Dems’ temporary advantage in Senate has GOP scramblingWithout Carrell, the Senate is currently meeting in special session while deadlocked 24-24, and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen — a Democrat — is poised to cast the deciding vote
Washington state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are publicly grieving over the death on Wednesday of Lakewood Sen. Mike Carrell. But behind the scenes, GOP leaders are moving quickly to fill his seat while Democrats calculate whether they have a chance to exploit their temporary numerical advantage.
Carrell, a Republican, had been dealing with a serious illness all spring and, as a courtesy, Democrats had cast votes by proxy when he was unable to attend sessions in person. But now that option no longer exists.
Democrats came into the regular session outnumbering GOP members 26-23, but Republicans were able to persuade moderate Democrats Rodney Tom (Bellevue) and Tim Sheldon (Potlatch) to caucus with them, forming a coalition that outnumbered Democrats 25-24.
Until Wednesday, that is. Without Carrell, the Senate is currently meeting in special session while deadlocked 24-24, and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen — a Democrat — is poised to cast the deciding vote, despite concerns over whether such a move would be constitutional.
Olympia veterans say there is little or no precedent for a lieutenant governor casting a tie-breaking vote, and the constitutional language is vague enough to virtually assure a lawsuit if it comes to that.
“For me not to vote would be, in my opinion, shirking my constitutional responsibility,” Owen said, “and until it is judged otherwise, that’s what I’ll do. (Republicans) can’t point to a court case that says I’m wrong, and I can’t point to a court case that says I’m right. But until that happens, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Procedurally, however, it may be a moot point. According to a source with the Senate Republicans, the Majority Caucus may no longer be a majority in fact, but until a floor vote is taken recognizing the new dynamic, it still controls the legislative calendar.
Consequently, Tom, who serves as majority leader, could simply refuse to schedule any floor action at all until Carrell’s successor is sworn in.
Democrats have issued bland assurances they will not attempt to capitalize on Carrell’s absence by rushing through legislation that had been blocked by the Majority Coalition, but Republicans know there will be pressure to resolve the ongoing budget impasse before the 30-day special session ends on June 11.
In effect, that gives Republicans roughly a week to put someone in Carrell’s seat.
By law, the process for choosing a successor calls for a slate of three candidates to be nominated by the party leadership in the impacted district. Those names are then presented to the county commissioners, who pick a winner.
On Wednesday afternoon — just hours after Carrell’s death — 28th District Republican Chair Bob Brown announced that party officials would meet tonight night and emerge with three viable candidates. Among the names being mentioned are University Place Rep. Steve O’Ban, Tacoma City Councilman Dick Muri, University Place City Councilman Javier Figueroa and Mayor Pro Tem Denise McCluskey and Caleb Heimlich, executive director of the Washington State Republican Party.
Brown said he hoped the Pierce County Council — which has a 5-2 Republican majority — would act immediately on the recommendation, but there were early indications the approval process might take a little longer.
Under Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act, the commissioners typically cannot schedule a meeting at which official action will be taken without giving the public 24 hours’ notice. Brown said he feared a vote could be delayed until Monday.
Whenever the result is announced, Brown said Republicans could have a judge standing by at the Capitol to administer the oath of office and seat the new senator immediately.
“We’re taking this matter very seriously,” he said. “There’s a lot a stake and the Democrats could do a lot of damage in very little time if we give them a chance.”