Aside from Senate Republicans’ adoption of a set of rules containing an undemocratic, unconstitutional procedural two-thirds vote requirement for bills proposing new revenue sources, the main news being reported out of the statehouse by Washington newspapers on Monday was the surprise election of Pam Roach to the office of President Pro Tempore.
As we had anticipated would be the case, pretty much every account of the vote and its fallout inaccurately described the suddenly deposed Tim Sheldon as a Democrat. Consider, for example, how The News Tribune’s Jordan Schrader began his story:
Democrats help Republican Sen. Pam Roach unseat a Democrat
By Jordan Schrader
Nearly all Democrats voted for a Republican. Nearly all Republicans voted for a Democrat.
And by a whisker, Pam Roach prevailed, winning a leadership role in the state Senate and taking the latest step in a comeback from the days when she wasn’t even allowed in meetings of her fellow Republicans.
How many times does it need to be said: Tim Sheldon is not a Democrat. He made a choice, years ago, to sever ties with the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party, for its part, no longer wants anything to do with him.
Now, I imagine that at least a few of you reading this post right now, including those of you who write for one of the McClatchy papers or the Seattle Times or another paper may be thinking, But Tim Sheldon got elected as a Democrat.
No, he didn’t. Tim Sheldon got elected as Tim Sheldon. Legally, when Tim Sheldon was on the ballot, he was representing no one except for himself.
Allow me to explain.
Since 2008, we have had here in Washington a very strange system for electing people to office, based on the ridiculous notion that nobody should ever have to vote a party ballot (the horror!) except perhaps in a presidential primary. It’s based on a system first used in Louisana, and it’s called Top Two.
Top Two is meant to be a replacement for the old preliminary “blanket” election we used to have, where nominees were chosen on a ballot that was not restricted to voters from a particular party. The Supreme Court struck down this system as unconstitutional in the mid 2000s. Sam Reed, the state Grange, and others came up with Top Two in response. They have claimed on several occasions that Top Two is like the system we used to have. In fact, it is not. It’s very different.
Top Two provides for a two-part general election. The first round (presently held in August) is used to eliminate candidates from contention — if there be more than two persons seeking an office — and the second round (held in November) constitutes the runoff. The top two candidates advance to the second round regardless of party; there are no nominees being chosen in this system.
The Grange, which created initiative that created the Top Two system (I‑872, approved in November 2004 but not implemented until 2008 due to court rulings) was well aware that proposing to do away with partisan elections altogether might not go over very well; plenty of voters use party affiliation as a cue when voting.
So they inserted a provision into their initiative (which later became state law) which allows candidates to state a party preference.
However, as the Secretary of State has reluctantly admitted on several occasions, this descriptor carries no legal weight. Candidates can use this space to describe themselves however they’d like. For instance, I could file for office and say I prefer the Cake Batter Ice Cream Party, or the Christmas Party, or the Stephen King Party.
When Tim Sheldon filed for office last year, he put “Prefers Democratic Party” into the space allotted to him for a descriptor. So did one of his opponents, Irene Bowling, who went on to face him in the runoff.
However, Bowling, unlike Sheldon, is an actual Democrat. She campaigned with the support of the Democratic Party, she won the party’s nomination (which Sheldon did not seek), and she was prepared to caucus with the Democrats had she won. Bowling was the only Democratic candidate in the 35th in 2014.
Sheldon campaigned with the support of Republicans and has continued to caucus with Republicans following his reelection. Republicans, for their part, have welcomed and accepted him into their ranks. He is serving like a Republican member of the Washington State Senate. That makes him a Republican.
It matters not that Sheldon calls himself a Democrat. The Democratic Party decides who its candidates and its members are; it has that right under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Free assembly is a great thing.
The Democratic Party has disowned Tim Sheldon following his departure from the Senate Democratic caucus in 2012. It would be accurate to call Sheldon an ex-Democrat or a former Democrat, as he did associate himself with the Democratic Party once upon a time. But he is not now a Democrat.
Again, because of the way Top Two works, the argument cannot be made that Tim Sheldon got elected as a Democrat in spite of having been disowned by the Democratic Party. Tim Sheldon got elected as Tim Sheldon. We have not had an actual primary to choose nominees for office in this state since 2007.
If any reporter would like to hear this same explanation from the Washington State Democratic Party’s official spokesperson, they can call up State Party Chair Jaxon Ravens, who I am sure would be perfectly happy to comment on the record.
Sheldon could do everyone a favor and simply proclaim himself to be what he really is: a Republican. If Mark Miloscia can do it, he can do it. But, for whatever reason, he continues to advertise himself as belonging to a party he has renounced, and which has in turn renounced him. The rest of us, however, are under no obligation to play along with him. A spade is a spade. Reporters working for mass media ought to stop referring to Tim Sheldon as a Democrat — because he isn’t one.