Washington State Senators Cross Aisle and Tilt Ideological Balance
Published: December 26, 2012
OLYMPIA, Wash. — From the governor-elect on down, through both chambers of the Legislature, a tincture of blue political monoculture drifts through Washington State politics like mist through the pines.
Or is the Democrat-led consensus an illusion, a distortion of liberal Seattle, Washington’s urban center and the heartland of the Pacific Northwest left? Two Democrats in the State Senate, in bolting from the party’s ranks this month to join with Republicans in creating a new majority coalition, say yes.
True representation of state residents — republican government with a small “r” — demanded a broader discussion and a larger voice, they said, for marginalized segments of the electorate.
“Seattle-centric,” said Senator Tim Sheldon, a two-decade veteran lawmaker and Democrat from a district west of Olympia, summing up the combination of forces that alienated him: safe seats in Seattle, campaign money raised in safe seats but spread around, and a caucus that rewards and reinforces the safe-seat equation with powerful leadership posts. “They’re not representative of the state,” he said.
The fact that Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, a former Democratic congressman, will take office in January having won majorities in only eight liberal counties while losing in the other 31 only bolstered the case for change, said Mr. Sheldon, who said he voted for Mr. Inslee’s opponent, Rob McKenna, the state’s attorney general and a Republican.
But the Senate’s Republicans have not simply gained power with a couple of recruited allies. The plot is thicker than that.
When the session convenes in January, Mr. Sheldon will be elected president pro-tem, the coalition has said — leader of the chamber when the lieutenant governor, a Democrat, is away. The other Democratic recruit, Senator Rodney Tom, will become majority leader, undertaking to speak for, and presumably direct, an overwhelmingly Republican coalition membership. On paper, the Democrats have a 26-to-23 majority. The coalition, with 25 votes, tips the balance.
“There’s something about this whole thing that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” said the current majority leader, Senator Ed Murray, a Democrat from Seattle.
There are other wrinkles to ponder, too. Mr. Tom, a real estate agent and a former Republican who represents a district east of Seattle, is, in his own words, fiscally conservative but “very socially liberal.” He changed parties six years ago, at least in part, he said, because of the Republican drift to the right on social issues.
He said many Republicans never forgot or forgave. They targeted him for removal in his last election, in 2010, spending more than $800,000 — a huge amount for a State Senate contest — in a failed bid to get the seat back.
In the new coalition, as it turns out, the conservative social legislation that Mr. Tom loathes will be off the table, with a relentless focus on what he called, in an interview, the “bread and butter” of the budget, job creation and education financing.
“We’re not going to turn back the clock and pass any new social legislation,” he said.
Here in the capital, legislative staff members and senators alike were pondering where they stood, and where they might sit — office space in the new power-sharing arrangement being one of the unknowns of the holiday season. What seemed increasingly clear, though, is that in the coalition agreement, Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Tom had achieved a kind of coup within a coup, silencing Republican social conservatives on one hand and distancing Seattle Democrats on the other, all in one karate chop.
The Republican floor leader, Senator Mark Schoesler, agreed that the new relationship was complicated.
“All of us have to have trust,” he said. “I trust Senator Tom and his word that we’re sticking to jobs, education and budgets; he trusts me that I’m not going to go cut a deal and cut his legs out from underneath him.”
The further paradox of the situation, some political experts said, is that in muting social conservatives, coalition Democrats may have ridden to the Republicans’ long-term rescue.
“It’s probably a good development for the Washington Republican Party if they want to hold power again,” said Travis N. Ridout, a professor of political science at Washington State University. He said that as Republicans moved to the right on social legislation in recent years — a pattern reflected across the nation — their success rates collapsed in Seattle’s suburbs where they were once strong. Becoming competitive again statewide, he said, means winning over voters like Mr. Tom, who might be moderate or conservative on economics, but vehemently liberal beyond that.
“It may be masterful,” Professor Ridout said. “Or it may be a disaster — we don’t know.”
A spokesman for Governor-elect Inslee said the road ahead was too uncertain to comment. The Senate rules, for one thing, will have to be changed in the opening days of the session, which begins Jan. 14, to allow a majority leader to be elected by the chamber as a whole, rather than in the traditional way by the party having the most R’s or D’s on its roster.
The coalition has said that Republicans will preside over six influential committees dealing with the budget, labor and economics, education and health care. Democratic Senators will lead six other committees, with three committees to be led jointly.
What happens even further down the road in the next election cycle — in bridges burned or new trails blazed — is even more of a guess.
“If I run again, I have no idea how I’m going to get funded,” Mr. Tom said.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 27, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Washington State Senators Cross Aisle and Tilt Ideological Balance.
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