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Originally published December 10, 2012 at 9:29 PM | Page modified December 11, 2012 at 7:53 AM

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Aisle-crossing senators have rankled party loyalists before

State Senators Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon have been known to buck their parties and side with Republicans at times. Their plan to join with Republicans in a new Senate majority coalition marks a culmination of their efforts to be aisle-crossing mavericks — or traitors, in the eyes of some.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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This isn't the first time state Senators Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon have bucked their party and sided with Republicans.

On Monday, Tom, of Medina, and Sheldon, of Potlatch, Mason County, unveiled their boldest aisle-crossing effort yet, announcing they will join 23 Republicans to create a new governing majority in the Senate.

Tom would become the Senate's majority leader and Sheldon president pro tempore.

But to some Democrats, they will be traitors.

Democrats, who now hold a nominal 26-23 majority, would lose control of the Senate.

Tom says the idea of creating the new coalition is all about putting aside partisanship to advance a middle-class agenda focused on jobs, education and more disciplined state spending.

"We heard from voters loud and clear that it's time to get away from partisan bickering and to govern," Tom said.

That's a consistent position for Tom, 49, a real-estate agent. When he first ran for state representative 10 years ago, he said he was campaigning to solve problems and stop divisive politics.

But his party affiliation has been anything but consistent. After four years as a Republican, he switched parties, saying the GOP was too far right to represent his moderate 48th District.

Then, four years later, Democrats elevated him to vice chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, making him a key budget writer.

But Tom disappointed fellow Democrats in 2010 when he voted against his caucus' own budget and an $800 million tax package to pay for it. Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, sent flowers to all her Democratic colleagues but Tom, saying he was a "conflicted individual."

Tom said his record shows he's "probably the most bipartisan legislator" in Olympia.

He insists, though, he is a Democrat. He has supported gay marriage and abortion rights, believes in more progressive taxes — including a much higher estate tax — and calls George W. Bush the "most fiscally irresponsible president in the last 100 years."

But politics is often very human, and deal-making depends on trust that some may lack in Tom.

"Olympia is all about bringing people together, and that is critical for anyone in leadership. His ability to do so is an unanswered question," said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for the Washington Conservation Voters.

King County Labor Council leader Dave Freiboth said he isn't convinced Tom is the right person to lead the new coalition. "I find Rodney Tom very likable and engaging. What makes him frustrating is his inability to listen," Freiboth said.

Some Republicans are also wary.

"Rodney has shown he doesn't stick with any team very long, so who knows what's going to happen?" said former state GOP chairman Chris Vance.

But Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, who would become Republican floor leader under the plan, said Tom's problems with the right and left perfectly suit him for his new role. "No one is better to lead this effort, because he has befuddled people on both sides," Fain said.

Tom scoffs at suggestions that he's driven by ambition and an appetite for power, joking that in his own house he ranks fifth behind his wife, two kids and their pet cat.

Deb Eddy, a retiring Democratic House member from Tom's district, thinks he is just being strategic, recognizing that a clash in the Senate is inevitable.

Instead of waiting until the last days of a session to hammer out a budget deal, replete with arm-twisting in backrooms, Tom is saying "let's start out bipartisan," Eddy said.

"JFK was my idol"

Sheldon has regularly infuriated fellow Democrats during his 20 years in the House and Senate with his votes against the caucus, as well as his endorsements of Republicans George W. Bush for president and Rob McKenna for governor.

In 2000 he publicly acknowledged he was thinking about switching parties — which would have given the GOP a one-vote Senate majority. But he stuck with the party he has identified with since he was a teenager.

State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz on Monday called Sheldon "the longest-running joke in Olympia."

Sheldon responded that "the party can't stand it when you're not with them 100 percent of the time."

"JFK was my idol when I grew up," he said. "I went to the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City when I was 17 years old. I'm just as much a Democrat as anyone else in my caucus. It's just that I don't represent a very liberal area."

A Mason County commissioner as well as a state senator, Sheldon, 65, lives near Potlatch, where he runs a tree farm, gravel operation and oyster business.

Sheldon defied his party in 2005 by blocking passage of a gay-rights bill, and in 2012 by voting against gay marriage and joining Republicans and maverick Democrats Tom and Jim Kastama to pass a more conservative budget.

Some Democrats proposed legislation in 2010 that would have forced Sheldon to choose between his seat in the Senate and his job as an elected county commissioner. He said he sees no conflict between his $78,000 county job and his $42,000 Senate position.

County Commissioner Lynda Ring Erickson, a Democrat, said she wasn't surprised Sheldon joined the Senate coalition. "I think he looks for opportunities and is probably somebody who works a little harder at communicating with both sides on an issue," she said.

That's a far cry from Democratic Chair Pelz's view.

He said that Tom and Shelton don't feel important in their own party, so "they can only have power when they're threatening to be the swing vote that goes across the aisle."

Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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