Two Centrist Democrats Breaking Party Ranks Again in Leadership Election – Tom and Sheldon Make Power Play, Demand Coalition Majority

Want Bipartisanship to Rule Senate -- Depends on Result in Tight Vancouver Senate Race

State sens. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, and Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue.

OLYMPIA, Nov. 13.—Two Democrats who turned the Senate upside down last session when they voted for a Republican budget are already breaking ranks as the 2013 Legislature nears, saying they want a rule change that will end their party’s control over leadership positions and committee assignments.

At this point it isn’t clear whether Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon will have the power to win. That all depends on the outcome of a Senate race in Vancouver, where state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is in the fight of his political career against challenger Tim Probst. Democrat Probst now leads by 16 votes. If Benton wins, Democrats will have a narrow 26-23 majority in the Senate, and any two Democrats – Sheldon and Tom, for instance – could swing control of the chamber.

And now it seems Sheldon and Tom are out to prove it, and they’re not waiting for the election results. They made their demand Monday on the eve of a leadership election that normally takes place behind closed doors in the Senate. The Democrats are gathering this afternoon at the Sea-Tac Red Lion Inn to select a new majority leader to replace Lisa Brown of Spokane. Brown chose to leave the Legislature this year after she proved unable to stop the rebellion in the Democratic ranks. Normally this election would be a ho-hum affair; members are saying that Senate Ways and Means chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, is expected to win and that Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, will take his position on the budget committee.

Here’s the hitch. Sheldon and Tom say they want leadership positions and committee assignments to be decided on the floor of the Senate. That means at the very least Democrats would have to share power, because Republicans would be named to committee chairmanships. It also means that a Republican could be named majority leader. Democrats could name whomever they want for the top position, but the decision could be overridden when the Senate adopts new procedural rules on the first day of the next session. So the question Monday was whether Sheldon and Tom will have the votes to carry out their threat, and whether Democrats today will hesitate before naming a new leader. The biggest issue may be settled while the meeting is in progress. The Clark County auditor’s office will announce a new vote count at 5 p.m., and that could determine the winner in the 17th District.

“I’m kind of looking forward to 5 o’clock,” Tom said. “I don’t know if we’re going to be done or if everybody is going to be staring at their phones wondering what the nature of the Senate is going to be. The room is either going to erupt in cheers or people are going to be yelling and screaming and looking at me and Tim Sheldon. And that’s okay.”

No Sense in Waiting

State Sens. Jim Kastama, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon watch from the rear of the Senate March 2 as their vote for a Republican budget turns the chamber upside down.

Sheldon and Tom were among the Democratic trio who basically changed the direction of the Senate last session on the night of March 2. The third member was state Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, who stepped out of the Legislature this year to make an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state. They say the same issues will be at play next session as they were during the last one. A budget written by the more liberal leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus will never obtain the 25 votes it needs for passage. So why wait for the final week of the session for another showdown? Why not bring the Republicans into the room from the get-go? Why not share leadership?

“I think even if Benton loses, we will have to have a coalition majority, and what I would like to do is to make some of these decisions early, in the first day or two on the floor, instead of waiting like last session until the last minute,” Sheldon said.

In other words, Sheldon and Tom may make it clear who’s boss from the very start. But then, it all depends on Benton.

Vancouver Race is Key

It all hinges on the 17th District Senate race.The Tom-Sheldon strategy depends on the reelection of state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, left, who currently trails Democrat Tim Probst by 16 votes.

The strategy presumes that the 22 or 23 Republicans will vote in lockstep with Sheldon and Tom for a revised Senate rule sheet, though it is hard to imagine why they would not. But it is unclear whether there is anyone in the Senate that would join them. The three rebel Democrats were alone last year, despite the fact that there are a number of other Democrats who consider themselves centrist business-friendly lawmakers as well. Some lines they just weren’t willing to cross.

That means it all hinges on the result in the 17th Legislative District race, the last race of any statewide significance that remains to be decided by the final vote-count. There are some 7,500 ballots left to count in Clark County, and with four legislative districts located wholly within the county and two that slightly overlap its borders, it seems reasonable to expect that a thousand or more ballots may be outstanding in the 17th. At the same time, both parties have sent staff to Clark County to ensure that challenged ballots supporting their candidates are counted. Tom said he wouldn’t be surprised to see today’s count favor one candidate or the other in a decisive way.

And so the big battle of the session is one that the Democrats might as well get over with, he said. “I just think we need to run this place more down the middle. We should get that process started now and appoint some Republican chairs and some Democratic chairs. That doesn’t fly too well with some of these guys, but I just don’t think we are going to come up with, as a caucus, with 25 Ds for a budget. And if I am the Republicans, if you don’t want to involve me early, don’t involve me at all, we’ll just let you fry in your pan trying to get to 25 when we know you can’t.

“I agree with Tim that we should try to sit down with the Republicans and help make them more central in our strategy. Granted, the more liberal element in our caucus will have no interest in that, but we will see.”

Predicts Meltdown Without Coalition

What happens if Benton loses and Probst is elected? Moderate Democrats will still likely have a moderating influence on the caucus, Tom said, but if Republicans aren’t sitting at the table from the start, the same sort of meltdown that took place last year will probably happen all over again.

Other Democratic members tell Washington State Wire that Murray is pretty well assured of winning the majority leader position if he wants it, and that while there was some talk of Murray remaining in Ways and Means so that he could focus on a race for Seattle mayor, he called members over the weekend to reiterate that he was in the running for the leadership post, and Keiser told members she would take the Ways and Means chair position. Sheldon said he does not plan to vote in the leadership election, as he plans to demand a rule change that would overturn the results. Tom would not divulge his plans. The voting is restricted to members who will be in office next session; it was not clear whether Probst would have a vote.