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Originally published March 27, 2013 at 4:37 PM | Page modified March 27, 2013 at 4:36 PM

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State Senate Transportation co-chairs break new ground as political foes — and allies

Trust and chemistry between the Republican and Democratic co-chairs of the state Senate Transportation Committee means better results for those who rely on Washington’s roads.

Times editorial columnist

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This year’s Senate Transportation Committee co-chairs, chosen to lead after a power shake-up in the chamber, are a fascinating study in contrasts.

Sen. Tracey Eide is the feisty veteran Democratic legislator from Federal Way who rides and promotes public transit. Sen. Curtis King is an affable Republican with a woodworking business in Union Gap.

Don’t call them foes, though. Eide and King are good friends. Their colleagues in the bitterly divided Senate should emulate their ability to work through political differences.

At a recent committee hearing, befuddled testifiers were not always sure how to address the pair, who sit side by side and take turns wielding the gavel.

Chair Eide? Chair King? Chairpeople?

“Co-chairman,” King, in charge that day, clarified without hesitation.

Fellow lawmakers say their professional chemistry is infectious. They regularly seek middle-ground positions.

Now tasked with crafting a multibillion-dollar transportation budget, Eide and King are up against several roadblocks that will test their working relationship:

• She belongs to the camp arguing that now is the time to raise revenue (read: gas taxes) for specific road projects.

King says there’s no rush until the public is more confident the state can avoid another $100 million mistake such as the cracked pontoons associated with the Highway 520 floating bridge.

• On public transportation, King prefers that transit riders pay a larger share so state subsidies can be reduced. So far, his co-chair appears more amenable to giving counties local authority to raise revenue to maintain their own roads and transit systems.

• King recently chastised incoming Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson’s choice of a former state agency administrator to review three of Washington’s largest road projects as a clear “conflict of interest.” Eide says Peterson wants to do well and deserves a chance.

• Their biggest rift is over plans for Interstate 5’s Columbia River crossing.

Eide says federal support is on the line if lawmakers don’t set aside matching funds to update the aging bridge between Vancouver and Portland. King supports construction, but questions designs that would extend light rail into Vancouver and possibly obstruct ship access.

Clearly, these two are not always in lock-step with each other. But colleagues say they share moderate sensibilities, approachable demeanors and a willingness to consider other viewpoints.

Having equal veto power has helped Eide manage the sting of losing sole chairmanship of the panel after two Democrats joined 23 Republicans to form the Senate Majority Coalition.

Though other Democrats rejected the coalition’s offers to lead committees, Eide surprised her colleagues by accepting the co-chairmanship with King.

“I trust him explicitly,” she said, citing their experience together crafting budgets and serving on committees.

King says Eide was a fierce but fair Democratic floor leader from the time he entered office in late 2007. She helped him move bills when she could, and was upfront when she could not.

“She was honest with me, and you can’t ask for anything more than that,” he shared during an interview in the spacious chairman’s office he moved into after Eide turned it down (reportedly after experiencing backlash from her own caucus).

They claim Democratic resentments have reduced to a simmer. Some issues transcend partisanship. Keeping roads safe in a trade-dependent state is one of them.

Getting along makes a difference, too.

Serving her 17th year in the Legislature, Eide has felt the pain of political back-stabbing. The urban Democrat knows an ally when she sees one, even if he is a rural Republican.

“Trust is ultimately the thing,” Eide says of her partnership with King. “And trust is a big factor.”

Right on.

In politics, personality matters.

And if Sens. Eide and King find a way to translate their respect for each other into a bipartisan transportation package, we’ll all be better off.

Thanh Tan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Twitter @uscthanhtan

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