By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — The leader of the state Senate ended his bid for re-election Monday, an unexpected decision which will intensify the battle for control of the chamber in this fall’s elections.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, the centrist Medina Democrat who aligned with Republicans to help them rule the chamber the past two sessions, told colleagues he was abandoning the campaign to focus on concerns with his health and that of his father.
Tom said he is still dealing with the effects of a bout with kidney stones at the end of this year’s session. And he said he will need to help his 85-year-old father undergo physical therapy after being struck by a car last weekend.
“I have always said that health and family are the most important values — and beyond campaign slogans — I really do try to live by those values,” Tom said in a statement.
Tom is the titular leader of the Majority Coalition Caucus which includes one other Democrat, Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, and 24 Republicans. Democrats hold 23 seats.
Since the birth of that coalition before the start of the 2013 session, the politics in the Legislature have become more partisan and less productive.
Lawmakers did enact a number of GOP-pushed spending and education reforms including the first-in-the-nation requirement for a four-year balanced budget. But the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-run House deadlocked this year on passage of a construction budget and a plan to raise revenue for the state’s transportation system.
Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, praised Tom for his role in “bringing real change to Olympia” the last two years.
“I consider him a trusted partner and true public servant, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to work side-by-side with him,” he said. “He will be missed.”
But not by everyone.
Tom, a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrat, peeved many in his party when he struck up an alliance with Republicans. You couldn’t miss the jab in a statement from the leader of the minority Senate Democrats.
“Sen. Tom clearly left a mark on the Senate and the Legislature that will not soon be forgotten,” said Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island. “There’s no question he will be remembered vividly for his work on both sides of the aisle and in multiple caucuses.”
Tom’s decision makes the fall campaign season more intriguing as the parties wrestle for control of the chamber while protecting their most vulnerable members.
“The Senate becomes more competitive than it already was,” said Chris Vance, a political consultant and former state Republican Party chairman.
Democrats, who need to pick up two seats, got a “thunderbolt” of terrible news this Spring when veteran Democratic Sen. Tracey Eide of Federal Way decided not to run again, Vance said.
“Now, Republicans have gotten their own thunderbolt,” he said.
Former Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride, a Democrat, had been Tom’s top challenger, and now becomes the favorite for the seat – at least until Republicans find a candidate. Other Democrats could join the race too.
Filing for the November election is next month. Republicans hope to solidify their grip on the Senate by winning the seats held by Eide and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. Democrats hope to regain the majority by picking up the seats of Tom along with those of Republican Sens. Andy Hill of Redmond and Steve O’Ban of University Place.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org