Update: post updated with comments from Sen. Roach and Sen. Chase.
OLYMPIA – A leadership squabble put a twist into the opening day of the Legislature Monday, as minority Democrats helped install controversial Republican state Sen. Pam Roach as Senate president pro tempore.
In what amounted to a mini coup, Democrats sided with Roach and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, to install Roach in the leadership post.
The move was in part a dig at state Sen. Tim Sheldon, the Potlatch Democrat who has been caucusing with the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus. Sheldon was president pro tem last year and had been expected to retain the post.
Sheldon was taken off guard by the surprise maneuver.
“I think there was a little bit of the politics of bitterness shown on the floor,” Sheldon said. He said Democrats wanted to “slap me down” for caucusing with the GOP. “Obviously, Senator Roach and Senator Benton made a deal.”
Roach denied that: “there were no deals that were made,” she said, adding that she simply worked to line up the required 25 votes. “I’ve worked very well with Democrats and I think they appreciate that.”
Roach said the pro tem job is typically reserved for the senior member of the majority party in the Senate chamber — and she’s the longest serving state senator.
Sheldon said he only learned of the effort to depose him shortly before the vote Monday. “It was well-concealed, well-planned and well-executed. That’s the way politics works,” he said.
The president pro-tem position is largely ceremonial, but puts Roach in position to preside over the Senate when Democratic Lt. Governor Brad Owen is unavailable.
According to Senate rules, the move also stands to make Roach vice-chair of the powerful senate Rules Committee, which decides which legislation comes to the floor for a vote.
Monday’s move was all the more interesting given that just a few years ago Roach had been kicked out of the Republican caucus after complaints of hotheaded behavior. Despite all that, Roach was re-elected in November to a seventh term, beating fellow Republican Cathy Dahlquist.
Roach’s elevation to a leadership position could be an indirect win for organized labor. Unlike most Republicans, Roach has been supported by state employees unions during her campaigns.
Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, who nominated Roach for the pro tem position, denied the move was intended as revenge against Sheldon.
“A lot of people might think that’s what it is,” said Chase. “For me, it was about my friend (Roach), who is the senior member of the body.”
The early friction in the Capitol is a reminder of how precarious both majorities are in the Legislature — with Republicans enjoying a small majority in the Senate and Democrats a small majority in the House. That leaves plenty of chances for deal-making and power brokering by individual lawmakers.
Of course, going against your caucus can have repercussions. Sheldon said the Majority Coalition could decide to yank Roach from the Rules Committee, for example.