Politics & Government

The last time the Senate minority played kingmaker

In 2003 as now, Republicans held the majority in a closely divided state Senate.

And in a move with parallels to the start of this year’s legislative session, a small number of Republicans defied their leaders and joined with Democrats to elect a dark-horse candidate for the leadership position known as president pro tempore.

Fircrest Sen. Shirley Winsley won the job in her last term representing Pierce County’s suburban 28th District. She recently reflected on how she did it after hearing the news that another South Sound Republican, Sen. Pam Roach, had become the new president pro tempore.

Then as now, Brad Owen was the lieutenant governor who presided over the Senate. Then as now, there were 25 Republicans and 24 Democrats, although Democrat Tim Sheldon was then a member of the Democratic caucus. He now joins Republicans to form a 26-member majority.

To be president pro tempore is to preside over the Senate when Owen is away. It’s mainly an honorary post, but it does come with some power to make parliamentary decisions and participate in bringing bills to the floor of the Senate via the important Rules Committee.

“You have quite a bit of leverage as a pro tem, particularly when you’re that close,” Winsley said.

In 2003, the Republican majority caucus led by the late Spokane Sen. Jim West was set to nominate Vancouver Sen. Don Benton for pro tem. But the whole Senate votes for the position, as Winsley knew.

So she called Democrats. By the first day of session, “I had six solid votes in my caucus plus the 24 Democrats.”

With the outcome assured, Winsley said, her election wasn’t contested. Benton withdrew and nominated her.

Fast forward a dozen years: Republicans wanted Sheldon to continue as pro tem, but all 23 members of the Democratic caucus backed Auburn’s Roach, the longest-serving state senator. Benton joined them to secure a one-vote majority.

“I probably taught him and Pam a few lessons,” Winsley said.

Unlike the 2003 revolt of moderate Republicans to elect the moderate Winsley, this coalition – Democrats and two conservatives – made less obvious sense. But it gave Democrats the chance to deliver some payback to Sheldon for defecting. Roach and Benton, often dissatisfied with their leadership, flexed some muscle by taking the unusual step of breaking from their caucus on procedural matters.

The coalition might reappear. “If Benton and Roach stay together on a lot of bills, Democrats will do more than they can otherwise,” Winsley said.

It’s an open question what happens now that Roach is part of Senate leadership. Roach says there is no ill feeling among Republicans.

But more than a week after the first-day drama, Republicans were still wrangling over the membership of the Rules Committee once Roach displaced Sheldon as vice-chairman. One GOP bill would add another seat. Another would add two seats.

So what happened in the rest of the 2003 session? Did GOP leaders welcome Winsley to join in their decision-making process? She doesn’t remember many leadership meetings, although she chalks that up to West’s poor health at the time.

“There wasn’t any friction. I was a person who got along with everybody,” Winsley said, “but I wasn’t going to be stomped on.”