OLYMPIA — State Sen. Sharon Nelson has a tough job this coming session: proving that her caucus still has clout.
Nelson, 62, recently replaced Sen. Ed Murray as the Senate Democratic leader, taking over at a time when her party is at its lowest ebb in 16 years. Bill Clinton was president the last time Senate Democrats had only 23 members.
Republicans, conversely, gained a member during the November elections, giving the GOP-led majority 26 seats and more control.
In practical terms, Demo-crats are largely relegated to the sidelines while Republicans run the Senate.
Never miss a local story.
Nelson of Maury Island views the session that starts Jan. 13 as an opportunity to show voters her caucus should be put back in control. Democrats, she said, plan to highlight differences between the two parties on issues such as transportation and the environment, and a measure that would require insurance companies to cover abortions.
“They are in charge of the Senate,” she said of the GOP. “If they don’t want to bring those bills forward, we are going to let citizens know that it’s the Republicans who are the problem.”
Nelson says her party’s minority status is a temp-orary setback that will be rectified in the 2014 elections.
“This is a blue state, not a red state,” she said. “The only reason Republicans are in control is because two Democrats decided to side with them.”
Democratic resentment still runs strong over losing the majority this year when Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch in Mason County decided to caucus with Republicans, giving the GOP control of the Senate.
Tom, the Senate majority leader, tops the Democrats’ list of targets in next year’s elections. Nelson also notes Democrats still control the House and governor’s office and says her caucus will coordinate with them next session.
Some Republicans consider Nelson a liberal but also see her as someone they can work with.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said Nelson was a key budget negotiator for the Democrats this year and had a significant effect, including helping persuade the Republicans to include expansion of Medicaid — part of Obamacare — in the initial Senate budget.
“If you were looking at a budget that had only Republican votes, it would not have looked anything like that,” Hill said.
Nelson was one of seven Senate Democrats who voted for the first Senate proposal back in April. Months of negotiations among the House, Senate and the governor’s office ensued before a compromise agreement was reached.
Metropolitan King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer said he considers Nelson a pragmatist.
“I think she is, more often than not, willing to pragmatically work to get a solution believing that 60 percent of something is better than nothing,” said von Reichbauer, a Republican who worked with Nelson when she was chief of staff for then-Councilman Dow Constantine.
AN ANGRY START
Nelson’s path to political life started with sewage in her front yard.
She and her husband moved to Vashon Island in 1996, built a home, and 10 months later their new septic system failed.
She found that no minimum standards existed in state law at the time for septic systems and that homeowners had little recourse, so she did what many people in her circumstances do.
“I was angry and wrote legislators and said, ‘What are you going to do; these people have no standard of care? We can’t get any resolution.’”
Nelson said she was appointed to a task force in Olympia to identify solutions and helped push through legislation to address the problem.
Not long after, she got involved in a successful fight to prevent expansion of a gravel mine near her Maury Island home, an effort that lasted through her years as chief of staff for Constantine — now the King County executive — and carried over into the Legislature when she was appointed to the House in 2007. She was elected to the Senate in 2010.
Her rise to leadership was quick compared with that of her predecessors.
Former Sen. Lisa Brown served in the Legislature a decade before becoming Senate Democratic caucus leader. Murray, the mayor-elect of Seattle, was in the Legislature for 17 years before assuming the role.
Brown proposed an income tax in 2009 and 2010 that would have targeted high-income earners, and Murray this year proposed a 5 percent excise tax on capital gains.
Senate leaders in the past have also proposed sales-tax increases and closing corporate tax breaks.
Nelson said voters already have rejected the idea of an income tax, most recently in 2010. “Trying to go that route again this soon, I don’t think can be fruitful for us.”
She doesn’t like the idea of a sales-tax increase “because it really penalizes our poorest citizens.”
For the most part, closing tax breaks isn’t politically feasible, she said. “The reality is, in Olympia, they are hard to repeal once we give them.”
Nelson left open the door to consider a capital-gains tax. But she doubts her caucus will push for a tax increase next year, saying, “It’s a 60-day session and it’s an election year.”