The state party: Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt is facing challenges from King County Democratic chair Greg Rodriguez, 21st district chair Bill Phillips of Snohomish County, and reportedly from former Snohomish County chair Kat Overman.
Berendt has served as chair for a decade, during which the state party has clawed back from the Republican landslide of 1994. Democrats control both Senate seats, six of nine Congressional seats, and now hold both legislative houses. But the party missed an opportunity to pick up another Congressional seat on the Eastside this year, and may lose the governorship for the first time in 20 years. "I know I've done a fabulous job with the state party, in terms of organization, fundraising, and the ongoing effort at candidate recruitment," Berendt says.
Berendt admits he has stepped on a fair number of toes during his tenure. Some party leaders and donors remain upset for what they saw as his favoritism toward Howard Dean, for recruiting KIRO talker Dave Ross in the Eastside race at the last minute, and for showing favoritism toward Christine Gregoire's gubernatorial bid. "Friends come and go, but your enemies accumulate," Berendt admits, though he says he remains confident of reelection.
Among his challengers, King County chair Rodriguez has been endorsed by Olympia Dems Ed Murray, Sharon Tomiko Santos, and Dave Upthegrove, along with King County Executive Ron Sims. "Paul's done some good things, but 10 years is long enough. It's time for a change," Rodriguez contends. However, some party insiders question his fundraising skills.
Phillips has a track record of success in his district, but is not well known outside Snohomish County. Party activists aren't so wild about the fact that Overman supported Ross Perot in 1992. The election will be decided at a meeting of the state's Democratic Central Committee on January 29.
The state senate: Lisa Brown, the incoming majority leader from Spokane, is a bright, articulate economics professor whom Republicans disparage as "Sandinista Lisa" because she once took a sabbatical to teach at the Jesuit University in Nicaragua. She says Senate Dems have not yet fully set their priorities, but talks about dealing with healthcare cost and access issues, finding better funding for the state's educational system, and working on the state's perennial transportation infrastructure crisis. But with an approximately $1 billion budget shortfall to deal with, Brown's leadership skills will be tested.
That will require some delicacy and finesse. At the post-election senate caucus retreat, Brown faced a tough challenge from Seattle Sen. Ken Jacobsen, who took up the mantle for a faction of senate Dems who felt the leadership was too dictatorial toward caucus members. The independent-minded Jacobsen laughingly says he was picked as "the mouse who gets to put the bell on the cat," but says he does not think senate Democratic unity will suffer because of the internal squabble.
State house: Bad blood over the leadership style of Speaker Frank Chopp did not result in open infighting during the house retreat in Bremerton last weekend. Vancouver Rep. Bill Fromhold, an ally of longtime house budget chair Helen Sommers (a leading Chopp foe), dropped a potential challenge to Rep. Bill Grant, an affable but sometimes disengaged Eastern Washington Dem nicknamed "Uncle Bill." Grant serves as Dem caucus chair (the No. 3 position in the leadership); Fromhold apparently lacked sufficient votes.