Editor’s Note: Here is another update from our correspondent in Olympia, the Legislative Junkie. You can find all of his other posts here.
On Thursday, May 3rd, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-3) announced that she would not seek re-election to the state Senate. The last few sessions have certainly taken their toll on Brown, between a series of disastrous budget-cutting sessions and a caucus that was prone to bolting. While her announcement was something of a surprise, it was hardly shocking. Democrats are in danger of losing their majority in this November’s elections, and even if they hold onto their lead, Senator Brown would likely have an even harder time holding the reins after the coup of last year.
There should be little surprise in the musical chairs to replace Senator Brown in Spokane. Representative Andy Billig (D-3) is running for her senate seat. Marcus Ricelli, a top aide to Senator Brown, is running for Billig’s seat.
But who will lead the Senate Democrats in 2013? That is a little less obvious.
The conventional wisdom was, for months, that Derek Kilmer (D-26), a wicked-smart moderate Democrat from Gig Harbor, would be Brown’s eventual replacement. But he’s running for the 6th Congressional District seat being vacated by the retiring Norm Dicks. So he’s out. Who does that leave?
Ed Murray – Senator Ed Murray (D-The Castro) has scored a series of big wins the last session, both as the prime sponsor of the marriage equality bill that passed this year and as the chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, where he managed to pass a budget that made no cuts to education and closed a tax loophole on big banks.
Why he will be: Senator Murray has the years of experience, deal-making prowess, popularity and ambition that are all necessary in a caucus leader. He’s liberal, funny, competitive, and wonky. He wrangled Republican votes on marriage equality while out-negotiating them on budget issues this year. His knowledge of the process and personalities in Olympia make him a great fit for the job.
Why he won’t be: There are two glitches in what is an otherwise obvious choice. First, Murray is from the 43rd District – the same as House Speaker Frank Chopp. The optics of Democrats being led in both houses by two men from the same densely urban, deeply liberal, fabulously gay Seattle district are murky at best. It certainly would heighten appearance of a divide between liberal Seattle and the rest of the state. Second, Ed Murray is looking at running for mayor of Seattle in 2013. Incumbent mayor Mike McGinn is vulnerable, and Murray’s legislative successes make him a formidable candidate. In his current role as budget writer, Murray can legitimately take credit for funding education and social services. As Majority (or Minority) Leader, Murray would likely end up voting for compromises that may anger some key constituencies. Staying as budget chair helps any mayoral campaign far more than would moving to party leader.
Tracey Eide – As Senate Majority Floor Leader, Senator Tracey Eide (D-30) is responsible for directing legislative and parliamentary traffic when the Senate is on the floor. During procedural floor fights (such as March’s coup), Senator Eide is the one charged with outmaneuvering the Republicans. And she’s good at it.
Why she will be: Senator Eide certainly has the leadership experience for the job, and her close relationship to Brown means it would be a smooth transition. Eide has a warm relationship with Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen (at the end of the 2011 session, Owen took a moment to gush about her, saying he sometimes didn’t know whether to call her “Senator, Boss, or Mom.”), and she knows how to direct her caucus.
Why she won’t be: Given how close they are, it’s hard to see how Senator Eide would move past the problems that plagued Senator Brown’s tenure. A Democratic Senator I talked to last week suggested that Eide would be a decent placeholder for a year or two, but that she would be no more successful at wrangling Road Kill Senators than was Brown.
Nick Harper – Since his controversial election in 2010, Senator Nick Harper (D-Moxie Media) has become the Democratic Whip – the man in charge of counting votes. He replaced the late, wonderful Scott White in that role, and like his predecessor, Harper is young, smart, liberal, and warm.
Why He Will Be: Senator Nick Harper is as rising a star as there is in the Senate. In two short years, he beat a short path both to Senate leadership and to a spot on the Senate Ways & Means Committee. The top Senate job seems in his inevitable future.
Why He Won’t Be: While the cloud that hung over his initial election has mostly dispersed, his win over incumbent conservative Democrat Jean Berkey didn’t win him points among the Road Kill crowd. It is also unclear that Harper has been there long enough to build the trust and relationships it takes to manage a caucus.
These seem to be the likeliest choices. All three are avowed liberals (as is Brown), and any future Senate Democratic leader will have their hands full keeping the most conservative members in the fold. But the Senate will be different after the November elections. It is possible that the Senate as a whole will be more conservative, as Republicans win seats in moderate districts, while the Senate Democrats left will be the most liberal members. The mechanics of this are best saved for a future discussion, but it is helpful to remember that the leader of the Senate Democrats may be Senate Minority Leader come January.
Perhaps the most likely Senate Majority Leader is really Mike Hewitt.