Cornfield: Washington state Dems look for new leadership this weekend

Cornfield: Washington state Dems look for new leadership this weekend

In his first week, President Donald Trump effected quite a bit of change in the climate and landscape of Washington state politics.

His hiring of two Republican state senators leaves that chamber without a functioning majority until at least early February, possibly longer if other senators decide to sign on with the new administration.

It also increases the number, and stakes, of Senate seats to be filled in special elections this fall, the outcome of which could reset the balance of political power.

And this means Trump’s impact will spill over into the ranks of the Democratic Party this weekend when they elect a new leader.

Let’s take ‘em one at a time.

Republicans control a 25-24 majority in the Senate. But Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, resigned Jan. 24 to serve as a special assistant to the U.S. secretary of agriculture, temporarily creating a 24-24 tie with Democrats.

That’s the formula for inaction since any tie-breaking votes would be cast by Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a super liberal Democrat who served as a state senator last year. Republicans can’t risk coming to the floor to vote on even a noncontroversial resolution as it would provide Democrats an opportunity to seize control of the chamber through procedural moves.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, also got hired by Trump this week and will join a former state senator, Don Benton of Vancouver, on the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ericksen had not resigned his seat as of Jan. 25, and has said he won’t since the EPA gig is short-term. And Republican leaders shouldn’t want him to quit, at least not for a while, even though his absences may prove really disruptive to the caucus this session.

If Ericksen, who is half-way through his term, leaves now then whoever is appointed to replace him will need to compete in a special election this fall to keep the seat. If Ericksen stays on until say June or later, his successor won’t need to run until the 2018 cycle.

This is important because Ericksen’s seat is not quite as safe for Republicans as Dansel’s. In 2014, environmentalists tried to unseat Ericksen with an aggressive yet unsuccessful campaign fueled by six-figure checks from California billionaire Tom Steyer.

Senate Republican leaders already are anticipating an expensive campaign to hold onto the seat of the late Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond. They certainly want to avoid a second battle royale this fall if it can be helped.

Plus it is widely rumored that Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, is getting a federal job too, and will quit right away. While many presume that seat would remain in Republican hands, Democrats aren’t likely to cede it without substantial resistance.

Which brings us to the fierce fight under way for the top leadership post of the state Democratic Party.

Chairman Jaxon Ravens is seeking another two-year term. He faces a tough challenge from Tina Podlodowski who contends Democrats should have racked up more victories in November and retaken the majority in the state Senate.

When Democrats gather to make their decision Saturday, President Trump will certainly be at the forefront of their minds given all he’s done this week. How Ravens and Podlodowski intend to capitalize on the electoral opportunities the new president is creating is a question they’ll want answered.

Then they’ll decide if they want to effect a change in the climate and landscape in their party.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com and on Twitter at @dospueblos.

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
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