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Hobbs Loses Half a Gavel – Senate Majority Coalition Forces Co-Chairmanship and Triggers Uproar on Senate Floor

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, says half a gavel is better than none -- but he wishes he kept the whole thing.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, says half a gavel is better than none — but change to committee structure bodes ill for bipartisanship.

OLYMPIA, Jan. 27.—Steve Hobbs, the middle-of-the road Democrat who frequently rankled his fellow Ds when his party controlled the Senate, got a public snub from the other team Monday when the largely Republican Senate majority coalition took away half his gavel.

In the first truly dramatic vote of this year’s legislative session, the Senate Majority Coalition caucus pushed through a resolution that turns the Senate banking committee into a panel that is co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican. Hobbs, who continued as chairman when the largely Republican coalition took over the Senate last year, will split duties with Republican Jan Angel. The vote on the Senate floor was a caucus-line 26-23, and it prompted one of the strangest spectacles since the new regime gained power.

State Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard.

State Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard.

To be specific, his caucus stood up for him. Back in his home district, Hobbs has been hammered for his apostacy by Democratic-leaning special interest groups, most notably the Washington Education Association, and until Monday he seemed likely to face a well-financed challenge for re-election within his own party. He still might. But at least for a few minutes on the Senate floor Monday, Hobbs’ fellow Democrats literally stood, while their votes could be counted. And after the vote was taken and Hobbs lost, when he entered the Senate Democratic caucus room and the door was closed, the cheers from his colleagues were loud enough that they might have been heard on the other side of the chamber.

“I think it is a clear indication that the [Majority Coalition] caucus has moved to the right,” Hobbs told reporters after the vote. He said he will grudgingly accept the new arrangement, but added, “I don’t know how we can work in a bipartisan manner if they are not willing to be bipartisan.”

Members of the Majority Coalition said the vote was not intended as a slap at Hobbs, but rather as a recognition of the broad experience of newly elected Republican member Angel. She is one of the few members of the Legislature who can claim experience in banking, housing and insurance. “This is not a political move,” said Senate Majority Caucus Leader Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee. “We are taking advantage of the talents that one of our new members has and putting her on a committee so that she can work as a team with the other person, who will now become co-chair.”

Fraught With Symbolism

During floor vote, Senate Democrats stand up for Hobbs.

Standing up for Hobbs: Senate Democrats rise to be counted.

Where legislation is concerned the change in committee structure probably won’t make a whit of difference. The banking panel is hardly the focus of partisan intrigue. Hobbs is perceived as a moderate voice sympathetic to the business community. Angel is seen as a solid business vote.

But in the politics of the legislature, the move is fraught with symbolism. Hobbs is a centrist Democrat who has been willing to work with both sides of the aisle and has been a leader in the moderate so-called ‘Roadkill Caucus’ whose influence has waxed and waned. He became chairman of the banking committee in 2011, back when Democrats were in charge of the Senate, amid the turmoil and pressure that has been brought to bear against Democrats who do not embrace the progressive line. His predecessor in the chairmanship, Democrat Jean Berkey, was dumped when labor and trial-lawyer groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign for a Democratic challenger whose leftier stands were more to their liking. Hobbs was targeted himself that election by the same special interest groups and only narrowly survived.

And in many ways the whole story is connected. The toe-the-line pressure from big-spending and increasingly well-organized Democratic constituencies has been one of the big undercurrents of the Legislature of recent years. One result was the takeover in the Senate last year — two frustrated Democrats formed a coalition with 23 Republicans. Hobbs stuck with the Democratic caucus, but he was one of three Democrats who accepted chairmanships from the other team, in the interest of bipartisanship. It is an ideal Hobbs said he still believes in, during a dramatic speech on the Senate floor.

Hobbs began by quoting from a press release issued by the Majority Coalition Caucus last March 4. In it, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said, “These guys have really stepped up as leaders. I’m glad to see some of my fellow Democrats are willing to be part of the solution. People are tired of politics; they want us to work cooperatively on our most important priorities – jobs, education and the budget. We are committed to this new way of governing – an approach that isn’t about creating political advantage, but about working together to get important issues solved.”

Says Coalition Just as Guilty

Hobbs speaks on Senate floor.

Hobbs speaks Monday on Senate floor.

Hobbs observed that there is an unwritten rule of the Legislature that members must not vote against the wishes of their caucus on procedural motions. Those are the votes that establish control of the floor, and when members break discipline, there is hell to pay. Hobbs says he has been willing to do it, and that makes him a man in the middle. “I am proud to say that there have been many times when I have fought with my caucus,” he said. “Anyway, on this particular motion, it takes 25 votes, and I have had many of my good friends on the other side of the aisle come up to me after their last caucus vote, the one that led us to this, and say, ‘Man, Steve, I am really sorry, I was with you, I fought hard for you in the caucus, but I can’t go against my caucus. We have got to have unity.’

“You know, I fought my own caucus, not just on floor votes but on procedural motions, that golden rule that every leadership of each caucus [has] that you shall never vote against your caucus on procedural motions. Well, I went against my caucus on procedural motions. Why? Because the ideal of moving forward good legislation that the people of Washington want, I feel is a good thing. And on many occasions, I have teamed up with people on workers’ comp reform, on education reform, on a bipartisan budget – I was with you.

“[I was] going against the majority of my own caucus at great political risk, because I felt it was the right thing to do. Some people have told me that you felt I have been wronged in this, and that you feel I should remain chair. Well, you can vote that way. No one is holding you back.

“The power of 13 or 14 or whatever our caucuses want to bring up, means nothing. That should mean nothing in the Senate. But the will of the majority should rule.”

He warned that if the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus takes a hard line on a matter like this one, it is going to be harder to forge bipartisan compromise on bigger issues like the budget and workers’ compensation.

Tempers Flared

Senate Majority Caucus Leader Linda Evans Parlette argues caucus position.

Senate Majority Caucus Leader Linda Evans Parlette argues caucus position.

What brought it on? The conflict appears to have started in the opening days of the session, when Hobbs irritated some in the Majority Coalition by mounting an unsuccessful floor fight over a bill referral. Hobbs argued that his committee, charged with housing, should have jurisdiction over a landlord-tenant bill. He lost to Judiciary Chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane. Word on the hill has it that the dispute was launched by a not-altogether-unusual lobbying snarl, as advocates looked to place the bill before a committee. But the argument went to extremes: Both chairmen introduced identical bills, SB 6030 and SB 6143. The original was introduced by Hobbs; Padden held a work session on the version he introduced; both could stake a claim, and from there argument escalated. Hobbs stood his ground, Padden had the support of his caucus. Hobbs’ bill was referred to Padden’s committee and tempers flared.

In the bigger picture, however, pressure also may have been created by the election of Angel last fall. Her victory gave the majority coalition an additional vote and reduced the importance of cross-party cooperation. State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who led the effort to give Angel the co-chairmanship, issued a press statement: “Our coalition has increased in number since the 2013 session, and it’s reasonable to reflect that fact by increasing the number of Republicans chairing or co-chairing committees,” he said. “As a longtime member of FIHI, I can think of few members of the Senate who would be more qualified to lead this committee than our newest Republican colleague, Jan Angel.”

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, leader of the anti-bridge forces.

Led effort to give Angel a gavel: State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

Members of the majority coalition note that Angel owned a property and casualty insurance company, she spent eight years on a Kitsap County housing board, and she worked 14 years in banking.

“This isn’t about Sen. Hobbs, who is a likeable guy,” Benton said. “Jan has spent years in the banking industry, starting in the mail room and working her way up. She has also worked in the real estate industry, before stepping up to serve the people of her district in the state Legislature. Given her arrival in the Senate, we would be foolish not to take advantage of her years of experience and put her talents to the best possible use for the people of this state.”

Move Unites Democrats

State Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond.

State Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond.

From the Democratic side of the aisle came dark charges of surging conservative influence. Judging by the rare demonstration of support for Hobbs, it appeared that the move by the majority coalition had done more to unite Democrats than anything they have done of their own accord since the takeover. Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said he was furious – and it is worth noting that he too accepted a chairmanship last year. Hatfield, who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, likened the Majority Caucus decision  to mobster movies: “’Oh, you’re friends with Steve Hobbs? Then you take the gun and kill him.’ It is almost at that level. We are going to make you do this to prove your loyalty.’”

Like Hobbs, Hatfield says he’s staying on, too, though he says he wonders if he’s going to wind up with half a gavel. The third member, Tracey Eide, D-Des Moines, already is a co-chairman. The power-sharing arrangement on the Senate Transportation Committee, however, was established from the start.

Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, issued a statement of dismay, and in perhaps the most pointed jab, she referred to the bipartisan majority coalition as a ‘Republican majority.’ Said Nelson:

 “Sen. Hobbs’ moderate and bipartisan credentials and impartial oversight of the Senate’s Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee over the past several years is not up for debate. Senators and stakeholders alike will tell you Sen. Hobbs is a fair, reasonable and unbiased chair. I am proud to have served with him on his committee.

“Sen. Hobbs stood up for what he believes in – women’s reproductive health, educational opportunities for all children – and now he no longer serves as chair of a committee that he has led with distinction for several years.

“I am alarmed by the increasing levels of partisanship from the Republican Majority.”

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