Politics & Government

Democrats help Republican Sen. Pam Roach unseat a Democrat

Nearly all Democrats voted for a Republican. Nearly all Republicans voted for a Democrat.

And by a whisker, Pam Roach prevailed, winning a leadership role in the state Senate and taking the latest step in a comeback from the days when she wasn’t even allowed in meetings of her fellow Republicans.

The surprise move, on Monday’s opening day of a 105-day legislative session in Olympia, puts Republicans on notice that they can’t count on the automatic support of Roach and her ally Sen. Don Benton, conservatives who have chafed at some of their leaders’ decisions.

In the mostly ceremonial job of president pro tempore, Roach will preside over the Senate in the absence of Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, acting as referee on parliamentary questions. The job also gives her a spot on the powerful Rules Committee.

“What I want is a cohesive, well-run Senate, and I have the respect of both sides of the aisle,” Roach said.

Two years ago, Potlatch Democrat Tim Sheldon became president pro tempore after he defected to form the Majority Coalition Caucus and put the Republicans in the driver’s seat. (It was also that takeover that brought Roach back into the caucus meetings from which she was ejected for alleged hostility to staff. The coalition needed her vote.)

Democrats got a bit of payback Monday when they unseated Sheldon. All 23 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus joined Roach and Benton to give Roach 25 votes, the number needed for a majority. All other Republicans voted against her. .

“I think it was an opportunity for them to retaliate because of the fact I represent my district and not my party,” said Sheldon, whose district includes Mason and parts of Thurston and Kitsap counties.

Although a business-backed conservative, Roach aligns with Democrats on some issues and had the support of public employee unions in her re-election last fall, when she fended off a challenger from within her own party. Expense reimbursements Roach took in contravention of state ethics decisions became an issue in that race.

Previously in her 24-year career, the longest-serving state senator had confrontations with staff that led Republicans to limit her direct contact with nonpartisan staff and to bar her from their caucuses in 2010.

Sheldon said of Democrats: “I think obviously they’re going to want something for giving her the votes. That’s the way things will work in Olympia, unfortunately.”

But Roach said Democrats did not ask for anything in return: “Absolutely not.”

Why did they vote for her? “I asked for their vote,” Roach said.