OLYMPIA — Sen. Rodney Tom is a majority leader without a party.
Democrats can’t forgive him for crossing party lines last year, along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, to give the GOP control of the state Senate. The party is targeting Tom in this year’s elections.
And some Republicans, who owe Tom big time for putting them in charge, say he could be replaced with a majority leader from their own party if they pick up at least one more seat in November.
With that cloud overhead, Tom goes into another legislative session Monday as the ostensible leader of an unwieldy coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats — himself and Sheldon.
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Their priorities include pushing through a series of laws, including changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system and state pensions.
Tom also says the Legislature should act on a transportation tax package this year.
Yet, while Tom holds what’s historically been one of the most powerful jobs in the Legislature, it’s not clear how much clout he has to bring about those goals.
Not only do Democrats, who control the House and governor’s office, oppose most high-profile legislation from his caucus, Tom also shares power with Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville.
The two jointly attend meetings with the governor, as well as other key negotiations, and often appear together at news conferences. They divide up speaking engagements.
“Rodney doesn’t do things without me, and I don’t do things without Rodney,” Schoesler said in an interview last week. “We maintain trust.”
Looking beyond party
Tom has always straddled party lines.
He represents the 48th Legislative District, which covers a swath of Eastside suburbia, including parts of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond. The district once leaned Republican, but has shifted in favor of Democrats.
When first running for the state House in 2002 as a Republican, Tom complained about partisan bickering, saying, “Most people just want the issues solved. They don’t care if it’s a Republican solution or a Democratic solution. They just want a solution.”
That sentiment didn’t change when he switched parties and became a House Democrat in 2006, when he joined the Senate Democratic caucus in 2007 or when he decided to caucus with Republicans in 2012.
“I think he’s the only person who has served in all four (party) caucuses in state history,” said Democratic state Rep. Ross Hunter, who is also from the 48th District and shares a condo with Tom during legislative sessions.
Tom says he’s representative of a broader electorate that doesn’t put much stock in party labels. He crossed party lines last year, he said, to help create a more centrist way of governing that operates out of the middle.
“The way our politics is currently set up, you have a ‘winner takes all.’ So if you have 25 members, you win it all and the other side is kind of shut out by the process. All they get to do is throw grenades over the fence,” Tom said.
The Senate has 49 members. A caucus needs 25 votes to control the chamber.
“I don’t think that’s what the public expects of us. The public expects that when there is this close dynamic, we work together.”
It’s debatable how well that’s worked out.
The coalition caucus did offer to let Democrats chair several Senate committees. Only two members of the Democratic caucus agreed to run panels dealing with agriculture and financial institutions. A third, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, co-chairs the transportation committee.
The Legislature also passed a budget last year that garnered large majorities in both parties, but it took 150 days of negotiations and the threat of a government shutdown to get there. The parties blame each other for how long it took.
Otherwise, Democrats and Republicans could not reach agreement on most of the priorities they’d laid out and left them behind.
There’s little indication things will be different in the future.
Tom’s role in all that is hard to assess. In many respects it appears Tom and Schoesler are essentially co-majority leaders, given the divided roles, although Schoesler is quick to point out that “Rodney is the majority leader. He sits in the larger office, and he collects the majority leader salary.”
Tom earns $50,106 as majority leader. State records show Tom, a former real-estate broker, also has income from investments and his wife’s family trust fund. He lives in a waterfront Medina home assessed at more than $5 million.
Several GOP senators said Tom’s base of influence within the caucus is mainly suburban Republicans, while Schoesler speaks more for the rural and Eastern Washington members.
Tom agreed, adding, “If you look at where the balance of power is, whether in the House or Senate, it’s in suburbia land. Eastern Washington is probably going to vote the way they’re going to vote. Really, the dynamics are in the suburbs,” he said.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said he didn’t see much of a regional split in the caucus.
When it comes to the caucus priorities of jobs, education and the budget, “those are the things everybody can agree on,” he said.
When asked about Tom’s biggest accomplishment over the past year, most Republicans interviewed said he helped keep the caucus together.
“I think he’s consistently focused on the issues that unite the caucus and worked well with a number of us to keep off the table issues that could divide the caucus,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
For example, he said, Tom advocated for the caucus to focus on areas of agreement, such as the budget, and set aside controversial issues including abortion and immigration.
Keeping social issues off the table, in turn, allowed the caucus to concentrate on fending off tax proposals, put an additional $1 billion into education and keep college tuition increases at bay, GOP lawmakers said.
Democrats contend they also pushed for more education funding, and that the Republicans insisted on one-time budget fixes that will lead to future budget shortfalls.
Schoesler said that had Tom “not been a person of his word, it could have completely disintegrated. But he always kept his word. If he told you he was going to support anything or oppose something, he always kept his word. That is the most important trait of any member, especially a leader.”
Former GOP Gov. Dan Evans, who talks with Tom periodically, also credits Tom for helping to hold together the coalition.
“Tom is a pretty good guy to lead that (coalition),” Evans said. “He started out as a Republican, and what drove him out of the Republican Party were all the nuts on the far right. So I don’t think he has moved at all. He’s stayed pretty much where he was philosophically.”
That said, some Republicans said Tom could be replaced as majority leader if Republicans pick up one more seat in November.
The GOP currently has 24 seats in the Senate and needs only one more for an outright majority.
That means the party would no longer need Tom and Sheldon to control the Senate if it makes gains in November — although Democrats maintain they can reclaim control next election.
“The minute we pick up one more seat, we will elect a Republican as majority leader. There’s no question about that,” said Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the deputy GOP leader in the Senate.
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, the Senate GOP caucus chair, said she assumed a Republican majority leader would be elected if her party gets a majority, “but I’ve learned not to guess what’s going to happen in the future.”
Others also said it’s too early to predict what the caucus would do.
No formal vote
Some members of the caucus pointed out Tom was never formally elected the Senate majority leader, that it was just an implicit part of the bargain for Republicans to take control.
Parlette, the Senate GOP caucus chair, confirmed Tom was not present at a caucus meeting where they elected Schoesler as the Republican leader and chose all the other leadership posts.
Queried about how Tom became leader, Parlette said, “I hate to tell you this, but I just can’t remember. That’s just the way the assumption was.”
Tom wouldn’t discuss how he got the job, saying, “I don’t think it matters.”
What does he think about the GOP replacing him?
“I don’t care,” he said. “I think the Senate will be close (after the next election) and what we’ve done, people appreciate. I see no reason to change. But if they (Republicans) want to change, that’s up to them. If Republicans have any hope in Washington, they need to be more centrist.”
He also said he plans to run again as a Democrat in the 2014 election and expects to win.
“I’m happy to stand on my record. I know whoever runs against me, there’s going to be lots of money on both sides because it’s a balance point,” he said. “I think what we’ve done is what people in our district would want, focus on education, not go crazy with taxes, and be as in the middle as you can be.”
Tom appeared confident of having the money needed to run, although he doesn’t expect support from either party.
The state Republican Party said they’re not focusing on Tom’s seat but wouldn’t comment on what they’d do if a GOP candidate emerged to run against Tom.
Hunter, who has been running in the same legislative district since 2002, contends Tom is vulnerable.
“People are virulently upset with him. If people were ‘yeah, whatever,’ it’s hard to beat an incumbent. But people are angry,” he said. “It’s unpredictable. You have no idea what will happen. But absolutely, he can be beaten.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @awgarber. Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this story.