Lone Democrat in Senate majority? No problem

Tim Sheldon is cool about being left alone in a room of Republicans when Rodney Tom departs.
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Sen. Tim Sheldon

Tim Sheldon is cool about being left alone in a room of Republicans when Rodney Tom departs.

Sen. Tim Sheldon is content to be the sole Democrat caucusing with the Washington Senate Republicans. Things may be changing around Sheldon, but he's staying right where he is.

With fellow renegade Democrat Sen. Rodney Tom's announcement Monday that he won't run again for election, the Majority Coalition Caucus' count of Democratic members appears set to fall from two to one — Sheldon. The coalition also has 24 Republicans. The combination of two Democrats and 24 Republicans has given the caucus control of the 49-member Senate.

On Tuesday, Sheldon, D-Potlatch, said he will stick with the Majority Coalition Caucus as a Democrat in the 2015 legislative session — and won't switch his party allegiance to the GOP. "I'm a Democrat. I've been elected nine times as a Democrat," he said. However, Sheldon has no plans to try to return to the Senate Democratic Caucus.

As a conservative Democrat, he is frequently at odds with his own party but has no intention of declaring himself Republican. The 66-year-old Sheldon became a Democrat in the early 1960s, inspired by President John Kennedy, and that has been a consistent thread to his career, sometimes identifying himself as a "JFK Democrat."

However, he has frequently voted with Republicans, sometimes prompting Democrats to support his opponents in elections. In 2011 and 2012, the Senate's Democratic leaders limited his committee assignments to one — transportation — instead of the normal three. His annual bills to privatize the state liquor stores died yearly in committee. Eventually, a public initiative accomplished what he could not get through the Senate.

Sheldon had been part of the so-called "roadkill caucus" along with Tom and a few other moderate Democrats and Republicans. That small but powerful bloc often provided the key swing votes between the more hardcore liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.  In 2012, Sheldon joined Tom and another roadkill member, Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, to switch sides at the last minute to pass a Republican budget when the Democratic caucus controlled the Senate. Kastama did not run for re-election in 2012 and Tom has dropped out for 2014, Sheldon noted: "I'm the only one left of the three."

In December 2012, Sheldon and Tom joined the then-23 Republican senators to create the Majority Coalition Caucus to take control of the Senate. Tom became majority leader. Sheldon became president pro tempore of the Senate, meaning he supervises the Senate's overall floor action when Lt. Gov. Brad Owen is not present to serve as the Senate's president. And besides the transportation committee, Sheldon is now on the Senate's rules committee and is vice chairman of the energy, environment and telecommunications committee.

Sheldon said his rural Mason, Thurston and Kitsap County constituents are very different from overwhelmingly liberal Seattle residents, which led to his frequent disputes with his counterparts in the Democratic Caucus. He said the Majority Coalition Caucus members have been more accepting of dissenters in their internal meetings than Democrats. "For me, it has been a welcome change," he said.

Sheldon's seat is up for election this year. However, he appears to have a solid grip on it. In additon to holding a seat on the Mason County Commission, he has served his legislative district three times as a state representative and four times as a state senator — a 22-year unbroken streak.

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


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8