Why'd They Do It? Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon Explain Why They Helped Republicans Stage a Senate Coup

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Washington state Democrats are fuming over the turn of two of their own legislators who joined with Republicans to take over the Senate. "Perfidious" is what some Democratic activists are calling Senators Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon.

*See Also: State Takeover of Schools Finds Support in the Legislature

Why'd they do it?

Bribery is one possible explanation. To get their victory, Republicans promised their Democratic allies the Senate's top jobs. Tom becomes the new majority leader, Sheldon the president pro tempore. Washington Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz holds a Machiavellian view. Speaking in particular of Tom, he says, "I think it's a power grab by an egotistical politician."

Yet it seems likely that something deeper was at work. Sheldon tells SW that, as a legislator from a rural district (comprised of parts of Mason, Thurston and Kitsap counties), he got tired of the Puget Sound-centrism evident among Democrats. If they remained in control this year, he says, the lion's share of Senate committee chairs would have gone to legislators from either Seattle or Tacoma. Last year, in what he sees as evidence of "insensitivity" to his part of the state, the Democrats proposed a budget that would have cut $1.2 million from the Mason County budget.

Perhaps even more than Sheldon, Tom (pictured above) seems like a man caught between parties. The Mercer Island legislator used to be a Republican, then switched sides in 2006, explaining that the "far right has complete control" of the GOP. Yet when he got to the Democratic caucus, says Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett, a former legislator and friend of Tom, "I think he found that he did not fit there as well as he would like to."

Tom tells SW that he still considers himself a "staunch Democrat," but also concedes that he's more fiscally conservative than many in his party. He says Democrats have a "we can't say no to anybody" approach, particularly when it comes to their favorite government-funded programs. "Their first option is just to raise revenue," he complains, adding that they intended to exercise that option this year.

Tom has practice throwing a spanner in the works. Last year, he as well as Sheldon and former Democratic Senator Jim Kastama, bucked their party to support the Republican budget proposal. "Democrats cried foul; the Senate erupted in disarray, and crowds thronged the galleries and the wings to witness the sort of rout that might take place once in a legislative career," wrote the Washington State Wire at the time.

It's hard to know what the now reigning Republicans in the Senate will do this year. House Budget Chair Ross Hunter says he hasn't a clue. Yet, despite all the shock and horror, the two parties may not be as far apart as some believe on at least one key issue.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, in an interview with SW, observes that both parties now recognize that they are obliged to come up with much more money for schools. (Granted, a state Supreme Court ruling ordering just that gives them no choice.)"The Democrats are saying $4 billion, the Republicans are saying $3.5 billion," Dorn says. He adds that the parties don't agree on how to come up with the money, but in dollar amounts, they're within shouting distance of each other.

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