Gov. Mike Lowry’s last beachhead in the Legislature, the state Senate Democratic caucus, is washing away. Nearly half his colleagues are publicly backing state Sen. Nita Rinehart’s bid for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Lowry is left scrambling as he faces a hostile legislative session in January, with Republicans opposing him on every front.
In a rare public break with the chief executive, 11 of the 25 Democratic senators are publicly supporting Rinehart, one of their own. And while they are allies of hers, many say their allegiance to her is strengthened by fears that Lowry could lose the governor’s mansion if he’s the party nominee.
Counting Rinehart and senators who back her but aren’t ready to go public, a majority of the Senate caucus now opposes Lowry’s renomination. He has not yet announced whether he will seek a second term.
The governor is furious and disappointed, say party sources who asked not to be identified - particularly with fellow Seattle liberals Dwight Pelz and Margarita Prentice, both Rinehart supporters.
Departing Majority Leader Marc Gaspard said Wednesday the tension between the governor and the Senate could cause “tenuous situations” in the upcoming session.
But he, Rinehart and other key senators joined the governor’s office in predicting Democrats will put the politics of the ‘96 campaign aside during the winter session.
“What really counts is how we handle the immediate budget issues,” Rinehart said in an interview. “Nobody in the Senate is interested in fighting with the governor. … The issues are much more important than any political considerations.”
She said many of her colleagues urged her to run for governor and once she agreed, it was natural that they go public with their private endorsements.
“They are now reporting to me that they are getting a good response back home” for bucking Lowry and backing her, she said.
Rinehart has the public support of most of the Senate Democratic women: Kathleen Drew of Issaquah, Rosa Franklin and Lorraine Wojahn of Tacoma, Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell, Darlene Fairley of Shoreline, Val Loveland of Pasco, Betti Sheldon of Bremerton and Prentice.
She also is backed by Kevin Quigley of Lake Stevens, Adam Smith of Kent and Pelz.
She and her allies head some of the key committees handling Lowry legislation: Rinehart at budget, Smith at Law and Justice, Pelz at Labor and Commerce, Prentice at Financial Institutions and Housing, McAuliffe at Education, Quigley at Health & Long-term Care, and Drew at Natural Resources.
Loveland is the new caucus chairwoman and Wojahn is Senate president pro tem.
“You’ll notice that many of these people are from suburban districts who don’t want to see campaign ads with their faces morphing (transforming) into Lowry’s,” said a Senate aide who asked not to be identified.
“They’re distancing themselves as quickly as possible. There is almost no one in this caucus who truly backs Lowry,” the aide said.
“He’ll drag us down with him if he’s the nominee,” said a senator who also spoke on condition of anonymity.