security when he attends large, public events. The request is contained in an agency "decision package" submitted by Habib's office to the Office of Financial Management as part of the lead-up to the budget writing process.

"Given that the Lieutenant Governor is blind and can't necessarily quickly react to a visible threat, and because the Lieutenant Governor often receives negative and hateful social media posts, it is sometimes both a disability accommodation and a necessary precaution for the LG to have security at public events," the budget request said.

The request for security funding is part of a broader $20,000-per-year security and emergency preparedness request from the lieutenant governor's office that also includes money for training, satellite telephones, two-way radios and laptop computers. A spokesperson for Habib, Kristina Brown, said the security portion would total $7,700 a year.

Brown provided a list of three events in the last year during which the lieutenant governor's office coordinated with local law enforcement to provide security for Habib. Those events were the June commencement at Central Washington University, the annual Governor's Industrial Safety and Health Conference in Spokane and the Washington State LEAN Transformation Conference in Tacoma in November. Brown said the security coordination was a "basic precaution" and not in response to any specific threats. 

State law directs the Washington State Patrol to provide security for the governor, the governor's family and the lieutenant governor "to the extent and in the manner the governor and the chief of the Washington state patrol deem adequate and appropriate." 

The unit that protects Gov. Jay Inslee and First Lady Trudi Inslee is known as the Executive Protection Unit (EPU). It's an elite, eight-member plainclothes unit whose troopers are constantly with the Inslees. However, that unit does not currently protect Habib, a first-term Democrat, according to Brown.

A State Patrol spokesperson confirmed Monday that EPU does not provide routine security for the lieutenant governor. 

EPU is currently requesting its own $1.3 million budget increase to hire a ninth trooper and cover overtime and travel costs associated with protecting the governor. Last fiscal year, that unit overspent its budget by $400,000. In August, the sergeant in charge of EPU said Inslee's busy travel schedule was putting the health and welfare of his troopers at risk.

"I am pretty sure we cannot continue at this level without something breaking," Sgt. Leonard Crichton wrote in an email. 

According to the budget request from Habib's office, there was discussion of hiring the State Patrol to provide security for him, but the cost was too high. Instead, Brown said, the lieutenant governor's office plans to hire private security on an as-needed basis through existing contracts with the Department of Enterprise Services.

"We just want to have an actual budget for it," Brown said. 

Habib was not available to comment Monday. However, last year he told the Northwest News Network and the Associated Press that he was concerned about security at the Capitol, where he presides over the state Senate.

"It's become quite difficult for the Senate to proceed in an orderly fashion when members and staff have, in my view, a justified level of anxiety about their personal safety," Habib said at the time. 

In an effort to address those concerns, Habib banned all firearms from the public viewing galleriesin the Senate. In doing so, he cited the March 2017 attack at the British Parliament, as well as the June 2017 shooting at a baseball practice involving members of Congress.   

Previously, former Lt. Gov. Brad Owen had banned openly-carried guns in the Senate gallery, even though they are allowed in other parts of the Capitol building. 

The lieutenant governor's request for security funding will be considered by Inslee's office as it prepares its state operating budget proposal for the 2019-21 biennium. That proposal is expected to be released in December.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."