This Washington

Democrats Try to Ease Divide in Olympia and Within Own Caucus

Democrats make committee recommendations with an eye toward healing the wounds in Olympia. Will the GOP buy it?

By Josh Feit November 27, 2012


Current Republican leader Sen. Mike Hewitt (R-16, Walla Walla)—he's stepping down tomorrow—issued the following (I must say, lukewarm) statement about the Democrats' overture. (I've bolded the part that should make the Democrats nervous the GOP isn't biting and may try to sieze more power.)

I am encouraged to see that Senate Democrats are now advocating a collaborative approach for 2013; that’s a good start. Speaking as the outgoing leader, however, I know there may be additional leadership strategies that could do a better job of delivering the ongoing reforms the public is demanding. I am confident our new Senate Republican leadership team, which will be elected tomorrow, will be meeting with their Senate Democratic counterparts to discuss how to best serve the people of Washington.


In his first move as the new "majority leader" in Olympia (actually let's go with "caucus leader" given that the Democratic majority is only nominal at this point thanks to a pair of renegade Democrats who may side with the Republicans), state Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Seattle) named Sens. Jim Hargrove (D-24, Hoquiam) and Sharon Nelson (D-34, W. Seattle, Vashon) as chair and vice-chair respectively of the powerful and important ways and means committee.

Murray himself used to chair the important committee which oversees the budget. The budget is going to be a brain-teaser this year; the state is facing a $900 million shortfall and is also tasked (by the state Supreme Court) with finding an extra $1.09 billion to finally adequately fund K-12 education. The vice-chair traditionally heads up the capital budget committee as well—another key committee that authorizes bonding and spending on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Murray's choices are a big deal.

 While Hargrove isn't as far gone as the aforementioned dissident Democrats—that'd be Sens. Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlatch) and Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue)—he is sympathetic to the Roadkill Caucus, a group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats that includes Sheldon and Tom who have thwarted the Democratic agenda in Olympia on everything from social service funding to charter schools.

And there you have it: Murray's first big move as the Democratic leader? He puts an opponent of his signature bill in charge of the most powerful committee in Olympmia.

"He's a friend of Roakill," says Roadkill member Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens). "I'm really happy with him as chair because he's going to work for a bipartisan budget. He shares our fiscal views."

Hargrove, in fact, isn't only a fiscal conservative. Unlike many in Roadkill, he's also a social conservative. Indeed, he was one of just three Democratic state senators to vote against Murray's gay marriage bill last year.

And there you have it: Murray's first big move as the Democratic leader? He puts an opponent of his signature bill in charge of the most powerful committee in Olympmia.

Make of it what you will. But besides the fact that Hargrove is a longtime, rural legislator who commands tons of respect (and for a fiscal conservative, he's actually known for being a softie on social services for kids), Murray deserves serious points for thinking big by trying to mend the ideological wounds within the caucus—and the legislature as a whole—by promoting a conservative chair.

And that brings us to the other big news: Seattle's Sen. Nelson.

Nelson is just finishing her first term in the senate after coming over from the house where she served from 2007-2009. It's not only that Nelson is a newbie (though she did chair the environmental committee last year), it's that she's one of the most liberal senators in Olympia. Nelson was elected as a firebrand environmentalist who fought to curtail mining on Maury Island.

The Hargrove/Nelson combo makes a bold statement.

As for economic issues, she was a big opponent of putting a debt limit on capital spending—something both Murray and the now-former capital budget chair, Derek Kilmer (who was just elected to the U.S. House) supported. So, more props to Murray for putting an ideological rival at the table. (While Murray is a liberal, he supported the debt limit idea because he felt debt payments were sapping general fund money that would otherwise go to social services.)

The Hargrove/Nelson combo makes a bold statement: The Democrats are serious about having all sides at the table.

Here are some official quotes:


"I believe Sen. Hargrove is the right person to lead the committee, based on his years of experience, his expertise, and my belief that we need all points of view represented in our leadership. We are attempting to create a leadership team that brings Democrats together – moderate, liberal, urban, suburban and rural.”


“I’ve always believed in putting our state’s valuable resources where they will do the most good and using the systems and services that have been proven to work. We’ve seen positive results from these practices in our human services and corrections programs, and I believe we can see the same results as we work together to create the budget for this and future biennia. While we come from different backgrounds, I believe that the partnership of Sen. Nelson and I would represent the combination of different ideas working for the common good. We have serious challenges ahead of us and a narrowly divided chamber.  However, working together, I know that we can overcome these problems and make a better Washington.”

And Nelson:

“We have major budget issues before us – not only fully funding a quality K-12 education but ensuring our younger kids are ready to start school. I look forward to working with Sen. Hargrove and the rest of the Senate as we take on those issues.”

Will the GOP even abide by the Democrats' picks? While the Democrats are gesturing toward bipartisanship, there had been talk of a true power-sharing agreement.

More important, though, I'm looking for a reaction from the Republicans. What do they make of the mini-olive branch of having a conservative member in a spot that used to be held by a Seattle liberal like Murray. And perhaps even more important, will they even abide by the Democrats' picks given that with Sheldon and Tom, floor vote numbers could tilt their way when it comes to approving chairs? Indeed, while the Democrats are gesturing toward bipartisanship, there has been talk of a true power-sharing agreement.

GOP senate spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet wouldn't comment. She would only say that the Republicans are still putting together their own leadership team, including ranking members on committees, and she'd rather wait for the appropriate person, like whoever the new ranking ways and means chair is, for example, to comment.

In other notable moves in the new Democratic leadership's apparent commitment to a "Team of Rivals" approach, they have proposed creating a new bi-partisan committee, a "Select Committee on Education Finance and Results," to look at education funding in light of the state Supreme Court decision. They have tapped liberal Sen. David Frockt (D-46, N. Seattle) to represent the Democratic side.

The Democrats are also proposing reducing their majority on committees by having just one more member than the GOP on committees. "No majority, Republican or Democratic, has allowed for such a narrow split in at least a decade," their press release states.

Here are the Democrats' picks:

Caucus Chair: Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County.

Floor Leader:  Sen. David Frockt, D-Spokane.

Majority Whip: Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

Assistant Floor Leader: Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.

Asst. Majority Whip: Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah.

Recommended by Democrats, position requires a vote by the full Senate:

President Pro Tempore: Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach.

Vice President Pro Tempore: Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds.

Budget, rules and select committee chairs and vice chairs recommended by the Democrats today are:

Ways & Means Chair: Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam; vice chair: Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Vashon Island.

Transportation Chair: Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way; vice chair: Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Rules Chair: Lt. Gov. Brad Owen; vice chair: Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

Select Committee on Education Finance and Results, Co-Chair: Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle; Republican caucus to select a co-chair.

Policy chairs and vice chairs recommended by the Democrats include:

Human Services & Corrections: Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett; vice chair, Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma.

Agriculture, Trade & Economic Development: Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond; vice chair, Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline.

Government Operations, Tribal Relations & Elections: Sen. Steve Conway, D-South Tacoma.

Pre-K-12 Education: Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell; vice chair, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.

Labor Commerce & Consumer Protection: Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle; vice chair, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D- Seattle.

Energy Natural Resources & Marine Waters: Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island; vice chair, Sen. Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

Financial Institutions, Housing, Insurance & Telecommunications: Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens; vice chair, Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah.

Workforce Development: Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline; vice chair, Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds.

Judiciary: Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle; vice chair, Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett.

Higher Education: Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue; vice chair, Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle.

Health, Aging & Long Term Care: Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent; vice chair, Sen. Jeannie  Darneille, D-Tacoma.

Environment & Growth Management: Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

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