State’s Democrats are looking for leaders

With the curtain all but closed on the fall election, Democrats will turn their attention to filling two jobs critically important for the political party’s future in Olympia and throughout the state.

First up is a vote for a new leader of the Democratic caucus in the state Senate. Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle holds the seat but looks to be departing in a few weeks to begin his new gig as mayor of his hometown.

Sens. Sharon Nelson of Maury Island and Karen Keiser of Kent are considered the top contenders to succeed him. Sen. Nick Harper of Everett, the caucus’s deputy leader, had been viewed as a front-runner as well but said Wednesday he is no longer pursuing the leadership post.

Then in February, comes the selection of a new chairman for the state Democratic Party. Dwight Pelz, the current boss, is retiring and will exit once a successor is chosen by those at the helm of the party operations in all 39 counties.

Party veteran Nancy Biery is launching her campaign for the job Thursday. Former state representative Brendan Williams is said to be considering a bid as well.

Until other candidates surface, Biery, 59, of Quilcene, looks pretty tough to beat. She’s been a precinct committee officer, chairwoman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and field director for the state party. She’s worked for former Gov. Gary Locke and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, and raised money and organized get-out-the-vote efforts in dozens of campaigns through the years.

Whoever is chosen to lead the Senate caucus and chair the state party must confront the challenge of slowly eroding support for Democratic candidates in suburban communities of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. It’s a trend which is giving rise to hopes of a Republican resurrection in the Legislature next year and statewide in 2016.

Nowhere is this evolution clearer than in the Senate where there are 26 Democrats and 23 Republicans, but it is the members of the Grand Old Party who are running the show.

That’s because two moderate Democrats — Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch — ambled across the partisan aisle a year ago and united with the Republicans to form the Majority Coalition Caucus.

And the coalition may be adding another member if Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, unseats Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, in Tuesday’s election. Angel was leading after the first night of balloting.

Biery said if elected she wants to pick up four Senate seats in 2014. She said she’ll look to win in every corner of the state using a strategy of raising money to reinvest in the county party operations.

“We’ve got to get more people elected in rural places,” she said. “I know how hard it is for the little guys in the hinterland to do what they want and need to do.”

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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