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Politics in Washington: Ready for an explosion

Rodney Tom's decision "floored" supporters. Credit: 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.

The seismographer can also detect real rumbles in Seattle, with all the maneuvering over the minimum wage ordinance. Consultants are rubbing their hands at the thought of four well-financed ballot issues: the mayor/council version, the 15 Now purist version, the One Seattle go-slow version, and maybe one from labor if the unions don’t throw in with Kshama Sawant’s initiative.

Mayor Murray has unleashed lots of angry forces by pushing for a dramatic increase in the minimum wage, including union fights between the culinary workers (whose excluded union backed Mayor McGinn) and SEIU members. Too bad the new mayor hasn’t yet gotten his staff up to speed on this issue, which is about to test him and the status quo of Seattle politics. Add to this the fact that all members of the City Council have to run in 2015, under the new district system. Bubble, bubble!

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