Share story

During his decade in Washington state’s Legislature, Rodney Tom has made a habit of doing the unexpected, from writing a budget and then voting against it to switching parties and then, a few years later, essentially switching back.

On Monday, he announced the biggest surprise of all — his departure.

The Medina Democrat, who became the state Senate’s majority leader in 2012 after joining with Republicans to form a governing coalition, told fellow senators in an email that health and family concerns were forcing him to drop his re-election bid.

“I have always said that health and family are my number-one values, and instead of that being merely a campaign slogan, I really do try to live by them,” wrote the 50-year-old Tom, citing his own kidney stones and the needs of his elderly father, who broke his leg last week.

The decision saves Tom from what would probably be the political fight of his life — a top target of mainstream Democrats, but unwilling to fully embrace the GOP, he was facing a heated challenge from former Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride.

McBride has so far raised more than $61,000, the second most of any challenger this year. Tom had raised about $109,000.

In an interview, Tom insisted he would have won the race.

His campaign manager, Keith Schipper, said an internal poll last week put the second-term incumbent ahead of McBride 31 percent to 26 percent, with the rest undecided.

The move creates a major opportunity for mainstream Democrats, who are battling to retake the Senate from its Majority Coalition Caucus that currently is made up of 24 Republicans, Tom and Potlatch Democrat Tim Sheldon.

The Democratic Caucus has 23 members and thus needs to pick up two seats to win back control. In addition to Tom, it’s targeting Eastside Republican Andy Hill and appointed GOP Sen. Steve O’Ban of University Place.

The party also needs to maintain its hold on a fourth competitive seat, from which longtime Democratic Sen. Tracey Eide of Federal Way is retiring.

Facing that difficult map, it will now be easier for Democrats to take Tom’s seat in the 48th Legislative District, a slightly liberal-leaning area that includes parts of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond.

Democrats can continue to support McBride or switch things up by backing another candidate, such as state House budget Chairman Ross Hunter or state Rep. Cyrus Habib, should either choose to run.

Habib said a more high-profile candidate could help the party win the seat while saving resources for other priority races. He said he’s “going to have a number of conversations today and tomorrow” with party leaders.

Hunter did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Republicans had shown their tacit support of Tom by allowing their state spokesman, Schipper, to be his campaign manager. They will now have to find their own candidate.

While there is no obvious choice, one possibility is businessman Gregg Bennett, who raised more than $590,000 in a 2010 challenge to Tom that narrowly fell short.

Bennett said he was surprised by Tom’s announcement and had not yet thought about whether he would run.

On Monday afternoon, early maneuvering for and speculation about the race took place alongside a parade of news releases celebrating Tom.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said the former real-estate agent, who joined the House as a Republican in 2003 before becoming a Democrat to successfully run for the Senate in 2006, “has had a historic impact on Washington.”

“The Senate’s first bipartisan coalition and formation of the Majority Coalition Caucus has always been about putting people above party politics in Olympia,” said Schoesler, of Ritzville. “The accomplishments are many.”

Tom said he, too, was most proud of leading the coalition. He noted its rise coincided with a renewed prioritization of state spending for K-12 education.

Of course, that was due in large part to a state Supreme Court order to increase K-12 spending. But Tom has focused on education issues during his tenure. In particular, he has championed policy changes such as charter schools and using test scores in teacher evaluations.

As a social liberal and fiscal conservative, Tom has supported causes like gay marriage while pushing for more frugal state spending. For example, he has complained about high construction costs of public high schools, calling them “Taj Mahals.”

Before forming the Majority Coalition Caucus, he had angered fellow Democrats with stands on fiscal issues — including in 2010, when he served as a top Senate budget-writer but voted against his own budget because he felt it didn’t go far enough to cut spending. He soon lost the budget post, and ultimately left the caucus.

Despite the party switches, Tom has repeatedly insisted that in his votes he has always represented his district.

On Monday, Tom did not rule out a return to political office in the future.

In her news release, Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson noted Tom’s unusual tenure in the Legislature.

“Sen. Tom clearly left a mark on the Senate and the Legislature that will not soon be forgotten,” she said. “There’s no question he will be remembered vividly for his work on both sides of the aisle and in multiple caucuses.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal