Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
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."

In fiery speech, state lawmaker calls for eastern Washington to secede and form its own state

Austin Jenkins
NW News Network
State Rep. Matt Shea speaks at a 51st state rally at the Washington Capitol.

A Washington state lawmaker says it’s time for eastern Washington to break away and become a 51st state called Liberty in order to protect gun rights and avoid the “socialist values of downtown Seattle.”

In a fiery speech Friday, Republican Matt Shea of Spokane Valley promoted his “state of Liberty” proposal at a sparsely attended 51st state rally in the Capitol rotunda.

“I’m not going to sit in a state that is going to try to take away our firearms,” Shea told the crowd, some of whom were openly carrying firearms. “So if they try to do that, then the only solution left is a 51st state.”

As Shea spoke, an unidentified bodyguard watched his back and two men held a 51st state flag that featured an osprey and the words “Liberty, Founded in Truth.” Shea said splitting Washington into two states would protect people in eastern Washington from what he described as Seattle’s experiment with socialism.

“Do that experiment, but let us live free, let us live free,” Shea shouted to applause.

A six-term member of the Washington House, Shea is a self-described "Constitutional conservative" and "pro-liberty" legislator. He's also no stranger to controversy. Last August, in a speech at a pro-gun rally, he referred to the media as “dirty, godless, hateful people.” In 2016, Shea participated in what he called a “fact-finding mission” to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where he and other Northwest lawmakers met with the armed militants who had occupied the facility, as well as local officials and the FBI. In 2014, Shea traveled to Nevada to lend support to rancher Cliven Bundy, whose son led the Malheur occupation, during his fight with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing fees.

Shea has been trying to launch Liberty since at least 2015. This year, Shea and fellow Republican Bob McCaslin, also of Spokane Valley, introduced a bill to get Liberty up and running. The lawmakers have also introduced a House Joint Memorial petitioning Congress to create a new state in eastern Washington. So far neither have gotten a public hearing.

Both measures were referred to the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee. In a statement, the chair of that committee, Democratic state Rep. Mia Gregerson, said she had no plans to hold hearings on the idea. 

“If we pushed forward down this path, eastern Washington could easily be the poorest state in the nation," Rep. Gregerson said in a statement. "This does no good for education, natural resources, or public safety.

Far-fetched as secession is — it would require a vote of the state Legislature and of Congress — the idea holds allure for an ardent, if narrow, constituency of anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-gun constitutionalists.

At the rally, speaker after speaker warned of government encroachment on constitutional rights, especially the Second Amendment. A key focus of ire was Initiative 1639, the voter-approved measure from last November that puts new restrictions on semi-automatic rifles and requires safe storage of guns.

In his speech, Shea warned of a push for “gun confiscation” in Washington state and advocated for what he called “Irish Democracy,” a term that’s been defined as “dogged resistance” to government.

“And that means we will not comply with any sort of gun control that deprives us of an unalienable right that does not come to us from government, but that comes to us from God,” Shea told the crowd.

Shea’s comments recalled a controversy last fall when he acknowledged distributing a four-page manifesto titled the “Biblical Basis for War.” Among other things, the manifesto called for an end to abortion and same-sex marriage and described the assassination of “tyrants” as “just.”

At the time, the sheriff of Spokane County said he turned the document over to the FBI. In a Facebook video, Shea characterized the release of the manifesto as "counter state" attack on him during a political campaign. He also defended the document as a summary of a series of sermons on biblical war that, he said, was part of a larger discussion of the history of warfare. 

Following the controversy, Shea lost his leadership position within the House Republican Caucus. However, he currently serves as the ranking Republican on the House Environment and Energy Committee. 

After his speech Friday, Shea said he is concerned about his personal safety. “I have received death threats over the last three months due to actually some of the media coverage that’s occurred,” Shea said.

He described the campaign for a 51st state as “very, very active” fueled primarily by anger over gun control and tax measures. Shea said backers of the idea are encouraging county commissioners in eastern Washington to pass 51st state resolutions or hold public advisory votes on the matter, perhaps as early as this November, to build momentum for the movement.

Shea also suggested the new state of Liberty could be admitted to the Union at the same time as Puerto Rico to help preserve the partisan balance in the U.S. Senate.

As currently envisioned, the 51st state would split Washington down the Cascade crest with all counties to the east joining the new state of Liberty.

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."