Meet the loneliest Democrat in Olympia
Now that his party holds a 15-seat majority in the state Senate, conservative Tim Sheldon says he's being punished for supporting Republicans and their legislation.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — For years, Sen. Tim Sheldon was in the middle of nearly every big fight in the Legislature.
Now, he seems almost invisible. Sheldon holds no committee chairmanship. Most of his bills rarely get hearings. His vote carries a fraction of the weight it once did.
Sheldon is a victim of his own party's success.
As a conservative Democrat in a Senate that was evenly divided most of the past decade, Sheldon frequently joined Republicans to push pro-business bills and block some of the most liberal pieces of his party's agenda.
That leverage vanished with last fall's election rout that gave Democrats a 15-seat advantage in the Senate.
But you won't hear Sheldon complaining. In fact, he says he's feeling more relaxed and having more fun than he has had in years.
"I feel a lot less pressure coming down here every day," Sheldon said. "It's a much different session ... not having to count votes every day and every minute."
Sheldon, 60, has always been a bit of a political enigma — maverick is the term he prefers. Ivy League-educated, he was born and raised in a timber-industry family along Hood Canal and still lives near the tiny town of Potlatch, Mason County.
A lifelong Democrat, he was first elected to the state House 17 years ago, before moving to the Senate in 1997. He represents a sprawling rural district that covers parts of four counties in the South Puget Sound region.
Sheldon says he never votes a party line — Republican or Democrat. He insists all of his votes are based on his personal beliefs and the needs of his district.
But over the years, his relationship with fellow Democrats has grown more and more strained. In 2000, he even briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a Republican.
Six years ago, when the Democrats held a one-seat majority in the Senate, Sheldon teamed up with the Republicans on several occasions to give them temporary control so they could pass some of their bills.
Two years later, when the Republicans gained control outright, they let Sheldon keep his job as chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee.
Supported Bush, Rossi
If all of that wasn't insult enough for Democrats, Sheldon also has donated thousands of dollars from his own campaign account to the Senate Republicans. And in the 2004 election, he supported President Bush and the GOP's candidate for governor, Dino Rossi.
"He calls himself a Democrat; I respect that," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. "But where he falls on a lot of issues is much closer to the other side than to ours."
Sheldon's clout began to fade two years ago when Democrats regained a three-seat majority in the Senate. He lost his committee chairmanship, and most of his bills got little attention.
Then, last year, the Democrats really came after him. The party and its allies, especially labor unions, spent more than $250,000 trying to defeat him in the Democratic primary.
Sheldon survived the challenge and then trounced his Republican opponent in the fall.
At the same time, however, Senate Democrats won a 32-17 majority — the largest for either party since 1965.
While that pushed Sheldon even further into legislative obscurity, Brown said there is no attempt by the Democrats to ostracize him. Sheldon was given seats on two committees, over the objection of some Democrats. He still attends Democratic caucus meetings and doesn't hesitate to speak his mind.
"But people mostly just disregard what he has to say anymore," said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park.
Sheldon says there is no question he's being frozen out by what he calls the "politics of punishment."
Consider this: When Republicans held the majority in the 2003-04 Senate, Sheldon sponsored 35 bills, got 14 through the Senate, and eight became law.
This year, of the 12 bills he has introduced, only one minor measure has passed the Senate and most haven't even come up for a hearing.
Compare that to freshman Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. Of the 16 bills Marr has sponsored, half already have cleared the Senate.
Sheldon said he realizes the Democrats need to "showcase the freshmen." Another big factor, he said, is that lobbyists and special-interest groups no longer come to him to sponsor legislation.
"They know Sheldon's not their ticket," he said.
But Sheldon said his lower profile has given him more time to focus on things for his district. One of his top priorities this year is to get money to build Mason County's first domestic-violence shelter.
He'll also be able to concentrate more on his other job — as a Mason County commissioner.
He sounds Republican
Jim Chapin, chairman of the 35th District Democrats, said it would be nice to have a senator with more clout. But he said the district has lots of people like Sheldon — Democrats who sound more like Republicans.
"It's pretty hard not to be hard on the guy," Chapin said. "At the same time, if you're from this area, you have to say maybe he's right that he is representing his district."
Sen. Adam Kline said Sheldon and his bills are being ignored mainly because there is a "popular disdain" among Democrats over his alliances with the Republicans.
"It's very clear he is a Republican," said Kline, D-Seattle. "He should be more honest with his voters about his party affiliation, and he should have more integrity than to sit in our caucus."
With Sheldon in their meetings, Kline said, Democrats have to be careful when discussing political strategy for fear he might leak information to the Republicans.
Sheldon bristled at the suggestion: "I'm not a spy for the Republicans."
And he still has some Democratic allies.
"Some of the attacks against him have been personal, the kind of thing I think no caucus should ever engage in," said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice of Renton. "His district is different from everybody else's — just like mine is. We ought to be able to recognize that."
Sheldon said he worries the new supermajorities in the House and Senate will lead to bad public policy, because the Democrats can push things through with little debate.
And while he sometimes misses the leverage he once held, he said he isn't bitter.
"It's the price you pay for being independent and not tied to a particular party," Sheldon said.
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.