New Senate Dems Leader Sharon Nelson: We’re Going to Lose and We Want Voters to Know It

Former banker Sharon Nelson, named head of the state Senate’s Democratic caucus yesterday, is starting off her reign with an unusual concession: the Dems are unlikely to pass their top priorities in the coming session.

“That is a key part of the message,” she says. She wants voters to know that Democratic initiatives are headed for defeat unless the dynamic of the Senate changes.

You may remember that last year two renegade Dems—Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon—launched a coup by joining with Republicans to create a “majority coalition” and take over the Senate. All hell broke loose, requiring two special sessions to pass a budget. The 62-year-old Nelson, who lives on Maury Island and is still in her first-term of office, played a central role in those negotiations.

Talking with Seattle Weekly today, she says she is proud of her work during the negotiations in pressing for “core Democratic values,” among them maintaining food assistance for the poor and funding the state health exchange that is part of Obamacare, while at the same time maintaining cordial relations with Republicans.

She characterizes herself as having a “softer” style than her predecessor, Seattle’s Mayor-elect Ed Murray—an interesting observation given that Murray ran on what he said was his far more diplomatic style than the pugilistic incumbent. Perhaps indicative of her style, several leaders of the majority coalition reacted to her selection yesterday with praise, citing her willingness to put aside partisan differences.

Yet, in a way, what she’s saying now is that she wants to stress partisanship. She says Senate Dems will continue to press issues they know they will lose because that’s a way of “making a clear differential between our values and Republican values.” Her eye, then, is on the election of 2014, which she says will be a “very political year” with “a lot of seats up.”

According to Nelson, the inevitably losing issues Democrats will push include the Dream Act, which would extend college financial aid to undocumented immigrants, and the Reproductive Parity Act, which would require health plans to cover abortions if they cover maternity care. Both bills arose last year and were scuttled by conservatives.

This is a short session in which the legislature will make only adjustments to the biennial budget. Some of last year’s other big issues, like education reform, a hot topic among the majority coalition, are likely be put on the shelf until the next long session, Sheldon, the Senate pro tem, tells SW.

There will, however, be one big issue on the table: transportation. Part of the ultimatum Boeing has given the state is that it must pass a transportation package if it wants to land the 777X. It’s unclear whether the state still has a chance given last week’s fiery contract vote by Machinists, but in any case the transportation debate is likely to fulfill Nelson’s goal of showcasing partisan differences.

Democrats want transit, bike and pedestrian improvements. Republicans are wary of big funding projects that skew toward urban areas. Expect lots of spin on the outcome in 2014.

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