OLYMPIA – Eastern Washington lost its most senior legislator Wednesday but held onto a leadership position as members of the Senate began preparing for the 2013 session.
State Sen. Bob Morton, of Kettle Falls, a 22-year veteran of the Legislature, announced he will retire at the end of this year, halfway through his current term. “I thought it was time to vacate that seat and leave it to someone else,” the 78-year-old Republican said in an interview.
State Sen. Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, elected to the Senate in 2006 after spending 12 years in the House, was named the Senate Republican leader in a pre-session meeting of the GOP caucus. Schoesler, 55, was elected to take the place of Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla, who stepped down from the top caucus spot this fall. State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, of Wenatchee, was elected caucus chairwoman, the No. 2 leadership spot.
Morton said he was stepping aside to let “new blood and a new way of looking at things” take his place. The 2012 session, which required an extra month because of wrangling over the budget, was particularly tough, he added: “It was not the kind of session I would like to have repeated.”
First elected to the House in 1990, he moved to the Senate three years later and is the second-most-senior member of that chamber. Among his proudest accomplishments, he said, are work on transportation projects, including a new boat for the Keller Ferry as well as roads and highways that help move farm, mining and timber products across the state.
Morton is retired from the small logging business his family owns, and he sometimes fills in as a preacher at his local church. He was often called upon to give the invocation at the start of a day’s session. He plans to work on a long list of home and garden projects and spend more time with his wife and grandchildren.
His Senate retirement becomes official on Jan. 1. Republican precinct committee officers in the sprawling 7th District, which covers parts of Spokane and Okanogan counties and all of Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry counties, will nominate as many as three possible GOP replacements; the county commissioners will make the final selection. State GOP officials said they expect a replacement to be named before the session begins Jan. 14.
He or she will get committee assignments from Schoesler. An astute parliamentarian, Schoesler managed debates as floor leader in the previous session and served as part of the GOP’s budget negotiating team. As the caucus leader, he becomes one of the “four corners” – the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate, the minority leader in the House and the House speaker – key to negotiations with the governor when issues deadlock.
Schoesler could wield more power than usual for a minority leader in the coming session because Democrats have a thin 26-23 majority in the chamber, and so two or more defections of Democrats on any issue would give Republicans a majority if Schoesler can hold the caucus together as a bloc. Two of the most conservative Democrats have also talked about joining Republicans for an organizational vote on the first day that would create a coalition leadership.