New Senate Democratic leader aims to put caucus back on top
Sharon Nelson, the Democrats’ new leader in the state Senate, is taking over at a time when her party is at its lowest ebb in 16 years
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Work history: Former vice president of Seafirst Bank, which was later acquired by Bank of America; chief of staff, 2001-2007, for then-Metropolitan King County Councilmember Dow Constantine
Political experience: Appointed to the state House in 2007; elected unopposed in 2008. She was elected to the Senate unopposed in 2010. Became Senate Democratic leader this year after Sen. Ed Murray, Seattle mayor-elect, left the post.
OLYMPIA — State Sen. Sharon Nelson has a tough job this coming session: proving that her caucus still has clout.
Nelson, 62, recently replaced Sen. Ed Murray as the Senate Democratic leader, taking over at a time when her party is at its lowest ebb in 16 years. Bill Clinton was still president the last time Senate Democrats had only 23 members.
Republicans, conversely, gained a member during the November elections, giving the GOP-led majority 26 seats, and more control.
In practical terms, Democrats are largely relegated to the sidelines while Republicans run the Senate.
Nelson, of Maury Island, views the session that starts Jan. 13 as a chance to show voters her caucus should be put back in control.
Democrats, she said, plan to highlight differences between the two parties on issues such as transportation and the environment, as well as a measure that would require insurance companies to cover abortions.
“They are in charge of the Senate,” she said of the GOP. “If they don’t want to bring those bills forward, we are going to let citizens know that it’s the Republicans who are the problem.”
Nelson contends her party’s minority status is a temporary setback that will be rectified in the 2014 elections.
“This is a blue state, not a red state,” she said. “The only reason Republicans are in control is because two Democrats decided to side with them.”
Democratic resentment still runs strong over losing the majority this year when Sens. Rodney Tom, of Medina, and Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, Mason County, decided to caucus with Republicans, giving the GOP control of the Senate.
Tom, the Senate majority leader, tops the Democrats’ list of targets in next year’s elections.
Nelson also notes Democrats still control the House and governor’s office and says her caucus will coordinate with them next session.
Republicans consider Nelson a liberal but also see her as someone they can work with.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said Nelson was a key budget negotiator for the Democrats this year and had a significant impact, including helping persuade the Republicans to include expansion of Medicaid — part of Obamacare — in the initial Senate budget.
“If you were looking at a budget that had only Republican votes, it would not have looked anything like that,” Hill said.
Nelson was one of seven Senate Democrats who voted for the first Senate proposal back in April. Months of negotiations among the House, Senate and governor’s office ensued before a compromise agreement was reached.
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer considers Nelson a pragmatist.
“I think she is, more often than not, willing to pragmatically work to get a solution believing that 60 percent of something is better than nothing,” said von Reichbauer, a Republican, who worked with Nelson when she was chief of staff for then-Councilmember Dow Constantine.
An angry start
Nelson’s path to political life started with sewage in her front yard.
She and her husband moved to Vashon Island in 1996, built a home and 10 months later their brand-new septic system failed.
She found there were no minimum standards in state law at the time for septic systems and little recourse for homeowners, so she did what many people in her circumstances do.
“I was angry and wrote legislators and said, ‘What are you going to do; these people have no standard of care? We can’t get any resolution.’ ”
Nelson said she was appointed to a task force in Olympia to identify solutions and helped push through legislation to address the problem.
Not long after, she got involved in a successful fight to prevent expansion of a gravel mine near her Maury Island home, an effort that lasted through her years as chief of staff for Constantine — now the King County executive — and carried over into the Legislature when she was appointed to the House in 2007. She was elected to the Senate in 2010.
In addition, Nelson has sponsored legislation to restrict payday lending and remove flame retardants from children's products.
Her rise to leadership was quick compared with that of her predecessors.
Former Sen. Lisa Brown served in the Legislature a decade before becoming leader of the Senate Democratic caucus. Murray, the mayor-elect of Seattle, was in the Legislature for 17 years before assuming the role.
Murray said one of Nelson’s biggest challenges will be to keep together a diverse caucus that has a broad range of views.
“Both Lisa Brown and I struggled to hold the more conservative members together with the more liberal members. It’s been very difficult,” Murray said. “The thing is, I think she can do it. She’s incredibly driven.”
Nelson, for her part, said “having as broad a tent as we do is incredibly healthy ... it’s difficult for our caucus, but we’re not going to be in lock-step on everything, and I think that’s a much healthier position for us.”
She described her leadership as “being steady and firm and also when you need to, being tough. Part of my leadership style is no drama. Let’s just stay on task and make sure that our caucus is known for the work that it does.”
While Nelson promises to define the differences between her caucus and the GOP, she downplayed the prospect of pushing for a major tax increase — something her predecessors were known for.
Brown proposed an income tax in 2009 and 2010 that would have targeted high- income earners, and Murray this year proposed a 5 percent excise tax on capital gains.
Senate leaders in the past have also proposed sales-tax increases and closing corporate tax breaks.
Nelson said voters already have rejected the idea of an income tax, most recently in 2010. “Trying to go that route again this soon, I don’t think can be fruitful for us.”
She doesn’t like the idea of a sales-tax increase “because it really penalizes our poorest citizens.”
For the most part, closing tax breaks isn’t politically feasible, she said. “The reality is, in Olympia, they are hard to repeal once we give them.”
Nelson left open the door to consider a capital-gains tax. But she doubts her caucus will push for a tax increase next year, saying, “It’s a 60-day session and it’s an election year.”
All that said, the Legislature needs to figure out how to raise more revenue to help meet a state Supreme Court mandate to increase education funding, she said.
One tax vote Nelson appears open to in the near future is increasing the state gas tax to help pay for billions of dollars in transportation projects.
Negotiators from the House and Senate are trying to reach agreement on a package that would boost the gas tax by more than 10 cents a gallon and provide up to $12 billion for transportation, including work on Interstates 405 and 90 and the new Highway 520 bridge.
It’s not clear if an agreement can be reached before the start of the legislative session.
Nelson said that for Democrats to agree to a tax deal, the GOP-led caucus would have to buy in.
“Transportation packages have always been bipartisan. For us to be expected to provide the majority of the votes isn’t acceptable,” she said. “Republicans should come forward with at least 13 votes in my opinion. They are in the majority.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org