Turkish politics are impacting the Washington State legislative elections and might even have a hand in tossing out one of the longest-serving lawmakers in Olympia.
Controversial incumbent Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, faces ethics complaints lodged by Republican challenger, state Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, and state Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw.
Roach has been elected to the state Senate since 1990 and over the years has earned both ire and praise from her colleagues on both sides of the aisle. She told The Skanner News last month she believes the two Enumclaw lawmakers have united to force her out.
“I really think this might be the end of my political career,” she told The Skanner News. “I have been on trade missions that were nothing but window dressing, and this was one of the most informative trips I have ever taken.”
Roach is referring to a delegation for Northwest lawmakers sponsored by a moderate Islamic organization the Turquoise Council, to visit the wealthy, oil-producing authoritarian nation of Azerbaijan.
The trip focused on a petrochemical industry conference that drew 300 state lawmakers from around the United States as well as powerful political gurus — all to listen to the world’s top experts discuss the future of global oil and gas distribution, the same issue that is tearing local communities apart over coal trains, natural gas terminals and tracked gas shipped from the Bakken oil fields in Canada.
Other guests on the trip with Roach included state lawmakers from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — all oil and gas-producing states -- as well as a roster of American political heavy hitters including Stratfor Global Intelligence Company founder George Friedman; former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz; former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Barack Obama-advisors Robert Gibbs and Jim Messina; Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee and New York Rep. Yvette Clarke; as well as Obama elections strategist David Plouffe, now Senior Vice President of Policy and Strategy for Uber.
The conference’s keynote speech was by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, who boasted that his nation currently has “100 years” of gas reserves. Speakers debated the merits of pipelines over rail systems, the relative profitability of fracked gas versus liquid natural gas, and above all, the oil industry's desire for the United States to become a major fuel exporter with fuel transportation lines connecting American ports to Asian and European markets.
Full disclosure: The Skanner News’ Lisa Loving also traveled to Azerbaijan with Roach and the delegation.
Complaints to The Washington State Legislative Ethics Board about the trip, hosted by the community referred to by its members as Hizmet, paint it as a “junket” without legislative value as a trade mission.
The board already this month threw out Roach’s objection to the state characterizing the Hizmet community as “potentially linked to radical policies,” comments Roach described in her complaint as “bigoted, hateful, derogatory and inflammatory.”
Another ethics complaint by Dahlquist against Roach remains, charging that the incumbent should not have accepted a place on the energy conference trip because it was not cleared by legislative staff — also citing the Hizmet community as “potentially tied to radical policies.”
Meanwhile in the state of Oregon, as with many others from coast to coast, the Turquoise Council since 2012 has held legislative gatherings and cultural events noteworthy for their balance of Republican and Democratic lawmakers in attendance, as well as cultural and business exchange trips embracing both parties.
The effort to build Turkish community in Oregon has been so successful that last November, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency – collaborating with the Turkish Coalition of America and the National American Indian Housing Council -- gave $200,000 to Warm Springs tribal officials to help build a water system at a new school. (None of the groups are affiliated with Gulen.)
The Azerbaijan trip included a petrochemical conference in which President Barack Obama's former senior policy advisor, David Plouffe -- now a senior policy staff at Uber -- was interviewed by Turquoise Council of America President Kemal Oksuz. Photo by Lisa Loving
Seattle Hizmet community organizer Abdullah Akturk says the Turkish government-appointed former honorary consul — who made that original “radical policies” charge to a news reporter last year but was subsequently removed from his post by the Turkish government for criticizing its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters — has caused some problems for the community.
But Akturk had nothing bad to say about the former consul.
“We see each other around, we’ll probably get together sometime,” Akturk says.
“We accept him as he is; that is life.”
Not so the Washington State legislature, where the Ethics committee just threw out a complaint by Roach protesting the way Akturk’s group has been portrayed in a series of legislative travel briefings and in charges against her.
“These are the nicest people you’ve ever met, there is no concrete accusation against them,” she says. “We learned about the gas and oil pipelines in Canada and how our state can potentially benefit — how is that ‘radical policies’?”
The Hizmet movement (“hismet” means “service”) was founded by exiled Turkish media magnate Fethullah Gulen, who last week publicly condemned ISIL, comparing it to Al Quaida and Boko Haram, which he also condemned.
Hizmet is considered a significant force in the Turkish government and business community; Gulen was once a powerful ally of former Turkish Prime Minister — now president — Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is himself still considered to be an ally of the United States despite accusations his policies contributed to the rise of ISIL.
When Erdogan was first elected as prime minister in 2003, he dedicated himself to gaining entrance to the European Union for Turkey. He launched a series of educational, social and commercial reforms alongside the Hizmet community of industrialists, bureaucrats and educators who consistently pushed for interfaith dialogue about political issues.
Gulen and his followers have over the past decade built STEM schools around the world, advocated for industrial opportunities and sought to bolster commerce through international trade relationships struck directly with local communities in the United States and elsewhere.
But Turkish politics became choppier about five years ago, with a military crackdown on elements of the political structure, which tore the two former allies apart.
Last year Turkey erupted in rioting after Erdogan moved to bulldoze the biggest park in Istanbul for an urban development plan; the riots led to wider-scale demonstrations that broke out around the country against Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership.
Gulen is currently living in Pennsylvania and said to be in ill health due to diabetes. Erdogan is now actively lobbying the CIA to have him extradited to Turkey amid accusations that Gulen is guilty of “using influence within the judiciary, police and state bureaucracy to plot against him in his final year as prime minister,” Reuters reported last month.
Meanwhile, back in the Seattle metro area, both Dahlquist and Roach have each charged the other with campaign finance violations — some have already been thrown out by a judge but more remain — in addition to the charge pinned to the slur on Hizmet.
In the local Pacific Northwest communities where hundreds of Hizmet families work, go to school and worship, news that they have been branded as “having ties to radical policies” is not completely surprising.
That’s because unlike lawmakers elsewhere in the region and the nation, Washington State representatives have little connection to the Turkish expatriate families living and working there.
“For the last few years we have been trying to organize trips to Turkey for Washington legislators but we could not because he was telling people this,” Akturk said. “Pam Roach ignored that message and went anyway, and now she is being hurt.”