Sen. Sheldon to end long career as Legislature’s most independent voice

Legislature’s longest-serving member to exit in January when current term expires

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch (Photo credit Washington State Senate)

OLYMPIA – Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, the longest-serving member of the Washington Legislature and its most independent voice, will be stepping down at the end of his current term, Sheldon announced today as the Washington Legislature prepared to adjourn its 2022 legislative session.

Sheldon, who celebrated his 75th birthday Wednesday, said he will not seek re-election. He will remain through the end of his term in January 2023.

“When they swore me in all those years ago, I had no idea I’d be sticking around longer than anyone else,” Sheldon said. “This is a job that grows on you, and forces you to grow with it. But this has never been about me – it’s about the people of the 35th Legislative District.”

Sheldon represents Mason County and parts of Thurston and Kitsap counties, the most rural district in the state as measured by the number of people living in unincorporated areas. He was elected to the House in 1990, and to the Senate in 1997, giving him the longest record of service of any current member of the Legislature. He is a veteran of 32 regular sessions and 33 special sessions. Along the way, he served as assistant majority leader in the House in 1993 and 1994, and he presided over the Senate as president pro tempore from 2013 to 2016.

Sheldon is arguably the most independent member of the Legislature, maintaining his Democratic party affiliation while opposing his party’s leadership on taxation and other issues. Sheldon joined the Legislature at a time when there was a greater divergence of views within the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, and when conservative Democrats were regularly elected from rural districts across the state. Today most rural districts in Washington state elect Republicans, and Democrats come mainly from urban and suburban districts.

“You really have to make a decision when you join the Legislature,” Sheldon said. “Are you here to represent the interests of a political party, or are you here to represent the people who elected you? I’ve always picked the people. I know many here in Olympia were bothered by that. I’ve always been proud to be a conservative old-school Democrat, and I’ve never changed.”

Sheldon increasingly found himself at loggerheads with his party as Democrats faced pressure to adopt a “progressive” agenda. His willingness to oppose party leaders at a time of small voting margins made him the deciding vote in seven legislative sessions.

In 2013, Sheldon joined Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, in caucusing with Republicans, throwing control of the Senate to a bipartisan coalition. The Majority Coalition Caucus held the line for the next five years against taxes, college tuition increases and urban activist agendas.

During his service in the Legislature, Sheldon served as a commissioner of the Port of Hoodsport, a commissioner of Mason County Public Utility District No. 1, and as a Mason County commissioner from 2005 to 2017. Sheldon maintained strong ties to the PUD community, and was a staunch supporter of public power as a longtime member of the Senate committee overseeing energy and utilities, currently known as the Environment, Energy and Technology Committee. Sheldon remains a board member of Energy Northwest.

Among Sheldon’s accomplishments was his work in the early ‘90s to mitigate economic upheaval caused by the listing of the northern spotted owl as an endangered species, and the consequent shutdown of timber harvests throughout the coastal region. Sheldon pushed successfully for changes to state law allowing laid-off timber workers to qualify for unemployment benefits while attending community college worker retraining programs.

Though a big sports fan, Sheldon led efforts in the ‘90s to oppose public funding of sports stadiums. He passed legislation to prevent public release of names of juvenile sex abuse victims, a cause that gained national attention when he was interviewed by network host Maria Shriver, though the law later was partially overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Sheldon also was a longtime member of House and Senate transportation committees, where he was a consistent advocate for highway construction and the gas taxes that support it, and an opponent of measures that would unreasonably increase the cost of commuting to work. He notes that residents of the 35th District have some of the longest commutes in the state in terms of time spent behind the wheel. Sheldon was a strong supporter of Seattle tunneling to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct. “The project made sense, reducing congestion and revitalizing the Seattle waterfront, and I’m proud to have helped make that happen,” he said.

Local projects championed by Sheldon include the Highway 101 bridge over Purdy Creek and preliminary work for the as-yet unbuilt Belfair Bypass. In Olympia, Sheldon’s efforts resulted in a scrubbing of the filthy Capitol dome in 2018.

One of the strangest things about serving so long, Sheldon said, is that he can remember all the people for whom buildings and streets on or near the Capitol Campus have been named. Sheldon served concurrently with Sens. Irv Newhouse, Jeannette Hayner and Sid Snyder, Reps. Helen Sommers and John L. O’Brien, and Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard. He took office shortly after Lt. Gov. John Cherberg stepped down.

“The longer you serve, the more respect you have for this institution, for the Capitol Campus and for the Capitol itself,” Sheldon said. “Right now, we’re getting set to replace the Newhouse Building with new Senate offices, and I suspect future generations will be frustrated that we have chosen not to follow the traditional architectural scheme of the Capitol Campus. But at least we’ve gotten to the point where we can consider uncovering the skylights in the House and Senate for the first time since World War II. I’m going to miss this place, but I have every confidence that those who come after me will feel the same respect I do. Each of us serves only a short time in the scheme of things, but the Legislature endures.”