Support Crosscut

Fight for state Senate control could enter unknown territory

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon, center, celebrates in 2013 after being chosen at president pro tempore by a mostly Republican vote. Credit: Tom James/Crosscut

This is only one scenario. But Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, might become the most powerful member of the Washington State Senate.

That's because Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and controversial leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus of 24 Republicans and two Democrats, announced Monday, that he won't run for re-election, citing family and health matters.

"I'm still working through some health issues related to my kidney stones adventure that I had at the end of the session," Tom said in an email to the rest of the Majority Coalition Caucus. "The final straw was on this past Thursday, my 85-year-old father was hit by a car …  It broke his femur as well as damaging his hip. He's going to require a lot of physical therapy over the next several months, and I'm his only son that lives in the area."

He continued, "I have always said that health and family are my number one values, and instead of that being merely a campaign slogan, I really do try to live by them." 

Tom's announcement surprised Republicans, who dominate the coalition. State GOP chairwoman Susan Hutchison said she found out about Tom's decision Monday morning. Republicans have not lined up a replacement Republican candidate for the 48th District, which is Medina and parts of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland. However, Hutchison said an internal GOP poll had showed that Tom, who calls himself a Democrat despite his collaboration with Senate Republicans, would "easily win" a 48th District race. She declined to elaborate on the poll other than saying its design is scientifically valid.

Former Kirkland mayor Joan McBride had announced she would run as a Democrat against Tom. However, Monday's announcement sets up questions on whether McBride, Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, or Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, would run for the Senate seat with the other two running for the House. Habib and, especially, Hunter are proven vote-getters district wide.

"I was blindsided … along with everyone else," Habib said. Habib speculated that Democratic leaders will likely huddle to figure out which of the three candidates should run for which of the three seats — mulling over campaign cost estimates and who would be the best candidate going against a yet-to-be-determined Republican opponent. "The goal for all of us is to sit down and figure out how to regain the state Senate," Habib said. Hunter and McBride could not be reached for comment Monday. The filing deadline is May 16.

Tom and Sheldon became controversial in December 2012 when they switched from the Senate Democratic caucus, which then held a 26-23 majority in the upper chamber, to the Republican caucus to give it a 25-24 edge. The Republican caucus dubbed itself the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus since Tom and Sheldon said they would remain Democrats even though they caucus and vote with the Republicans. In return, the Republicans made Tom the leader of the coalition and the Senate Majority Leader.

That coalition has controlled the Senate in 2013 and 2014, and has stopped almost every major push made by the Democrat-controlled House and Gov. Jay Inslee. While the coalition has rarely been able to get its bills through the House, its members have appeared much more comfortable with a deadlocked Legislature than the Democrats and Inslee.

The majority coalition increased its advantage to 26-23 after a Democrat incumbent lost a special election last November in southern Kitsap County. That has Democrats and Republicans jockeying to control the Senate in November's elections with eight obvious swing districts in play in the Puget Sound suburbs. In those seven, one Democratic incumbent, Tracey Eide of Federal Way, and one majority coalition incumbent, Tom, are not running — creating two open seats.

The other five  swing district Senate seats are held by four Republicans — Sens. Jan Angel of Port Orchard, Steve O'Ban of Pierce County, Andy Hill of Redmond and Joe Fain of Auburn — plus Democrat Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens.

The bottom line is that the Democrats need to hang on to Eide's seat and pick up two more to regain control of the Senate, a tough undertaking. 

The Sheldon-as-power-broker scenario would happen if the current minority Democrats and Republicans end up split 24-24 in November in the rest of the Senate, not counting his seat. Sheldon could conceivably seek to join either caucus — essentially the one that he wants to control the Senate. Even if senators cross the aisle on specific votes, a Senate majority translates into control of the flow of bills, deciding which ones get floor votes and which ones die.

While Sheldon is up for re-election, he appears to have a solid hold on his district of Mason, southern Kitsap and part of Thurston counties. He has been in the Senate for 16 years and has been a Mason County commissioner simultaneously for eight years.

Tom, a 50-year-old Realtor, served two terms in the House and two in the Senate. He began in the House as a Republican, then switched to the Democratic Party, before rejoining the Republican caucus as one of two renegade Democrats in late 2012. He has been a social liberal and fiscal conservative and has had strained relationships on both sides of the aisle. Before the formation of the Majority Coalition Caucsu, Tom and Sheldon were members of the so-called "roadkill caucus" of Republican and Democrat moderates, a small but powerful swing-vote bloc between the Senate's more hardcore Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives. In the 2012 session, Tom, Sheldon and former Democratic Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, unexpectedly switched sides in the last days of the session to get the then-minority Republicans' budget passed in the Senate. Several months later, Tom and Sheldon permanently switched sides while Kastama did not run for re-election.

Legislative Democrats vilified Tom the past two years. Meanwhile, Tom and other majority coalition moderates would not break with the coalition's dominant conservative wing on almost all contested issues — frequently leaving Tom to say that he personally favored pieces of social legislation even while he as caucus leader would vote against them or block the bills from reaching a Senate vote. Tom and the Republican moderates broke with the conservative wing once in 2014 to pass the DREAM Act to allow high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants to apply for state college aid. That sparked infighting among the majority coalition with out-in-the-open grumblings by the conservatives against Tom.

Tom's two years as majority leader were marked by no major new taxes being levied, almost no tax breaks being closed, a two-month overtime period in 2013 because of a budget negotiations deadlock, and the failure of the House and Senate to agree a $10 billion to $12 billion transportation construction and maintenance package that included a gas tax hike. 

In a written statement, Senate Democratic Caucus Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said: “Sen. Tom clearly left a mark on the Senate and the Legislature that will not soon be forgotten. There’s no question he will be remembered vividly for his work on both sides of the aisle and in multiple caucuses. There were times I vehemently disagreed with him, but I never questioned his conviction or his determination to pursue the policies in which he had an interest. Our best wishes are with him and his loved ones as he deals with his family’s health issues.”

If Republicans can use their seeming advantage in the swing races to put together an outright majority in the November elections, Tom's likely successor as majority leader is Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who is more conservative than Tom. The dryland wheat farmer has served six terms in the House and two-and-a-half terms in the Senate. If support from Sheldon or another Democrat was needed, the plot could get more complicated. 

The story has been corrected. Steve Litzow's seat is not up for an election.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

Support Crosscut