Murray out as majority leader after two Dems switch sides
by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Less than a month after being elected Senate majority leader by the Democratic Party caucus, Sen. Ed Murray lost the spot when two Democrats defected to the Republican side.
Sen. Rodney Tom, one of the two, will now be majority leader, and Sen. Tim Sheldon, the other defector, will become president pro tempore of the Senate. Conservative Republican Andy Hill has been named chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee overseeing the state budget, another post formerly held by Murray.
With Tom, Sheldon, and the Senate's 23 Republicans, the so-called 'Majority Coalition Caucus' now controls 25 of the Senate's 49 seats.
IMPACT ON MAYOR'S RACE
Murray's campaign consultant, Sandeep Kaushik, told SGN that the Senate drama might be a 'distraction' from Murray's campaign for mayor of Seattle, but would not be a serious setback.
'We were not sure this would happen, but we were not very surprised,' Kaushik said.
In March, Tom, Sheldon, and a third conservative Democrat, Jim Kastama, sided with Republicans to take control of the Senate and pass a draconian all-cuts budget. Kastama was defeated in the Democratic primary for secretary of state and will not be returning to the Senate, but Tom and Sheldon made it clear they were considering a reprise of their previous roles in the upcoming legislative session.
Although Democrats say they are continuing to talk with Tom and Sheldon in hopes of reaching some compromise, Tom told SGN that he was determined to go through with his two-Democrat, 23-Republican coalition.
'Twenty-five of us signed on to the 'Majority Coalition Caucus' and we're going forward with that,' he said. 'It has nothing to do with individuals and personalities - it's all about budgets. We're trying to be more sustainable.'
Tom admitted that he and Sheldon were present at the Democratic caucus meeting in November when Murray was elected leader, and did not raise any objections at the time.
'There was no other alternative presented, so I sat quiet,' he explained.
PAIR CHARGED WITH 'COUP'
Washington State Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz was furious at the two defectors. Pointing out that his party contributed over $25,000 to Tom's reelection campaign in 2010, Pelz accused Tom of staging a 'coup.'
'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,' Pelz said in a statement, '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.'
Tom, on the other hand, denied Pelz's charges.
'This is not a power grab,' Tom told SGN. 'We've gone out of our way to be fair-handed, and we're going to stick to the fiscal issues, not any social issues.
'We looked at this real hard - people want us to take a bipartisan approach.'
EXPECT MORE BUDGET CUTS
The issue, according to Tom, is the state's chronic budget crisis. While Murray believes the legislature needs to look for new sources of revenue to fund state programs and meet court-mandated obligations to fund education, Tom says flatly there is 'no room for new revenue streams.'
Once a Republican House member before switching sides to run for the Senate in 2006, Tom told SGN he still considers himself a Democrat, but 'I'm fine either way' if his latest switch ends his political career.
Tom, who represents an Eastside district stretching from Medina to Redmond, voted for the state's Marriage Equality Act. Sheldon, representing a mainly rural district on the Kitsap peninsula, was one of two Democrats who voted no.
AN 'UNSTABLE' MAJORITY
In a statement released December 10, Murray said Democrats would try to keep the Senate functioning, even as a minority party.
'We recognize that any majority in the Senate will be an unstable one, and we are committed to forming a mutually agreed-upon way for Republicans and Democrats to work together,' Murray said.
'We don't believe the Republicans' take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the right way forward. We remain hopeful that Republicans will be open to negotiations to ensure the full functioning of the Senate.'
Kaushik predicted that 'the majority will swing back and forth, depending on the issue. Ed, as the Democratic caucus leader, will have to deal with it.'
As if to highlight the instability of the new Senate majority, Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler said on December 11 that he is still Republican leader and will continue to convene his party's caucus to discuss issues important to them.
Murray, meanwhile, said his remaining 24 Democrats would have more influence as 'a strong minority influencing the process as a minority' then they would have by joining the Republican power-sharing arrangement.
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