Politics in Washington: Ready for an explosion

Rodney Tom's sudden departure shows that changes are bubbling furiously toward the surface in Olympia and Seattle.
Volcano

Volcano Credit: coolinsights/Flickr

Rodney Tom's decision "floored" supporters.

Rodney Tom's decision "floored" supporters. Photo: John Stang

State Sen. Rodney Tom’s surprise decision not to run for re-election shows just how seismically active Washington state politics has become.

On the surface, calm stasis, with a Democratic lock on the governor’s mansion (since 1984) and Speaker Frank Chopp’s permanent state House machine. Little chance of serious breakthroughs on the big issues, given the partisan deadlock from the Tom-led Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate and the power-maintaining Democratic leadership in the House.

But down where the big plates are grinding, some major forces are building up and some major blocked ambitions are emitting steam and lava. Something is going to blow, maybe in the 2014 state elections and the 2015 municipal elections. The mostly-Republican coalition running the Senate was unstable, though Tom surprised skeptics by holding it together. Gov. Jay Inslee has yet to find his stride, being new to Olympia, while in Seattle, rookie Mayor Ed Murray is also off to a rocky start. Tired of the lack of progress, many voters are aching for change and looking for opportunities to topple apple carts.

Tom’s decision was a complete surprise to his supporters. Alex Hays, who heads Mainstream Republicans and admires what progress Tom’s caucus was able to make on education, says he was “floored.” Hays also blamed Tom supporters for not rallying behind the 50-year-old lawmaker when medical problems intruded on his race. Another key Eastside ally in the Senate sent around an email to fellow Republicans with the simple exclamation, “Oh shit!”

Tom explained his sudden switcheroo by citing his nagging pain from kidney stones and the fact that his 85-year-old father was recently hit by a car, requiring long rehabilitation. Observers think Tom was getting tired of holding together an unruly coalition, and that power was oozing away to the Republicans in that caucus. Likely, too, Republicans were going to win enough seats in 2014 to make Tom unneeded as majority leader. (Tom, a former Republican turned Democrat, and fellow soft Democrat Tim Sheldon defected in 2013 to form the largely-Republican Senate coalition, which was built around a politics of no tax increases and avoiding divisive social issues such as abortion.)

Tom is unpopular in Olympia, having defected from both parties and often abrasive in his comments. Even so, he would have a good chance of getting re-elected, since he would have name familiarity, Republican votes (the GOP was not going to field an opponent), and some Democratic support in the upscale 48th district on the Eastside.

Republicans have generally strong candidates in 2014, and are thought likely to keep control of the Senate. Turnout will be key, which is one reason Democrats are happy to have hot-button ballot issues like the minimum wage enlivening the off-year race, when Democratic voting gets apathetic. If Tom and Sheldon, the defecting Democrats, are not needed to make a majority, the pure-Republican caucus would be somewhat more conservative, at least in rhetoric.

Now the race in the 48th gold coast will be lacking in drama. The Democrats, who already had former Kirkland mayor Joan McBride against Tom, will now probably win, since Republicans are caught without a candidate. The district’s House seats are held by Cyrus Habib, who relishes being in the House, and Ross Hunter, who enjoys power as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

One comic episode in all this seismic rumbling was the clumsy effort by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, the volatile Queen Anne Democrat, to try to get Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles to retire. Right after Carlyle said he was going to challenge the entrenched incumbent, Kohl-Welles took umbrage, rallied the women’s caucus, and brought pressure on Carlyle not to soak up dollars needed for other races by creating a Queen Anne donnybrook. Carlyle retreated at once. Ironically, with Tom’s race negated, the argument about saving money also evaporated.

It’s doubtful Tom is considering a race for higher office, given his pariah status. That is not to say that the so-far unimpressive performance of Gov. Jay Inslee is not inviting thoughts of a challenge in 2016. Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant, who toyed with running as an independent in 2012, is now being pushed by Republicans to run as a moderate. Congressman Dave Reichert is, as usual, allowing speculation on his possible candidacy. Some Democrats are wondering if King County Executive Dow Constantine should jump his cautious timetable by four years, challenging incumbent Inslee in 2016.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 4:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Without the prospect of a divided government in Washington State and some form of checks and balances, taxpayers had better hold on to their wallets.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 7 a.m. Inappropriate

Yuppers. A divided government makes them govern, rather than go party line.

Worst thing is a non-divided govenment, as all the crap slips through.

Geezer

Posted Tue, Apr 15, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

"Gov. Jay Inslee has yet to find his stride, being new to Olympia, while in Seattle, rookie Mayor Ed Murray is also off to a rocky start. Tired of the lack of progress, many voters are aching for change and looking for opportunities to topple apple carts."

The logic of this is that toppling the apple carts has become the ultimate end in itself. No need to look for further reasons. It's fun! Let's do it!

When you put new people into office, their initial unfamiliarity with the environment is going to cause fumbling at the outset. At the very least one needs to expect and accept a learning curve. And the reason the old guard has been rejected is mainly that the pervasive political gridlock prevents anything from getting accomplished except compromises of the most opportunistic variety. And with dithering and delay the problems simply become deeper and more intractable. So the new guys are unlikely to do any better than the old guys, and over the short term probably worse. We appear heading for a state of permanent chaos where succeeding waves of "reformers" are brought in and then, a few months later, found wanting and tossed out.

Rome is indeed burning. Did anyone remember to bring the marshmallows?

woofer

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Surveying the media commentary on Tom after my article, you might find that Tom struck a responsive chord with voters, if not with the Democratic Party and Seattle Democrats, who have demonized him.
Most positive is the Seattle Times editorial, praising Tom as a paragon of bipartisanship, http://seattletimes.com/html/editorials/2023382387_rodneytomeditorial20140416xml.html.
More sensible is Peter Jackson's editorial in The Herald, noting that the search for a center is fraught in this state: http://heraldnet.com/article/20140416/OPINION01/140419360/In-search-of-third-way-politics
The TNT's departing Pete Callaghan waves a fond farewell to Tom as "the least political politician in the state." http://www.thenewstribune.com/2014/04/17/3153087/rodney-tom-might-be-the-least.html?sp=/99/296/331/

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Times Editorial board is not exactly "voters".
We shall see if Tom struck a responsive chord or not with voters, the old fashioned way, by seeing who the voters VOTE for.
My guess is they wont elect another Rodney Tom.

Ries

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Note: above comment is actually from David Brewster. We're working on a fix to the comment section.

Posted Thu, Apr 17, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Woofer, the many entertaining (sigh) books to be found in the library on Seattle since day one all describe the situation you lament— Situation Normal All .....

It is probably something not to be taken personally, at least according to at least one new book: Fragile By Design, that among other things compares the U.S. and Canadian financial systems.

afreeman

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 8:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Rodney Tom hasn't had any real job experience, and never could figure out what side of the fence to stand on.

May he be well, and help his father thru his recovery, but politics just isn't for him.

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