The Washington state Senate has a majority again.
Narrowly deciding Tuesday to bypass the top choice of local Republican Party activists, the Pierce County Council appointed University Place Republican Rep. Steve O’Ban to the Senate.
The council’s emergency resolution restores the Senate GOP and its two Democratic allies to full strength in an ongoing special session, breaking a 24-24 tie left by the death of Mike Carrell last week from complications related to treatment of a pre-cancerous condition.
The longtime legislator’s shadow hung over the special meeting called to replace him. O’Ban was the second choice of the 28th District GOP, but he said the opinion of Carrell, who O’Ban called a mentor, should be weighed alongside that ranking.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that Sen. Carrell was hoping I would succeed him,” O’Ban said.
So said Carrell’s widow, Charlotte, in a letter read at the meeting by O’Ban’s brother-in-law, radio host David Boze. O’Ban was also the favorite of the crowd that gathered at the meeting.
A House member in his first term, O’Ban is a lawyer known for taking on high-profile cases on behalf of conservative causes. He has represented pharmacists wanting the right to refuse to stock Plan B emergency contraception; teachers accusing the Washington Education Association of misuse of money; and supporters of the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage.
Since joining the House in January, he has pushed for more accountability in transportation projects, and told the council he expects a deal to coalesce this year that makes such changes while also raising transportation taxes to fund road projects such as State Route 167. He said he could support a gas tax increase that is smaller than the 10- to 13-cent increase he opposed in a committee.
Republicans control five of the seven seats of the County Council, which was required by law to pick one of the three GOP choices: O’Ban, former Pierce County Councilman Dick Muri or University Place City Councilman Javier Figueroa.
The unanimous vote for O’Ban came after a 4-3 vote to reject the GOP precinct committee officers’ first choice, Muri. Republicans Joyce McDonald and Doug Richardson and Democrat Rick Talbert were the minority backing Muri.
Muri said Senate Republicans and lobbyists pushed for O’Ban behind the scenes, promoting him to council Republicans as a stronger candidate in November 2014, when he would run to fill out the last two years of Carrell’s term.
“The best way to honor the PCOs’ decision is to put the strongest candidate in place who can retain the seat in 2014,” Republican Councilman Dan Roach said in quizzing candidates.
Muri said he expected going into the meeting that Roach, Jim McCune and Stan Flemming, whom Muri defeated in a contentious congressional primary last year before losing to Denny Heck, would back O’Ban. The clincher was Democrat Connie Ladenburg; she and Flemming both said O’Ban would work across the aisle.
“I think he’s an excellent constitutional lawyer,” McCune said of O’Ban afterward. “He doesn’t need any on-the-job training.”
Senate Republicans planned to bring him up to speed Tuesday afternoon and have him sworn in at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
His appointment leaves another vacancy, this time in the House, where it’s not decisive since Democrats have a comfortable majority. The Senate vacancy was fast-tracked, but local Republicans are in no hurry to make their choices for House after the council bypassed their top choice for Senate, 28th district GOP leader Bob Brown said.
Figueroa said he would try for the appointment; other candidates could include former unsuccessful House candidates Paul Wagemann and Malcolm Russell. Muri said he would consider it, but he was wary.
“If you have four votes against you, why go out there and put your finger in the fan blade again?” he said. “At some point you learn.”