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Colleagues remember Washington Sen. Doug Ericksen

Courtesy of Washington State Republican Caucus

Longtime Washington state Sen. Doug Ericksen, a Whatcom County Republican, has died following a COVID-19 diagnosis while traveling in El Salvador last month.

He was 52.Washington Senate Republicans confirmed the death Saturday and released a brief statement from Ericksen's wife and two daughters.

“We are heartbroken to share that our husband and father passed away on Friday, Dec. 17. Please keep our family in your prayers and thank you for continuing to respect our privacy in this extremely difficult time,” the statement read.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, said Ericksen "could be larger than life" and said the Republican caucus "will miss him greatly."

The cause of death or other details, including where Ericksen was when he died, were not immediately disclosed.

Ericksen tested positive for COVID-19 in November while on a non-legislative trip to El Salvador. After his diagnosis, Ericksen sent a desperate email plea to the House and Senate Republican caucuses.

"I cannot get back home, and it's to the point that I feel it would be beneficial for me to receive an iv of monoclonal antibodies (Regeneron)," Ericksen wrote in his email. "I have a doctor here who can administer the iv, but the product is not available here."

Regeneron makes an FDA-approved treatment for COVID positive patients who are at high risk for hospitalization or death.

It's not clear if Ericksen was able to ultimately obtain the drug. Soon after his email blast for help, he left El Salvador on a medevac flight to Florida. As of the week before Thanksgiving he was reported to be in stable condition.

However, in the month since, Ericksen’s whereabouts and condition had been something of a mystery.

Efforts by The Bellingham Herald, his local newspaper, to contact him or his family for an update had been unsuccessful.

First elected at age 29 to the Washington House in 1998, Ericksen served six terms before getting elected to the state Senate in 2010, according to his legislative biography. He last won re-election in 2018 by just 46 votes. He served the 42nd Legislative District.

Ericksen was the Ranking Republican on the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee. He was also a founding member of the Senate Republican’s Freedom Caucus.

“We need to take a stand for lower taxes, less government regulation and respect for people’s constitutional rights,” Ericksen said in a February press release announcing the formation of the caucus.

During the 2021 legislative session Ericksen sponsored legislation to prohibit requirements that people get a COVID-19 vaccine. The bill did not get a hearing in the Democratically controlled state Senate.

It's not known if Ericksen was vaccinated or not against COVID-19. Asked earlier this year by Keith Eldridge of KOMO-TV if he was vaccinated, Ericksen declined to say. He added, "I'm not for [vaccines] or against vaccines."

A lifelong resident of Whatcom County, Ericksen was a graduate of Cornell University and had a master's degree from Western Washington University.

In 2017, Ericksen formed a business, Pac Rim Bridges, LLC, with former Republican state Rep. Jay Rodne, according to filings with the Secretary of State’s Office.

On Ericksen's 2021 financial affairs disclosure statement he described Pac Rim Bridges as a consulting firm and reported that it was providing services to the Kingdom of Cambodia.

In 2019, The Seattle Times reported that Ericksen and Rodne had secured a $500,000 contract with the government of Cambodia to promote improved relations with the U.S. and had traveled to the Southeast Asian country to meet with its longtime prime minister Hun Sen. In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch said Cambodia was in a "human rights freefall" and was "rapidly reverting towards a one-party state."

On a previous trip to Cambodia, in 2018, Ericksen served as an election observer. He was quoted in Cambodian media praising the election as “free, just, and nonviolent, expressing the wills of the Cambodian people," even though the U.S. government has described Cambodian elections as "neither free nor fair," according to The Seattle Times reporting.

In February of this year, during the legislative session, Ericksen missed votes to travel to El Salvador to observe that country's elections which he praised as "free and fair," according to reporting by The News Tribune.

In September, a Human Rights Watch official tweeted that "Democracy in El Salvador is on the edge of the abyss."

Ericksen told the newspaper that his travel to El Salvador wasn't connected to his work in Cambodia.

It's not clear what prompted Ericksen's return trip to the Central American country in November.

Even as he praised overseas elections, Ericksen emerged as a vocal critic of the integrity of Washington's vote-by-mail election system. During the 2021 legislative session, he introduced legislation to eliminate mail-in voting and revert to polling place voting. That bill also did not receive a hearing.

A strong and early supporter of former President Donald Trump, Ericksen played a key role in Trump's 2016 campaign in Washington state.

After Trump's election, Ericksen was tapped to join his transition team and was assigned to the so-called “beachhead team” at the Environmental Protection Agency. Ericksen faced criticism at the time for trying to serve as a state lawmaker and in the Trump administration at the same time, especially while the Legislature was in session. His work at the EPA required him to work in Washington, DC.

A year later, in January 2018, Ericksen said he turned down a permanent job with the administration in order to focus on his legislative work and running for re-election. Ericksen had been widely mentioned as a top candidate for the Region 10 EPA administrator position serving Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

A longtime critic of Washington's carbon emission reduction targets who also showed interest in modular nuclear power, Ericksen was a frequent foil to Gov. Jay Inslee and his climate agenda.

Beginning in 2013, shortly after Inslee first took office, Ericksen served on the governor's Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup where he battled Inslee and legislative Democrats over proposals to curb carbon emissions. Ericksen said the Democrats' proposed policies would economically handicap Washington. Ericksen's Whatcom County district includes oil refineries and an Alcoa aluminum smelter.

From 2013 to 2017, he chaired the then-named Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee during a period of time when a Republican-led coalition held the majority in the state Senate.

Among his legislative accomplishments was helping to negotiate a bipartisan 2015 oil-train safety measure.

Prior to that, in 2013, Ericksen sponsored legislation that reformed the state's toxics clean-up law and established the Environmental Legacy Stewardship Account (ELSA) with the goal of expediting clean-up projects. The name of the fund, Elsa, was also the name of one of his daughters.

In addition to his conservative-minded approach to environmental issues, Ericksen generally fought to oppose an expanded role for government or policies he thought gave state agencies too much power to regulate industries.

He also had a penchant for poking at progressive urbanites. For instance, in 2020 Ericksen introduced a tongue-in-cheek bill to study the environmental and economic costs and benefits of dismantling the Ballard Locks, restoring Ravenna Creek and removing Seattle City Light dams on the Skagit River. It was a not so subtle dig at urban environmentalists who have long advocated for the removal of salmon-blocking dams on the Snake River.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ericksen had emerged as one of Inslee's loudest critics, going so far as to call on the governor to resign for his handling of the crisis.

On Saturday, the governor said he and First Lady Trudi Inslee were sending condolences to Ericksen's family.

"Our hearts are with them," the couple said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, called Ericksen's death at such a young age "tragic."

"I served with Sen. Ericksen for more than a decade, and got to know him well over that time. While we often disagreed on policy, I respected his long service to his community," Billig said in a statement.

Ericksen is the first Washington state senator to die in office since 2016 when Republican Andy Hill of Redmond died at age 54 following a recurrence of non-smoking-related lung cancer.

County officials in the 42nd District will select a Republican successor to fill Ericksen's seat until the next general election.

This story has been updated.

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." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.