Callaghan: Despite denials, Senate shake-up smacks of politics




New Washington state Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom kept saying that it wasn’t about politics, it was about policy. In a nation where the next election usually starts the day after the last election, it is hard to separate the two. But Tom, one of two Democrats joining with 23 Republicans to form what their nice new letterhead calls the “Majority Coalition Caucus,” insisted that the point wasn’t power but a new way of governing.

“The public is hungry for Olympia to come together and work cooperatively on our most important priorities — jobs, education and the budget,” the Medina Democrat said. The coalition offered six committee chairmanships to Democrats. Three committees will have equal numbers of each party.

“It’s exactly the sort of cooperation the people of our state and our nation want to see,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, who two weeks ago was selected as the leader of the Republican caucus.

The coalition members — the 23 who won election as Republicans plus Tom and Potlatch Democrat Tim Sheldon — call this a new way of doing things. After all, once they collected 25 votes, they could pretty much have done anything they wanted in terms of running the committees. But Tom has insisted he wouldn’t offer up his vote simply to give the GOP total control but instead wanted to create a different sort of governing.

Two Democrats don’t exactly make the caucus bipartisan. And Schoesler’s assertion that the new group would govern from the middle might require a few more Democratic defections to compensate for the Republicans who operate far from that middle. It is true, however, that it is easier to hold a group together if the members have only recently attained power, making memories of minority status still fresh.

Whether this power-sharing even happens is still in doubt. Tossing Democrats six committees, none considered the Senate’s most-powerful or most-important, might not be enough for the now-disappointed 24 to join up. But if they do, it is unrealistic to suggest that politics has successfully been put aside. The coalition itself came together in reaction to what its members disliked about the politics of the formerly majority Democrats. It is designed to replace those politics with the coalition’s stance against any increases in state revenue and for more reform of state government and education. By portraying their own politics as policy, though, they can label as partisans people who think differently. That sounds a lot like politics.

Democrats less than thrilled

Not everyone shared the enthusiasm of the coalition members. Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray termed it a “take-it-or-leave-it” plan. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said his caucus would work with whichever group is in charge of the Senate. But he said he was worried that “today’s events certainly have the potential to make reaching consensus even more difficult in an already-difficult year.”

Senate Democratic Floor Leader David Frockt correctly observed that power-sharing arrangements usually result from negotiations among the people who might share power. Democrats had made a preliminary offer of sharing control of the Transportation Committee and expected a counteroffer. Instead they got a call shortly before Monday’s press conference announcing what was a done deal. When asked if he felt betrayed by Tom and Sheldon’s actions, Frockt said he wasn’t.

There is certainly one person who might feel betrayed, though. In 2010, Washington Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz gave Tom $25,000 to help him win re-election against a well-funded Republican. Had Pelz held onto that money and given it to Tim Probst instead, things might be different this week. Probst, you see, lost to Clark County Sen. Don Benton this year by just 78 votes out of nearly 51,000 cast. Without Benton’s re-election, the Majority Coalition Caucus would still be in the minority. And Rodney Tom’s press conference wouldn’t have drawn nearly as many reporters.