By DAVID GROVES
(Dec. 13, 2012) — “Governing from the middle, governing from the center, that’s what the citizens in this state expect,” said erstwhile Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom on Monday, announcing the new “Majority Coalition Caucus” that he and Sen. Tim Sheldon just crossed party lines to form with the 23 Senate Republicans.
“This is the sort of cooperation people are hungry for,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville).
“People everywhere are crying out for this,” said Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center).
And thus, 25 of our state’s 49 senators announced the “cooperative” and “bipartisan” new way the Senate will be structured — a plan they created and intend to impose without any collaboration or input from the 24 senators not in attendance. For his troubles, Sen. Tom will become Senate Majority Leader of the Republicans-Plus-Two.
Let’s set aside the straight-face test of whether this political power grab is bipartisan or cooperative. Even if it was those things, are voters really crying out for it?
Last month, voters again handed Democrats the keys to the both legislative houses (55-43 in the House and 26-23 in the Senate) and elected another Democrat as governor, as they have for more than 30 years. Democrats also were elected to eight of nine state executive offices. There is no evidence that voters wanted Republicans to have the power to force Democrats to govern from the middle.
It is among conservative newspaper editorial boards, but not among voters.
Ballyhooed, But Beleaguered
Last session’s budget coup divided the Roadkill Caucus. Sens. Tom and Jim Kastama (D-Puyallup) teamed up with Republicans to force a floor vote on a GOP budget that hadn’t been read by many senators, much less vetted in committee or granted public testimony. In response, angry Roadkill compatriot Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond) wrote: “Tom and Kastama took a good thing in Roadkill, and blew it apart.”
Buoyed by lavish praise from newspapers for his derring-do, Kastama parlayed his reputation as a moderate into a bid for Secretary of State. He finished a distant 4th place in the primary, getting 13.9% of the vote.
Similarly, Roadkiller Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-Lake Stevens) ran for Congress, thinking he was well-positioned as a centrist in the new 1st District, which was specifically drawn to swing both ways. The Seattle Times thought it was a good idea. Voters? Not so much. Hobbs finished 5th with just 6.8% of the vote.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement from voters for “governing from the middle,” was it?
In fact, the 2010 and 2012 elections have thinned the ranks of the Roadkill Caucus considerably. Roadkillers Chris Marr, Jean Berkey and Mary Margaret Haugen were all challenged and lost their Senate seats. (Besides Haugen’s, the only other Senate seat that Democrats lost in 2012 was the one Kastama gave up to run for Secretary of State.) Of the 14 state representatives originally listed on the Roadkill Caucus’ Facebook page back in 2010, just seven will remain in 2013. Of the eight Senate members listed in 2010, only three remain.
This brings us to the Roadkill Caucus’s political action committee, called the “Jackson Legacy Fund PAC.” It was set up to support existing and prospective caucus members. In 2012, it raised about $71,000, mostly from corporate interests, and spent $58,000. Quite a few candidates — successful and unsuccessful — received small campaign contributions from the PAC, but there were just five, according to public disclosure reports, who merited independent expenditures:
► $15,300 for Mary Margaret Haugen (LOST)
► $12,500 for Sylvester Cann (LOST)
► $10,500 for Mark Mullet (WON — Unlike Haugen, Mullet was also actively supported by unions, environmental groups and other traditional Democratic constituencies.)
► $5,400 for Roget Flygare (LOST)
► $4,200 for Lynda Ring-Erickson (LOST)
So, with Democrats sweeping the state elections (again), Roadkill Caucus ranks thinned by election losses, Roadkill members resoundingly rejected in their attempts to seek higher office, and their corporate-funded PAC batting at the Mendoza Line, remind me again who is “crying out” for the self-serving Tom-foolery unveiled on Monday?
An opportunity for Democrats
The simple truth is, Sen. Sheldon is doing what he has done his whole career, call himself a Democrat and vote like a Republican. Sen. Tom is doing what he used to do, be a Republican.
It all adds up to a Democratic brand that is so strong in Washington State that some Republicans have simply decided, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em — in name only. That doesn’t make them moderate or centrist, especially once they abandon the pretense that they are part of the Democratic caucus, as Tom and Sheldon have just done.
The challenge this poses for Democrats is also a great opportunity: protect your popular brand’s integrity by not sacrificing your values and principles in the name of pragmatic governance. If the Republicans, of both parties, want to run things in the State Senate, they should be encouraged to do so — in their own name.
Let the new Republicans-Plus-Two be judged by their own proposals to balance the budget through austerity cuts. (Their Ways and Means chair has already declared new revenue off the table in 2013.) Let them be judged by their efforts to further cut our teachers’ and state employees’ compensation. Let them be judged by their preservation of tax preferences for special interests while trying to block health coverage for the poorest among us.
Let voters see who’s behind the curtain. They’ll take care of the rest.
David Groves is Editor of The Stand.