The scene of Democrats electing pistol-packin’ Pam Roach to be state Senate president pro tempore is one of those rather delicious moments in the weird world of Olympia politics.
For the Democrats, electiong one of the most conservative members of the legislature to oust a Democrat-in-name, Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch) from the position was a way of exacting revenge at minimal cost.
Sheldon is persona non-grata among Democrats for throwing his support and votes to the GOP and helping to give them control of the Senate last session. Sheldon is still a member of the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus, lending a veneer of bipartisanship to the Republicans' control of the Senate.
But his party has cast him out. When I was down in the 35th District last summer scoping out the political landscape of the Kitsap and Olympic Penisula areas he represents, it was notable that the Democratic headquarters in Shelton had a poster of every local Democrat in their storefront window — save Sen. Sheldon’s. Sheldon defends himself by saying his politics reflect his district, and to some extent they do. But the 35th also leans Democratic, and Sheldon knows that the “D” label is an advantage with some blue-collar rural voters.
Roach is also a character from semi-rural Washington (greater Auburn). Joel Connelly of seattlepi.com calls her one of “the Legislature’s most pungent personalities.” She, like Sheldon, was opposed in re-election by the establishment of her own party. She has long been uncomfortable with some GOP segments, particularly the religious right — Roach is a Mormon and has said in the past that she felt the sting of prejudice from some conservative Christians. She adheres to most conservative orthodoxy — anti-abortion, anti-tax, pro-gun — but she has supported public employee unions and is libertarian on some issues. In fact, in 2001 she even joined the Libertarian party for a time, a move that outraged some of her GOP colleagues.
She has also outraged members of her own caucus with a reputation for anger issues. She was banned from the GOP caucus in 2010 and ordered to get anger management counseling. She was accused of mistreating staff members, which folks under the dome have called being “Roached.” The Republican leadership said she was a liability who created a hostile work environment. Roach claimed she was being persecuted. She has since been rehabilitated, politically speaking, and readmitted to the Republican caucus.
So the Democratic support is a way to stick it to the Republicans. While the president pro tem position is mostly ceremonial, it can have clout. Roach would run the Senate in the absence of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, gets a seat on the powerful Rules Committee and could potentially have influence over how legislation is handled on the floor. Democrats don’t lose anything by supporting her — whoever was in that chair was going to be conservative and toe the line with the Republican leaders. By putting Roach in the position, the Democrats have added a wild card to the legislative deck. In a sense, they have replaced the Tim Sheldon with a Republican version of himself — a seasoned politician dissatisfied with party leadership and willingness to buck leadership and jump party divides.
Given the fact that Democrats lost control of the Senate, first because of Democrat collaborators like Sheldon and Rodney Tom switched loyalties and later because of GOP gains in the last November’s election, it’s a way of sowing doubt in the Republican Senate machinery.
If you can’t run the place, you can at least make those who do uneasy.
Is the price of revenge to instigate some legislative chaos or mischief-making a good thing? Do Democrats risk their moral authority in throwing their support to someone with whom they disagree more often than not? That remains to be seen. Roach can be a very charming and an effective legislator — and journalists often give her high points for candor and entertainment value.
Still, if the senator begins waving a gun around — she was once alleged to have brandished one in front of an employee — and reverts to old behaviors, the Democrats won’t be able to put the blame on their GOP colleagues. They own part of the Senate circus now.
For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.