With a new legislative session beginning this week, one question has been on a lot of people’s minds, and it’s not about any upcoming bills. Rather, it’s this: Will Sen. Rodney Tom run for reelection?
And if he does, adds Republican political consultant Chris Vance, “Will he run as a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent? Nobody knows.”
Tom is the subject of intense speculation because his four-year term is up at the end of this year—and because his role in the year past was extraordinary. In 2013, the Medina Democrat turned his back on his caucus and, along with fellow Democrat Tim Sheldon, joined forces with Republicans to take over the Senate. He then became the leader of a new “majority coalition caucus” that espoused lofty bipartisan ideals but in reality pushed a Republican agenda.
The Senate coup reverberated through Olympia like an earthquake. And this November, if Tom runs, voters will get to weigh in on the unprecedented move and furious Democrats will get a chance to seek revenge. The state Democratic Party is already collecting funds for what it calls the “Rodney Tom Retirement Project.”
Speaking with Seattle Weekly and others last week, Tom solved the mystery. Of course, he’s running, he says. As for his party affiliation, he affirms matter-of-factly, “I’m a Democrat.” If the wealthy real-estate investor flirted with switching parties, he betrays no hint of it.
Solving one mystery, though, only begets another: Who will run against Tom? Asked whether he’s been courted to do so, Rep. Ross Hunter, also a Medina Democrat and the influential chair of the House Appropriations Committee, says, “Oh my God, yes.” But, he says, “the current plan” is not to run. “I like the job I have.” (He also concedes that he likes Tom, with whom he shares an Olympia apartment and who has proven to be an impeccably neat roommate who works out in the morning and “doesn’t compete for hot water.”)
As for a Republican contender, state GOP chair Susan Hutchison says she knows of no one interested in running against a man who has worked so diligently for “the causes and issues we believe in.”
The intrigue over Tom underscores a central truth of this legislative session: While some important matters are on the agenda, any drama that unfolds will merely set the stage for the main show in November. In the balance is control of the Senate, which picked up another Republican seat in the last election but remains in the hands of the majority coalition by a still slim three-seat margin.
In trying to take back the Senate, Democrats are eyeing a number of seats besides Tom’s. Or so King County Republican Party chair Lori Sotelo believes. In a recent e-mail to supporters, Sotelo ticked off three potential targets: Majority Floor Leader Joe Fain of Auburn, Ways and Means Committee Chair Andy Hill of Redmond, and the ever-erratic Pam Roach, also of Auburn. Noting their hometowns, Sotelo observed, “King County is ground zero for control of the state Senate in 2014.”
That’s because the county is home not only to über-liberal Seattle but to suburban swing districts. Ten years ago, much of the Eastside was reliably red, observes Vance. Now many districts, including Tom’s and Hill’s, are blue or bluish-purple. Add another swing district in Pierce County—the 28th, currently represented in the Senate by Republican Steve O’Ban but up for grabs, with Democratic state Rep. Tami Green already a declared candidate—and you have a highly contested landscape as a backdrop to the political theater about to begin.
As it did last year, much of the drama will come from the friction between the Senate and the House, which is still in Democratic hands. Each chamber will likely pass bills, send them across the Capitol building’s marbled hallway, and watch them languish.
We already know House Democrats’ opening game plan. “The Speaker of the House is planning on having the Dream Act passed the first week—maybe even the first day,” says Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle). The act, a local version of the national Dream Act, would allow undocumented immigrants access to financial aid for college.
The act passed the House last year with a surprising amount of bipartisan support: 22 Republicans voted for it, including some who gave heartfelt speeches about why they were supporting immigrant students. Yet the majority leadership in the Senate wouldn’t allow the act to come up for a vote.
Dream Act supporters probably won’t be able to prevent that from happening again this year, Hunter concedes. So why bring it up again? First of all, Hunter responds, raising the issue repeatedly generates public support and puts pressure on reluctant legislators.
But there’s also another advantage of pushing the Dream Act: “Voters care about that,” Hunter says.
Losing on the Dream Act and other issues that resonate with voters—like the Reproductive Parity Act, which would require health plans covering maternity benefits to also cover abortion—is not only expected by Democrats, it’s a “key part of the message,” says Sen. Democratic Caucus leader Sharon Nelson. In an interview shortly after she was named to her leadership post in November, replacing now–Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, Nelson explains that the likely losses will help her party make the case to voters that control of the Senate needs to change.
Of course, legislators both Democratic and Republican still want to get some things done. This being a short session that doesn’t have to tackle a biennial budget, the weightiest agenda item is a transportation package. Negotiations bogged down last year in part over the perennial debate about roads versus public transit. (Republicans favor the former, Democrats the latter.)
Republicans also want the state to do away with a sales tax that, they argue, drives up the costs of projects. Democrats want to keep the tax, revenues from which flow into the general fund, where they can be used for things like education and social services.
“Both sides have made compromises,” relates Tom, who has been participating in negotiating sessions convened by Governor Inslee. But the thorny talks were undoubtedly all the more strained last week when it was revealed that the Highway 520 bridge rebuild is expected to run $170 million over budget, leaving less money for other transportation projects around the state.
The 2014 session also has the task of sorting out medical-marijuana regulations now that a state-sanctioned recreational-marijuana system is about to launch. The Liquor Control Board has made a series of controversial recommendations, including getting rid of medical-marijuana dispensaries and channeling all pot sales through licensed recreational stores. A number of bills are likely to amend those recommendations, including one Kohl-Welles says she intends to introduce that would still allow some specialized medical grow operations.
A state Supreme Court order issued last week also ensures that legislators will at least discuss increasing education funding this year. The order gave legislators credit for the $1 billion for schools they added in the biennial budget passed last year, the result of two grueling special sessions that concluded just in time to prevent a state shutdown. But the court warned that lawmakers weren’t moving fast enough, and urged them to take up the matter again this year in a supplemental budget. Whether they will actually do so is an open question.
The ability to get things done might be aided by the time that’s passed since the Senate coup. With the shock over, legislators are likely less obsessed with the reshuffling of positions, offices, and committee assignments. Yet with losses as important come November as victories, it would hardly be surprising if this session is not only short but unproductive. E