In Our View: Power Games in Olympia

Retirement of Senate majority leader adds to excitement in Legislature

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Thursday’s announcement by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown that she will retire after 20 years in the Legislature was a shocker. And, although the Spokane Democrat’s decision looms as the most momentous singular change in Olympia, it’s only part of a trend. Even before the news broke about Brown’s retirement, Washington State Wire was asking on Thursday: “Term limits? Who needs ’em?”Indeed, Brown’s retirement brings to 23 the number of legislators (147 total) who will leave their jobs on their own volition next year. Pair that with 20 lawmakers who departed in 2010, and the political landscape in Olympia has become surprisingly mercurial. At last count (and this story is unfolding as the May 18 filing deadline nears), the list of departing legislators includes 10 Democrats and seven Republicans in the House, plus five Democrats and one Republican in the Senate.

Our community has become a major component in that evolution. In all of the three districts that serve primarily Clark County, significant changes are taking place this year, with open seats (no incumbents) emerging in all three.

In the 17th Legislative District, Democratic state Rep. Tim Probst is challenging incumbent Republican State Sen. Don Benton.

In the 18th, Republican state Rep. Ed Orcutt was moved out of the district by the decennial redistricting process.

In the 49th, Democratic state Sen. Craig Pridemore is leaving that seat to run for state auditor.

All of this means Clark County will be short on seniority next year in the Legislature. Five of the six state representatives in the three districts will have no more than one full term’s experience. (The sixth is five-term Democratic state Rep. Jim Moeller in the 49th). And including state senators, two-thirds of the three districts’ nine legislators will have less than two terms’ experience each.

On the other hand, Clark County could gain clout when it comes to legislative leadership. State Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, not only is the political patriarch of the 18th District, he’s also ranking Republican on the Senate’s budget writing committee. Zarelli has perfected smooth and collaborative aisle-crossing skills and works reasonably well with Democrats. With Brown, the Senate majority leader, retired, Zarelli’s stature no doubt will grow.

And in the Senate, precisely which party has become the majority party is a subject for debate. Democrats hold a 27-22 advantage, but five are leaving the Senate, and it could be seven if two Democratic state senators are successful in running for higher office. Meanwhile, only one Republican state senator has decided to step down. Furthermore, when three Democrats voted with Republicans on the state budget, it essentially gave Republicans majority control of the budget.

This fraying of the Democrat fabric in the Senate, coupled with Brown’s Wednesday announcement, surely will strengthen Zarelli’s power, and that’s good for Clark County.

Then again, we’re still a long way (one primary and one election) from the convening of the 2013 Legislature. It’s far too early to draw any conclusions about partisan power. What we already know, though, is that the churn of our state’s political personnel has become uncommonly vigorous.

What caused this upheaval? Some say the economy. Some say the rise in bitterly partisan politics. Some say a combination of both. But defining the cause is not as important for Washingtonians as resolving to pay close attention to the Aug. 7 primary, the Nov. 6 election and the 2013 legislative session.