The outlook for control of the state Senate was muddied further Friday when Mike Hewitt announced he would step down after seven years as Republican leader.
The Walla Walla senator’s announcement follows decisions by top GOP budget writer Joe Zarelli to resign, Democratic Majority Leader Lisa Brown not to run for re-election, and Ed Murray to replace Brown, leaving his job as Ways and Means Committee chairman vacant. And Mary Margaret Haugen, the Transportation chairwoman, was defeated in her re-election bid.
Adding more confusion to the mix, Republicans have been in talks with maverick Democrats Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon about forming a coalition to reject the majority’s slate of committee chairmen and elect new ones from both parties – and possibly install a coalition leader in place of Murray, such as the fiscally conservative, socially liberal Tom.
Hewitt said in his announcement about giving up the minority-leader post that he wants to “encourage a new model of leadership” and “promote new Senate leadership from the center.”
“I think Rodney would do a great job,” Hewitt said in an interview. “I actually thought he probably would want to be the Ways and Means chair, because he probably knows that budget better than anyone. … He said ‘No, I’d rather be the leader.’”
Whatever happens, there will be a new Republican leader. Candidates might include Mark Schoesler of Ritzville and Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, who both expressed interest in the job Friday. Other potential candidates, including Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee and Curtis King of Yakima, couldn’t immediately be reached.
Hewitt is staying in the Senate but stepping down as leader in part because of his health. He underwent major surgery this year to remove a tumor in his abdomen, and he said that while he remains cancer-free, the surgery caused some damage to one of his lungs, making him tire easily.
“I think that leader’s position’s going to be very demanding, just like it was last year, and I just don’t have that stamina,” he said.
He had little hesitation when asked what moment stands out from his time as minority leader. It came last winter, when Republicans plus Tom, Sheldon and Jim Kastama of Puyallup staged a budget coup to take over the Senate floor, the “first time that had been done in 25 years,” Hewitt said.
The GOP-led coalition will have the upper hand for a second year in a row only if Vancouver Republican Sen. Don Benton can maintain his lead over challenger Tim Probst – which shrank a bit Friday to 96 votes.
HOUSE LEADERS PICKED
The leadership drama in the Senate isn’t bleeding over into the House, where Democrats have a larger majority.
Republicans re-elected Richard DeBolt of Chehalis as their leader Friday, while Democrats supported an eighth term as House speaker for Frank Chopp of Seattle, which will be formalized in a vote of the full House when lawmakers return in January. Democrats also re-elected Pat Sullivan of Covington as majority leader.
Two other South Sound lawmakers have spots in top leadership, as their parties’ floor leaders, who manage strategy on the House floor and help set the parties’ priorities. Lakewood nurse Tami Green was re-elected to that position for Democrats, while Republicans elected a new floor leader, J.T. Wilcox of Yelm, a consultant and former executive with his family’s Wilcox Farms.
Wilcox said Republicans’ job now is to push for “sound financial decisions, efficient government and accountability to the people,” while Green said Democrats would have a “strong commitment to just having a ‘One Washington’ message” of unity.
The confusion in the Senate makes House leaders’ job harder, Green said.
“When there’s no clear leadership and we don’t really know who’s in charge, it’s difficult for us,” she said.Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics @Jordan_Schrader