State Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said he won't seek another term as leader of the caucus, a position he's held since December 2005, though he will continue to serve in the Legislature.
"This is the right time for me to step back and encourage a new model of leadership in the state Senate," he said in a prepared statement. "I want to promote new Senate leadership from the center. Focusing on centrist policy rather than party labels is what will make the people of Washington a winner."
Hewitt also cited "health challenges" as a factor in his decision. He underwent surgery in April to remove a thymoma tumor.
The news arrived amid growing signs his caucus may grow to 23 members following the election and team with conservative Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch in a new coalition.
"There have been lots of conversations," Tom said Friday, adding that Hewitt's decision has "absolutely nothing" to do with the talk of a coalition.
"Both Tim and I have been very clear in that we want a more centralist methodology in the state Senate," he said. "Whatever it takes to accomplish that so be it. The current structure isn't going to get us there."
Right now, Democrats outnumber Republicans 27-22 in the chamber.
But the GOP could gain one more seat depending on the outcome of the contest between Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, in the 17th Legislative District. Benton led by 96 votes Friday.
If that happens, Republicans could join with the two Democrats to control the Senate and decide everything from who will run committees to what bills are voted on. If they band together, they would likely do so on the first day of session, Jan. 13.
Something similar happened in March. Republicans seized control of the chamber when three Democrats, including Tom and Sheldon, crossed over to help pass budget and reform bills. The maneuver caused a deep rift in the chamber that was never fully repaired through the regular and special sessions.
Such talk now of a similar-style coup isn't sitting well with the newly elected leader of the majority Democrats, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.
He said he spoke Tuesday with Tom and Sheldon -- who both supported him as caucus leader -- and neither indicated they wanted to form a separate coalition.
"I'm not sure what's going on," Murray said. "Certainly they have concerns but I did not hear them say they were going to throw out the Senate rules on the first day of session."
Democrats will continue working on the selection of committee chairmen and leaders of the caucus, he said.
Democrats and Republicans in the House chose their leaders Friday with far less tumult.
Democrats re-elected House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, while Republicans re-elected House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.
Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, was re-elected chairman of the Republican caucus for a third term.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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