Dressed in worn jeans, a sweatshirt, and a camouflage cap, Senator Tim Sheldon drives his beat-up pick-up truck on a winding road that leads to his house. The road cuts through 500 acres of gorgeous woods in Mason County that slope down to the southern tip of the Hood Canal. The woods constitute a tree farm that belongs to his family, passed on from a Swedish grandfather who came here as a teenager, worked for years as a logging superintendent, and finally bought his own slice of the rain forest in 1941 for $50,000.
Sheldon revels in that legacy. His office off the wings of the Senate floor is lined with black-and-white pictures of his grandfather, circa the 1920s, surrounded by burly men and the giant trees they felled.
Sheldon reaches a plateau overlooking the water and parks his truck a few yards from his two-story wooden house, built in the “post and beam” style that showcases the big, sturdy logs that make up its frame. Directly in front of the 65-year-old, mustachioed legislator on this February Sunday is a shed that he built himself, open-air and big enough to fit a boat and nine vehicles, including a 1974 BMW and the hulking machines that helped him send 14 loads of timber to market last year.
Hanging from the roof is an American flag.
Sheldon put it there on the evening of September 11, 2001, after watching TV footage of the tragedy taking place on the East Coast. The terrorist attacks had political implications for the lawmaker, who that day doubled down on his support for President George W. Bush. In the tumultuous years to come, Sheldon held firm in his support for the Republican president, resolving to vote for “the meanest son of a bitch for president that I could” when Bush came up for re-election.
All that wouldn’t be notable but for one fact: Sheldon was a Democrat.
His support for one of the most divisive presidents we’ve ever had caused a stir. Yet it merely set the stage for a more cataclysmic act of political heresy. As the legislative session got underway this past January, Sheldon and fellow Democrat Rodney Tom of Medina spearheaded an unprecedented coup that took control of the Senate away from their own party and delivered it to Republicans in the name of bipartisanship.
Going by the numbers, the Democrats were supposed to be in charge, with Seattle’s Ed Murray already elected as majority leader. Murray and his flock had a range of issues on their agenda. The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, resulting in the violent deaths of 20 children and six adults, had put unprecedented local and national momentum behind gun control, and Murray was backing several relevant bills. Murray also put a high priority on a local version of the national DREAM Act that would help the state’s young undocumented immigrants access college financial aid. And then there was education—an issue of prime concern given the state Supreme Court’s McCleary Decision, mandating a dramatic increase in school funding. The Democrats were hinting that new taxes would be necessary to pay for that funding while at the same time plugging an expected billion-dollar-plus budget deficit.
Then Sheldon and Tom announced that they were joining with Republicans to form a new “majority coalition” caucus that, by virtue of a 25-24 margin, was entitled to power. Twenty-three of the 25 members of the caucus were Republican, but its two Democratic members insisted that it was bipartisan and narrowly focused on three issues of common ground: jobs, education, and a budget that in their view didn’t overspend. While there was some overlap with the Democratic agenda, especially around education, the coalition’s slant would prove considerably different.
The mostly Republican caucus elected Tom as its leader and nominated Sheldon for president pro tempore, a position voted on by the entire Senate and which involves leading the chamber when the lieutenant governor is unavailable. Despite 10 protest votes from Democrats, Sheldon got the job.
The new coalition structure wasn’t just untraditional. It was against the rules, which denote majority and minority caucuses—and important privileges that stem from the pecking order, like assigning committee chairs and determining which bills get heard—according to party. So on the first day of the Senate in January, the majority coalition pushed a rule change through the floor that allows for a bipartisan caucus. It was the first Senate rule change of its kind since 1907.
Citing that break with tradition, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Seattle Democrat who has served in Olympia for more than two decades, calls the restructuring “really upsetting.” That was among the milder criticisms faced by Tom and Sheldon. At an Olympia meeting on February 2, state Democratic Party officials passed a resolution that formally censured the two men for their allegedly “perfidious” behavior and withdrew all party support—although both men insist that they are still Democrats.
Five days later, Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz sent out an e-mail urging supporters to “call out Tom and Sheldon for the traitors they are.”
The intrigue has not stopped. Sitting in his commodious majority-leader office one day last month, Tom waxes eloquently about how he and fellow caucus members are creating a “culture of acceptance” that stresses “open debate.” Yet a building away, Sen. Karen Keiser voices a common Democratic lament: “I’ve never seen less discussion. I’ve never seen less negotiation.”
As the Senate now begins grappling with the next biennial budget, the climax of the session, the real test of the majority coalition’s intentions and power will come. Although the state’s March revenue forecast was better than expected, a yawning deficit is still anticipated, and battle lines have already formed, with coalition members adamantly opposed to new taxes suggested by Democrats.
While the Senate is in unchartered territory, it would be a mistake to think that the drama playing out is entirely new. It is the continuation of a decades-old fault line in the state’s Democratic Party between conservative and liberal wings, split largely according to geography. The power base of the left is in Seattle, and dominates the party’s caucus. Right-leaning Democrats hail from rural areas and the suburbs.
“Every once in a while when that relationship is not managed well, the [conservative] Democrats rise up and punch back,” observes Chris Vance, a political consultant and former legislator who once served as state Republican Party chair. Indeed, the resentment runs deep, as evidenced by the sentiments of another Mason County Democrat, Lieutenant Governor and onetime senator Brad Owen. “One of the criticisms I have with the party is that they talk about being a big tent, yet they are quick to criticize those of us in rural districts who have a different way of life than in Seattle.”
Of the Seattleites, Owen says, “It’s always my way or the highway.” Take environmental issues. The message Owen says he has received from urban liberals is: “You shouldn’t cut a tree . . . We’re all supposed to walk the line and put our folks out of work. After a while, we say ‘We’re not going to do that.’ ”
Sheldon considers himself an environmentalist. “What we’re trying to do is practice sustainable forestry,” he says. He doesn’t clear-cut his tree farm. Instead, he derives his lumber from thinning the dense woods. His wife Linda says he’s most at home here, and he does seem to light up as he gives a tour of his farm. Sheldon can be laconic, with the relaxed manner and gait of a man who is in no hurry to get somewhere new, but he’s eager to talk about his surroundings: the majestic Douglas firs and maples that are more than a century old; the places where he’s thinned, letting the sun in and giving other trees room to grow; the little shed that once stored dynamite used to log the land in the early 20th century.
His appreciation for the land demonstrates one of the ways Linda feels her husband, assumed to be anti-environmentalist, has been misjudged. Sheldon’s background reveals another.
A graduate of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business, Sheldon didn’t set himself up to make a ton of money, as did many of his classmates, among them Donald Trump. Instead, with “hair down to his ass,” as his irrepressible and wisecracking wife puts it, he went to work for a medical clinic run by the Seattle Indian Health Board. Answering a newspaper ad, he became the clinic’s business manager. His boss was the late Native American activist Bernie Whitebear. “I didn’t want to work for corporations” is how Sheldon describes his unusual career choice.
Inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s call to service, he went on to join VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. That took him on assignment to the Quinault Indian Nation, where he worked on grants and contracts. More jobs in Indian country followed, at one point leading him to a role as a liquor wholesaler and consultant, helping tribes set up businesses that undercut the state monopoly and earned Sheldon the enmity of state officials.
Linda refers to that history as she defends her husband, which she is quick to do. When the Democratic Party chair wrote his excoriating e-mail following the formation of the coalition, Linda wrote back a long, uproarious e-mail that quickly went public. “I’m not sure exactly how you plan to censure Tim and Rodney—maybe duct tape,” she said. “And YOU have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to say THEY have no right to call themselves Democrats. My dog could be Democrat—there is no application, sign-up, litmus test. . . . ”
And yet Linda recognizes her husband’s conservativeness, which contrasts with her own liberal politics—among her affiliations is the antiwar group Women in Black.
The talk on this Sunday afternoon turns to a controversial bill put forward this session that would require parents to be notified when their underage daughters plan an abortion. “I’ve always voted for parental notification,” Sheldon says. Linda sighs.
“It’s something that 36 other states have,” Sheldon perseveres. [Actually 38, according to the non-partisan Guttmacher Institute.]
Linda can restrain herself no longer: “I had an abortion without my parent’s permission because I wouldn’t have had it otherwise.”
Sheldon smiles, resigning. “It’s a dad deal,” he offers, alluding to his 20-something daughter.
As much as Linda criticizes her husband for his views on this issue, she also notes that many people in Mason County agree with him. After one previous vote on a failed parental-notification bill, she says she was often stopped around town by people saying they supported him.
And here’s what both Sheldons agree on: The nine-term senator represents his district.
Over the next several hours, they proceed to give a crash course in Mason County. “It’s a different world out here,” says Linda, who hails from the East Coast. Nowhere else, she quips, is she “so offended by someone’s b.o. ” as she is here when going on shopping trips. Sheldon winces.
“Not everyone is a hick,” Sheldon says, pointing out that Bill Gates has a compound in Mason County and Jeff Raikes, the former Microsoft executive who went on to head the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bought and renovated the nearby Alderbrook Resort and Spa.
At the same time, Sheldon points out that of Washington’s 39 counties, Mason is one of only six with just one city (Shelton). What that means, he says, is that the county has a “very rural populace,” one that can no longer rely on a dwindling logging industry for work. The Sheldons’ tree farm is a family affair that uses only periodic contractors when there’s a lot of thinning to do.
Sheldon is worked up about a recent study that found that Shelton residents have a longer average commute—32 minutes—than those of any other city on the West Coast. The reason, he says: “There are no jobs in Shelton.” Those who don’t commute are unemployed. The latest Mason County unemployment rate stands at nearly 12 percent, more than double King County’s. The average Mason County annual income—$34,000, according to the most recent figure—stands well below the state average, the county’s poverty rate of 15.6 percent well above. Bad health is endemic. Sheldon says that another study, measuring healthy living, found that Mason County ranked almost dead-last in the state.
Sheldon says that reality translates “big time” into his politics, especially when it comes to taxes, which he generally opposes. He asserts that his constituents can’t afford them.
Gun rights is another area where Sheldon is in tune with his constituents. “You should be here on New Year’s Eve,” Linda says, alluding to the constant sounds of bullets firing into the air. “It’s like an Afghani wedding.” While Sheldon doesn’t participate in that, he does collect antique firearms. A 1912 Winchester shotgun stands in a corner near the front door.
On this afternoon, gun-control legislation is still a pressing matter in the legislature. A long list of senators and representatives, almost all of them Democrats, including even Tom, have sponsored a series of bills that would require universal background checks, ban assault weapons, and establish other regulations. Sheldon is against them. His view: “Don’t penalize responsible gun owners for someone who’s a maniac.”
Sheldon’s conservative politics match his district’s. He has, after all, been elected by “huge margins,” as Owen notes (winning by 24 percentage points in 2010). But they don’t match mainstream Democratic beliefs. Stalwart liberal Sen. Adam Kline of Seattle—whose enmity for his colleague is so pronounced that in one election he came to Mason County to doorbell for Sheldon’s Democratic opponent—says that the senator should just “be honest about being a Republican.”
Sheldon thought about it. In 2002, mere months after he hung the flag from his shed on 9/11, he says, “the Republicans worked very hard to get me to switch parties.” He chose not to and declared his loyalty to the Democrats in what he says was “an emotional caucus meeting.” Yet asked what about his philosophy conforms to Democratic ideals, Sheldon is short on specifics. “I believe in the common person rather than the corporation,” he says. What that means in practice is obviously open to interpretation, and it has never been more obvious that Sheldon does not hew to the party line.
Tom has also had problems sticking to the party line—any party line, as evidenced by his entry into politics as a Republican when he won his first seat, in the House, in 2002.
Like Sheldon, he is a man of his district, although in many ways the affluent enclaves of the Eastside couldn’t be more different from Mason County. During an interview at a Clyde Hill Tully’s on a lovely, leafy lane, Tom makes a point of revealing that he hails from relatively modest means. “I live a good life now,” he says. “But my dad was a mechanic. My mom cleaned houses.” The family lived in a 900-square-foot house in Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, solidly middle-class but not quite as tony as other parts of the Eastside. “I lived there while I went to UW. That’s how we saved money. I never even flew in a plane until I was 21.” He says his 82-year-old dad still lives in the Eastgate home.
Tom, however, has moved on. After getting his MBA from the University of Southern California in 1988, he went into real estate, first as a Windermere agent and then branching out into investing. He made enough money by the mid-1990s to settle into a nearly 8,000-square-foot home, now worth $5 million, overlooking Lake Washington.
The 49-year-old Tom wears his wealth casually. He comes to coffee in a sweatshirt—not a worn sweatshirt like Sheldon’s, but a crisp, white Ralph Lauren version. He’s lean and athletic, a marathon runner and mountain climber who boasts on his legislative page that he has summitted five of the state’s volcanic peaks.
The Eastside was once considered a Republican stronghold, and when Tom first came to Olympia, a case could be made that the suburbs he represented still leaned conservative. But the Eastside’s brand of conservatism, in tune with the high-tech workers and immigrants who were increasingly populating the area, was far more nuanced than it used to be, and certainly more nuanced than that of legislators from east of the mountains. The same could be said of Tom, who followed the socially liberal, fiscally conservative line of politics.
“He’s very progressive, even liberal on a lot of issues,” observes Democratic Senator Kohl-Welles. Tom says the same, calling himself “100 percent pro-choice” and noting that he supports gay marriage and gun control.
In 2005, with the Republican Party continuing to lose its hold on the Eastside, Tom announced that he was running for the Senate as a Democrat. In an interview then with The Seattle Times, he said of the GOP: “The far right has complete control of the party.”
Tom is not as open about his politics or his life as Sheldon. He schedules appointments in 15-minute increments, making a rare exception to set aside a half-hour for a second interview with Seattle Weekly. But he says this: “The Democrats have been good to me . . . They’ve always treated me in a civil manner. That wasn’t always the case with the Republicans.” Having been in both parties, he adds, “I can tell you that the Democratic tent is much larger.”
A big tent, though, means plenty of dissent, and Tom has been one of the loudest internal opposing voices. A few years back he became part of “the roadkill caucus”—not actually a separate caucus but a group of senators and representatives who felt they were being run over by politicians on both the left and the right. Then in 2010, Tom turned against a budget he himself had helped craft but which contained tax increases he ultimately decided he couldn’t live with. In 2012 Tom again went against the Democratic budget, this time joined by Sheldon and then-Senator Jim Kastama.
These revolts were not unprecedented. In the mid-’80s, Jim McDermott, now a United States Representative, was a lordly Democratic state senator heading the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He attempted to push through a budget that a few Democrats—including Owen, the lieutenant governor who was also then a senator -- didn’t like. As Owen recalls, the budget included a tax increase during a time that the state enjoyed a revenue surplus.
So the rebel Democrats joined Republicans to oppose McDermott’s budget and craft a new one that didn’t raise taxes. McDermott, reportedly, was incensed. Former Republican senator Dan McDonald, then the ranking minority member on the Ways and Means Committee, recalls that McDermott at one point walked over to him on the Senate floor and “as only Jim McDermott can, took the budget book, slammed it down on my desk, and said, ‘You take it, McDonald.’”
McDermott says he doesn’t remember that incident, or even the budget revolt. But he does recall the irritation he felt at what he calls the “whining” of Democrats from the rural parts of the state. He mimics them: “Oh, we don’t get our fair share. We don’t get our fair share... They always wanted more than is reasonable.” For instance, he says, these legislators would complain that they didn’t get enough money from the state gas tax. “Where do you think most of the gas tax is collected?” he asks. “Seattle,” he answers, pointing out that there simply are many more people, and thus gas consumers, in the state’s biggest city. And yet he says much of that money goes to build roads and bridges in the whiners’ districts.
So McDermott says: “When they complained to me, I just laughed at them.”
That may have been his mistake. And Senate leadership in recent years may have made a similar mistake with Tom and Sheldon. Even Pelz concedes that his party’s rebels weren’t handled as well as they might have been.
“You gotta give people a back door in this business,” says the Democratic Party chair, meaning a way for dissenters to make their stands without having to make a dramatic break from the party. “You go to them, you listen to their concerns, you give them some authority.” He suggests that didn’t happen when Tom, Sheldon, and other conservative Democrats started to show signs of unrest.
Pelz says the rest of the Democratic caucus “pilloried” and “labeled” the dissidents. “And so they began to glorify in that label.”
Possibly more than any other Democratic senator, Sheldon has felt pilloried. His outsider status predates the budget skirmishes and relates to more than his consistently conservative views on many issues. As Sheldon himself realizes, something he often does gets under the skin of his colleagues—something that legislative insiders consider “the nuclear option,” as the Mason County senator puts it.
More than any other senator, he reckons, he has called for what is known as the “ninth order of business.” This allows a bill that hasn’t made it out of committee to be pulled onto the floor, thereby undercutting the power of the committee chair and the leaders of the reigning caucus, all of whom had probably resolved to suppress the legislation. Sheldon had done this even when—especially when—his own party was in control.
“We can’t talk strategy with this guy in the room,” Kline says of Sheldon. The Mason County senator once conspired with Republicans to pull a bill from Kline’s committee, according to the Seattle legislator. While Kline doesn’t remember the precise details of the bill, he says he was holding onto it as leverage to wrest votes for another bill he favored.
“The way I learned it,” Kline says, “you’re free to vote your conscience on bills. That’s not the issue. But in procedural matters, you stick with your party.” Vance says he learned the exact same thing from the Republican leadership.
The general public, of course, is disgusted with unquestioning party conformity, which on a national level has led to disastrous stalemates on the budget and other matters. The counterargument, voiced by both Kline and Vance, is that party discipline leads to efficiency, at least on the state level.
“If you’re going to adjourn in 105 days [60 days in years when a new biennial budget isn’t on the agenda], you’ve got to be able to move quickly,” Vance says. “The only way to do that is to control the flow of legislation. If you let every bill get on the floor and be debated for an hour, you’d never get anything done.”
“Olympia is vicious,” he adds. “Bills die constantly. People drive all the way across the state to testify for one minute.” And, he suggests, that’s the way it needs to be.
Sheldon certainly seems to agree about the viciousness. Of his Democratic colleagues, he says: “They treated me horribly.” He mentions a liquor-privatization bill he had been pushing since 1998, but which party leaders never brought forward for a hearing. (Voters eventually settled the matter, approving privatization by initiative in 2011.)
“So many Democrats ostracized him,” Linda adds. “They wouldn’t even eat with him.” During the budget defection of 2012, Sheldon says that he, Tom, and Kastama used to forgo the Senate dining room—an intimate basement space reached via a stairwell off the legislative chamber—and grab lunch in greater Olympia. Tom’s stature within the party was somewhat higher given his mainstream Democratic views on a lot of issues and the glee many had felt when he switched parties. But his star was falling after his budget revolts. And that’s crucial to understanding what happened this year, in Vance’s estimation.
“It’s not so much fun to get up every morning and come to Olympia to be a back-bencher with no power,” says Vance, the former Republican Party chair and senator. He elaborates: “Here’s the typical career path. You’re elected to the House, and at first you’re just thrilled to be there. You sit in big leather chairs, stare at the marble. When you go back to your district, you sit at the honorary table at Rotary. People open doors for you.
“Then you’re elected to the Senate, like Rodney Tom was, like Tim Sheldon was. You’ve been in Olympia four, six, eight, 10 years or more. You think: ‘I’m pretty cool. Why aren’t I the chair [of a committee]?’ ” By joining with Republicans, Tom and Sheldon escaped that malaise and got an opportunity to be key players in shaping the majority agenda. “All of a sudden [Tom] is a leader,” Vance says. “He gets the coolest office in the Senate, and don’t think that doesn’t matter. He gets to be on TV . . . And he gets to negotiate with the governor. Whoa!”
Tom maintains that he was asked by Republicans to be majority leader; he didn’t seek the post. And both he and Sheldon insist that it was not power but financial responsibility they were after. “Their first option is just to raise revenue,” Tom says of the Democrats.
In any case, their change in status hasn’t been so much fun for everybody else in their party. Murray, the man who would otherwise have gotten the coolest office in the Senate, says the session got off to a “poisonous start.”
Sitting in his office—still in a coveted spot off the chamber’s wings if not quite as palatial as Tom’s—Murray points to a series of meetings that the Democratic caucus held shortly after the November election. Given the budget skirmishes of the past, rumors had been floating around the Democratic caucus that Tom and Sheldon might defect, so at one of the meetings, Murray says, caucus members asked Tom directly: “Are you making other plans?” Tom said no.
Both he and Sheldon proceeded to vote for Murray as majority leader. Weeks later, in a phone call with Tom and Republican leader Mark Schoesler minutes before a press conference they were holding, Murray got the news that they were backing a different majority leader, Tom himself, in a newly formed caucus. “I don’t know how you can walk into a caucus and vote for one leader and then turn around and vote for another,” Murray says.
“It was a voice vote,” Sheldon rationalizes of his initial vote for Murray, arguing that it was therefore nonbinding. Tom says that he didn’t say anything about other plans at the meetings because they weren’t firm yet. “You have to remember there was an election in the balance,” he says. Republican Don Benton was in a dead heat with Democratic challenger and former state Rep. Tim Probst, and the outcome would determine whether there were enough Republicans to form a majority with Tom’s and Sheldon’s support.
“In politics, if you’re going to jump off the cliff, you better have 25 votes,” Tom says, referring to the number needed to form a majority in the Senate.
When Benton won in a recount, Tom and Sheldon started talking in earnest to Republican leaders about a possible alliance. Sheldon explains that he and Tom didn’t want to be in the same position they’d been in the previous year, ending the session by brawling with fellow caucus members over the budget. With a whole new biennial budget needing to be crafted this year (as opposed to mere revisions on the table last year), Sheldon says he and Tom thought it better “to start from the beginning” by declaring their allegiance on crucial issues.
According to Sheldon, the deal was struck at a meeting in Olympia, attended by him, Tom, and several key Republican senators, including Schoesler and Joe Fain, the current floor leader. They jotted down what they called the “governing principles” of the new caucus, which laid out the short list of issues they would focus on: jobs, education, and a “sustainable” budget, as well as “governing collaboratively” and holding state government “accountable.”
“As we did so, young Joe Fain—he’s an attorney in Auburn—he said, ‘You know what, we’ve got to sign this thing,’ ” Sheldon recalls. “That was the big difference for me.” A history buff, he viewed the signatures as a John Hancock moment, formally binding all those who participated. Eventually all members of the new caucus would sign the principles.
But sticking to the principles has proved another matter. Some members of the new caucus—seemingly giddy at their unexpected ascension to power—churned out a host of polarizing bills on issues well outside the focus areas agreed upon in the document.
Benton sponsored many of them, including the parental-notification bill, another that would mandate a year-long waiting period before spouses could divorce, and legislation aimed at marginalizing undocumented immigrants.
Back in the Sheldon household, Linda asks her husband: “When Benton’s on a roll, do you just stay quiet?”
“No,” he replies, adding that he and others will say something like “Don, that’s outside of our principles and our agenda.”
Yet Benton’s bills got hearings. Tom spins the matter as a sign of the majority coalition’s “culture of acceptance” and its willingness to allow its committee chairs to air issues important to them. A number of Democrats could have had the same prerogative, he points out. To prove its bipartisan bona fides, the majority caucus initially offered Democrats six committee chairs and three co-chairs. The committees offered were not the most powerful, however, and all but three Democrats turned the offer down.
“We’re not afraid of the debate,” Tom continues. He cites the parental-notification bill as a case in point, noting that it got a hearing even though he, the majority leader, is ardently pro-choice. (The bill ultimately died.)
And yet, a bill on the other side of the abortion debate, which would require insurance companies to cover the procedure if they also cover pregnancy, languished for weeks in search of a committee chair who would agree to a hearing. “I literally spent an hour and a half working on that today,” Tom says one day in mid-February. His efforts amounted to naught. Tom attempted to placate abortion-rights activists by saying the issue would still get a hearing in the Senate when a House version of the bill came over. (The Senate Health Care Committee finally heard the bill on April 1, but the chair immediately declared that the legislation would go no further.)
Murray says the Democratic caucus staff has compiled a whole raft of bills that have not been allowed a Senate hearing. Perhaps most notable are the gun-control bills. Murray says Tom told him “the caucus wasn’t open” to the bills. With these, there aren’t House versions to fall back on. The House bill that stood the best chance of passing, requiring universal background checks, died last month in a firestorm of politicking.
In denying hearings, the majority coalition isn’t doing anything that either party hasn’t done in the past, but the behavior complicates the feel-good storyline that the coalition wants to tell.
The same could be said for a Ways and Means Committee hearing held on February 14. On the agenda were hearings for five bills sponsored by Democrats, including one proposing a state income tax. “These bills won’t go anywhere,” Kohl-Welles said at the time. “The Republicans will never support them.” So why had the Republican-dominated committee set aside almost the entire meeting to them? “Is it to offer Democrats an olive branch?” Kohl-Welles asked. To refute the notion that they’re quashing hearings and to say, “Aren’t we good? Aren’t we collaborative?”
As it turns out, the majority coalition intended a sharper point. In a press release issued the next morning, Tom did use the hearings to pat the coalition, and himself, on the back. Under the old Democratic regime, he writes, “I was always suggesting to leadership that we should at least have hearings on legislation from across the aisle, but my efforts fell on deaf ears. Now that we are in the majority, we decided to treat the minority better than it’s been treated before; the hearings yesterday were proof.”
But the main thrust of the two-page release is the ostensible ludicrousness of the tax bills, which he writes would hurt small-business owners and the middle class. “This is exactly why I joined the Majority Coalition Caucus,” he writes—a statement he will repeat in future releases on other issues, evidently feeling a continuing need to explain. “Too many of my fellow Democrats in Olympia have grown arrogant and out-of-touch with the people we were sent here to represent.”
Kohl-Welles’ conclusion: The hearings were a “setup” so that the majority coalition could beat up on the Democrats.
It’s March 6, and the Senate is holding a much-anticipated “education day.” Aside from the budget, education is perhaps the most pressing issue the legislature has to deal with this session, given the McCleary ruling.
Early in the session, the majority coalition staked out a position divergent from that of the Democrats, who stress the need for greater school funding. It’s not just money that is important, coalition members asserted, but reform—a sentiment in tune with a national education-reform movement popular with conservatives.
As he considered his coup, Tom says he knew one thing: “If we want education reform, it’s not going to happen with Rosemary as chair.” That would be Democrat Rosemary McAuliffe, for many years the chair of the Senate’s Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, attacked by her critics as being too close to the teachers’ union. Indeed, Tom says that he “would have done anything to avoid” McAuliffe being chair, adding that “She won’t even look me in the eye.”
McAuliffe protests that she has helped enact many reforms over the years, among them the creation of state standards through a landmark bill in 1993 and a pilot program that introduced more meaningful teacher and principal evaluations in 2010.
But she agrees that there is bad blood between her and Tom. In the last session, she explains, she and Tom fought over two bills he introduced into the education committee: One proposed charter schools, a controversial subject in this state (this was before a charter-school initiative narrowly passed in November); another would have tinkered with the recently enacted evaluation process to include student test scores as a criterion, a move aimed at making the process more rigorous but opposed by teachers and considered “draconian” by McAuliffe.
McAuliffe refused to hold a hearing on either bill. Whereupon, she recalls, Tom “walked out of the committee.” What’s more, she says, he took with him four allies, including three Republicans, leaving only four committee members. Tom remembers events differently, saying he didn’t literally walk out of the room. But both he and McAuliffe agree that the chair never called another committee meeting for fear the dissenters would take over. It was only about a month into the session, and no further work on K-12 education would be done.
So when a Tom-headed majority coalition took over, it was no surprise that it ousted McAuliffe as committee chair and handed the job to Steve Litzow, a Republican known for his work on education. His committee heard a series of reform-minded bills, including one that would create a state district for failing schools, another that would hold third-graders back if they don’t pass the state reading test, and a third that would grade schools on an A-to-F system. Democrats quickly blasted the bills as a “distraction” from its task of meeting the McCleary mandate.
As education day begins, the tensions seem to have eased. “I’d like to thank Sen. McAuliffe for her efforts and ideas,” Litzow says. McAuliffe, in turn, praises the man who took over her role as someone “who has worked diligently to help us have a nonpartisan committee.”
And it’s true that the reformers have revised their bills after input from Democrats. Troubled third-grade readers would be able to attend summer school and not automatically be held back. Failing schools would be subject to state intervention—eventually closed if they do not improve—but not taken over by the state. Those bills passed with at least some Democratic support. Others, like one sponsored by Litzow that calls for alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, win even broader bipartisan support.
Still, friction is apparent as the school-grading bill comes up for discussion. One after another, Democrats rise to bemoan the bill as a simplistic measure that would have a huge, demoralizing effect on schools populated by poor and immigrant students.
Sheldon, who has traded in his jeans and sweatshirt for a brown suit, stands up. Education is not an issue he has focused on in the past, but he’s been influenced by the talk in his caucus. “This really is a moment in time when we see huge differences,” he says, meaning between Democrats and the majority coalition. The view he’s come to hold: “The grading system means accountability and responsibility.”
The bill passes, following party lines almost exactly, the primary exceptions being Sheldon and Tom. Their bipartisanship dream, for the moment, seems far away.