Majority caucus’ antics promise lively year in Senate

The Majority Coalition Caucus of the state Senate is about to turn 1 year old, and what an interesting year it’s been.

It was Dec. 10 when Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch moved in with 23 Republicans in pursuit of a more perfect political union.

That day, amid handshakes and self-congratulatory plaudits, members heralded the arrival of a new era of leadership in Olympia. They all signed a pact of “governing principles” as a collective pledge to put ideas ahead of ideology as they ruled the roost.

“Our intent is for the Senate to operate in a bipartisan and cooperative way using a structure that fosters a truly shared leadership style,” it reads. “We are Washington State, not Washington, D.C.”

Sometimes it’s looked pretty much the same as Republicans controlling the state Senate had to learn how to lead and Democrats had to learn how to follow.

Who can forget when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood came to town and sat down with the coalition? LaHood was told where he could take his hundreds of millions of federal dollars for a new bridge over the Columbia River. The caucus even posted a video online of the dressing down that occurred behind closed doors.

And everyone remembers how state government came within arm’s reach of shutting down because lawmakers in the two chambers and rookie Gov. Jay Inslee spent a regular session and two special sessions sparring on how and where to spend tax dollars.

An episode of palace intrigue last Thursday signals the second year of the Majority Coalition Caucus may be more eventful and raucous than the first.

What happened, in a nutshell, is Tom, in his capacity as Senate majority leader, met privately with two top Senate employees and told them they needed to start looking for other jobs because they were going to lose theirs.

When shocked Democrats heard of the sit-down they roared in disgust and pushed this bit of personnel laundry into the public domain for all to see.

While the employees’ names aren’t important, their jobs are. They are the director and deputy director of Senate Committee Services, which is the nonpartisan cog in the wheel of government. They oversee workers who prepare those even-toned analyses of each bill proposed by a senator, Republican and Democrat.

It is an entity long inoculated from the actions of partisans, making what Tom did seem unthinkable and with little precedent.

To be clear Tom, didn’t fire director Richard Rodger and deputy director Sherry McNamara, because he can’t on his own. Only the Senate Employment Committee can, though Tom has a vote and his caucus controls the panel.

It has three members from the majority — Tom plus Republican Sens. Joe Fain of Auburn and Linda Parlette of Wenatchee — and two from the minority Democrats — Minority Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island and Karen Fraser of Olympia.

Because this committee has not met, it’s unclear on whose authority Tom acted when he sat down with the workers. His caucus didn’t formally direct him to do so, and some senators hadn’t heard of Tom’s meeting until Monday.

Democrats say this is an act of crass partisanship driven by conservative Republicans seeking to find state jobs for political friends and philosophical allies. In other words, patronage.

Fraser and Nelson, the newly installed leader of the Democrats, protested, maybe too loudly, given that they need to get answers on what should be a private personnel matter.

This latest kerfuffle proves life in the Senate will not be boring in 2014.

A far as the Majority Coalition Caucus is concerned, well, you know what they say about the terrible twos.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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