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Spin Control: Area’s delegation sees dropoff in experience

OLYMPIA – When the Legislature opens Monday, Spokane will be in a demonstrably different position than in recent years.

The years of experience among the area’s delegation will be almost half what it was four years ago, and it will have no one in a top leadership spot in either chamber.

That difference might be most noticeable in the Senate, where a Spokane member has been either the majority leader or minority leader – and sometimes both – since the start of this century. It’s hard to overstate the clout a majority leader has, as gatekeeper and court of last resort, on matters large and small.

Republican Jim West was Senate minority then majority leader at the beginning of the last decade, a pattern repeated later by Democrat Lisa Brown in a run that ended last year.

An asterisk on this point: This year, Republican Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, whose district includes parts of western Spokane County, is Senate Republican leader. In most years, that would mean he’s either the majority or the minority leader. But a unique confluence of political alliances means he is neither: Instead, he’s the No. 2 person in the “coalition majority” that includes his 24 Republicans and two disaffected Democrats. One of those recalcitrant Dems, Rodney Tom of Bellevue, is the coalition’s pick for majority leader if the gang of 26 holds together on procedural votes Monday. Ed Murray, of Seattle, who can count on only 24 votes from his fellow Democrats, will be the minority leader if things go as planned.

At a recent preview of the upcoming session, Murray and Tom sparred over a geographic distinction that might leave many Spokane residents scratching their heads. The coalition’s choice of leaders and committee chairmen signaled a movement away from a Seattle-centered governance, Tom said.

A strange description, considering Brown had been majority leader for eight years, and she was from Spokane. But Murray didn’t argue that point. Instead, he countered: “Seattle, by the way, is still part of Washington.” The most diverse part, he added, casting aspersions on the relative wealth – or lack of it – in his central Seattle district compared to Tom’s Bellevue-Medina constituents.

From a racial and ethnic standpoint, Murray is undoubtedly right that Seattle is the most diverse part of the state. But when considering the mix of urban, suburban and rural landscapes, or diversity of manufacturing, service and resource-based employment, or even climate, vegetation and the number of seasons, Murray’s and Tom’s districts aren’t separated by much more than a lake and a couple of bridges. The real diversity is definitely outside urban King County and mostly east of the Cascades.

Consider also that the coalition wants Sen. Andy Hill, of Redmond, to run the Ways and Means Committee, arguably the nexus of power in a session where the budget will dominate. The Democrats wanted Sen. Jim Hargrove, of Hoquiam, for that job. Who’s being more Seattle-centered?(Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this item incorrectly identified the Republicans choice for Ways and Means chairman.)

Even when leadership isn’t considered, Spokane starts the session at a disadvantage in terms of experience.

Four years ago, when the Legislature convened at the start of Chris Gregoire’s second term, legislators from districts that are wholly or partially in Spokane County had a total of 105 years of experience in the chambers where they sat on opening day. More than half, 61 years total tenure, was in the Senate. Brown had 12 years, Schoesler 4, Chris Marr 2, Bob Morton 15, and Bob McCaslin, the dean of the delegation, a full 28.

Since then, Brown, Morton and McCaslin all retired and Marr lost a re-election in 2010. Although McCaslin’s replacement, Mike Padden, has only a year in the Senate, it’s backed up by 15 years in the House and probably counts for more, as does his job as Judiciary Committee chairman. Mike Baumgartner, who beat Marr, has two years in the chamber. Andy Billig moves to the Senate after two years in the House, and Morton’s replacement, John Smith, arrives fresh this week. With eight years in the chamber, Schoesler is the longest-toothed senator for the Spokane area.

The Spokane districts have more varied tenure in the House, ranging from two freshly minted members to Valley Republican Larry Crouse, who with 18 years in the Legislature finds himself the new dean of the delegation. Some House members have important posts as vice chairmen or ranking minority members of key committees.

Seniority isn’t everything in the Legislature, where new ideas and energy can allow relative newcomers to make their marks. But it’s not nothing, either. It’s always helpful in making sure local priorities, whether as small as a local museum or as large as a new med school, don’t fall through some crack.

Spin Control also appears as an online blog at spincontrol, where you can follow the Washington legislative session and other political news.