The first time Sen. Jim Kastama picked up his microphone in the legislative session that began Monday, it was to oppose his party's leaders and try to diminish their majority.
The Puyallup Democrat’s efforts to block a newly elected member of his own party from taking office failed after a brief and cordial debate. The new senator, Nick Harper of Everett, took the oath of office. The first-day drama didn’t last long.
What remains to be seen is whether the move opened any wounds in the Senate Democratic caucus that could fester. So far, Kastama said he’s seen no backlash.
He took pains in his speech to say he wasn’t targeting Harper, just the tactics used by his supporters in November’s election. A political consultant, hired by labor and other interest groups to defeat Sen. Jean Berkey for being insufficiently liberal, promoted a conservative candidate who would take votes away from Berkey to the benefit of Harper.
Neither “he, nor anyone else in this body, can be the direct beneficiary of a fixed election,” Kastama told senators.
The campaign trickery likely helped defeat Berkey. And Attorney General Rob McKenna has sued the consulting firm, Moxie Media, accusing the firm and founder Lisa MacLean of violating state campaign finance law in the process of hiding its spending on the conservative candidate from voters.
Sen. Tracey Eide called Moxie Media’s tactics “deplorable,” but told senators it isn’t the only group that tried to hide from voters. The state chapter of conservative group Americans for Prosperity is the target of a Public Disclosure Commission investigation after it didn’t report spending that targeted Democrats, including Eide.
If senators start acting as judge and jury, Eide said, it could set a bad precedent.
“We will have a hollow chamber, because each and every one of us will be walking out the door if we go this route,” said Eide, D-Redondo.
Kastama’s effort failed on a procedural vote of 23-18. Democratic Sens. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch joined most Republicans in backing his motion, while GOP Sens. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Pam Roach of Auburn voted with most Democrats.
Kastama told senators he didn’t mean to stir up “disharmony.” And after his attempt to keep Harper from taking his seat failed, Harper said he doesn’t hold it against him.
“It was clear based on Sen. Kastama’s statement that this was a very personal issue for members, and it needed to be discussed,” Harper said.
Kastama noted that Senate leaders stuck with their plans Monday to give Kastama a spot on the coveted budget committee, and he remains chairman of a committee on economic development.
Sheldon says his own frequent refusal to hew to the party line cost him his spot on a committee.
Senate leaders decided not to return him to the energy committee where he served last year. Unlike most senators, Sheldon sits on just one committee this year, on transportation. Majority Leader Lisa Brown told the Kitsap Sun newspaper that Sheldon turned down a spot on a different panel.
The focus Monday was on centrist Democratic senators breaking party ranks – but another move backed by moderate Democrats and embraced by the whole Senate might be more consequential.
Senators voted without dissent to allow budget proposals to be changed on the Senate floor by a majority of their members. A supermajority of 60 percent had been required to amend budgets on the floor, making it hard for anyone not on the budget committee to change them.
Sheldon said he had sought the change for years and had the votes for it this time, so majority Democrats saw the writing on the wall and went along.
In a year when the budget is the focus of nearly all attention, the change could give Republicans and moderate Democrats more say on state spending.
“It’s a game changer,” Sheldon said.
Democratic leaders hope Republicans see it as an olive branch that proves they’re willing to let them help decide how to bridge a $5 billion budget shortfall.
It’s “truly a good-faith effort on our part to reach out to everyone in this body,” said Sen. Ed Murray, the budget chairman and a Seattle Democrat.
To solve the budget mess, Democrats likely will have to make deep cuts and dismantle programs their party created.
Voters in November passed a Tim Eyman-backed measure to require two-thirds supermajorities in the Legislature, or a vote of the people, to raise taxes.
Eyman was in Olympia on Monday to file paperwork for an initiative to reinstate the two-thirds requirement just in case lawmakers overturn it, but since that would require the same supermajorities, it’s nearly impossible for the next two years. So Eyman’s efforts mainly just remind lawmakers he’s out there waiting. “There’s a deterrent effect,” he said.