Bellevue State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-48, has been named the State Senate majority leader, after he and another Democratic state senator, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, joined State Senate Republicans to create a new majority.
The move would pull power in the State Senate from the Democrats, who expected that the Senate would be led by Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, according to the Seattle Times.
The Senate coup breaks the hold that the State Democrats had on the government. Governor-elect Jay Inslee is a Democrat and the State House of Representatives retained a Democratic majority.
The "Majority Coalition Caucus" includes 25 of the 49 State Senators in the Legislature, including all 23 Republicans in the state senate.
Both Democratic State Senators in the coalition have worked closely with Republicans in the past. Tom was first elected to the State Senate in 2002 as a Republican, according to his 2010 campaign website biography, and switched to the Democratic party in 2006. Sheldon is known as a "maverick," who has broken with the Democrats and sided with Republicans before, according to The Olympian.
According to a press release from the new caucus, its goals are, promoting job growth and a vibrant economy; creating a sustainable budget and living within the state’s means; providing a world-class education system through reforms and enhancements; governing collaboratively to protect the most vulnerable while prioritizing the needs of middle-class Washingtonians; and setting priorities for state government and holding it accountable.
“The public is hungry for Olympia to come together and work cooperatively on our most important priorities – jobs, education and the budget,” said Tom in a statement. “The fact that 65 percent of citizens just voted to affirm a two-thirds vote standard for raising taxes also shows they are looking for a more responsible government – especially when it comes to spending. It is time we put aside party dynamics and focus instead on the needs of all Washingtonians.”
According to a press release by the caucus, six committees will have Democratic chairs, six will have Republican chairs and three will have co-chairs. None of the committees will have more than a one-vote margin between Republicans and Democrats, according to the group.
The committees chaired by Republicans are considered to be the most important and influential when it comes to control of the state budget, as the Seattle Times points out.
Committees that will be chaired by Republicans are: Ways and Means, Commerce and Labor, Early Learning and K-12 Education, Government Operations, Law and Justice, Health Care. The Democrats will chair: Natural Resources and Parks, Agriculture and Water, Trade and Economic Development, Financial Institutions & Insurance, Higher Education, Environment and Marine Waters.
Washington State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz criticized Tom's decision to caucus with the Republicans, pointing out that the party contributed over $25,000 to his campaign in 2010:
"The truth here is that Sen. Tom has instigated this unprecedented coup and joined with Republicans to install himself as Majority Leader out of a desire to further his own personal ambitions, not out of what is in the best interests of his constituents or the public at large. What he announced today is a prescription for instability and division."
Inslee and the House Democrats pledged to work with whomever is in power in the legislature.
In a statement, Inslee said:
“Our goals and the business before us haven’t changed. Voters expect us to work together to create jobs, balance our budget and improve our schools, and I expect that both Republican and Democratic leaders will work together to get these things done in the 2013 session. Regardless of the structure in the Senate, I look forward to working with legislators from both parties to move our state forward.”
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-47, of Covington, relased the following statement:
“We don’t really know how the events in the Senate will eventually unfold, but regardless of who is in charge of what, our goals remain the same: move forward on fully-funding education, creating jobs, increasing access to higher education, and protecting the health and safety of Washington’s residents. We have always worked collaboratively with members from both chambers and from both sides of the aisle.
“Today’s events certainly have the potential to make reaching consensus even more difficult in an already-difficult year. But we can’t allow this Washington to devolve into the bitter drama and endless gridlock we too often see in the other Washington. Let’s keep working together for bipartisan solutions that reflect the values of the state we all love.”
The Washington State Republican Party applauded the move:
“I am beyond excited to learn that our Senate caucus of 23 members has joined with Democratic Senators Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom to announce a bi-partisan majority caucus which will have operational control of the Senate. Under this new agreement, Senator Tom will be the majority leader, Republicans will chair six committees, the Democrats will chair six and three will be co-chaired. The courage of these two Democrats means that we can expect a no-new taxes budget and education reform with Republicans now chairing both the Ways and Means and K-12 committees. I know this new coalition is excited to get to work on fixing Washington's problems, and I offer my full support as they face a tough road ahead during the 2013 legislative session.”