With ballots going out to voters Oct. 15, tensions in the race for Washington’s 42nd District Senate seat have started to heat up.
In recent weeks, both Republican incumbent state Sen. Doug Ericksen and his Democratic opponent Seth Fleetwood have put in plenty of podium time at local candidate forums and town halls around Whatcom County.
Over the course of several debates, the two focused on a few key issues, including overcoming partisanship, funding for education, and oil safety legislation.
Fleetwood has told voters again and again that he is “running to end extreme partisanship in Olympia.”
“In my view, the two great parties are not communicating,” Fleetwood told constituents at the Whatcom Tea Party forum Oct. 1.
Ericksen maintains that the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, formed in December 2012 by the Republican majority and two Democrats, is a great example of bipartisanship in action.
“One issue confounding me is, ‘It’s too partisan in Olympia,’” Ericksen told the League of Women Voters audience Oct. 8. “We have a Majority Coalition Caucus — how can you get more bipartisan? I think Democrats are afraid of the status quo getting shaken up.”
Both candidates have been asked how they would find revenue or make cuts to pay for K-12 education following the state Supreme Court’s decision to hold the Legislature in contempt for failing to fully fund education.
Ericksen has said the Legislature did a good job coming up with $1 billion to fund education in its most recent budget and stopping tuition increases.
“For the first time in 30 years, there was no tuition increase,” Ericksen said.
Fleetwood has said that money was raided from different funds, and legislators should work to close some of the state’s about 600 tax exemptions or loopholes, as well as look to where they could make cuts.
“Both parties are going to have to give up some things,” Fleetwood said.
While the candidates have been hitting the pavement to talk about issues in front of constituents, their messages also have been spread in TV commercials.
One ad starts with a picture of a steak dinner and references Ericksen’s place at the top of an Associated Press report list of legislators who had received free meals from lobbyists in 2013. Ericksen accepted 62 meals valued at more than $2,000.
In August, Ericksen responded to mailers sent out before the primary election that cited the same report. At that time, he told The Bellingham Herald that the dollar amount listed for lobbyist meals was misleading.
“They’re using a completely fabricated number. I might go to an event, have a soda pop and then leave,” he said. “They put your name down and then divide it out between all of the attendees. ... Somebody might have a bottle of wine and I might have a soda pop. They’re trying to say this is meeting in back rooms with corporate lobbyists. Most of the time, it’s people from the district.”
In a Thursday, Oct. 9, interview when asked specifically about one-on-one meals, which detailed lobbyist records show are often worth much more than a soda, Ericksen again said that 90 percent of his meetings are with constituents, and it is important to be available to them.
“You do multiple events in a night,” Ericksen said. “None of this is unethical. None of it is against state law. It’s working with constituents.”
Ericksen says he is proud of the fact that all ads bought directly by his campaign have focused on positives. But his supporters have produced ads attacking Fleetwood for moving into a 42nd District home provided by wealthy donors so he could run against Ericksen. The 42nd District covers all of Whatcom County except south Bellingham and the southwest corner of the county.
During a Northwest Business Club forum Oct. 8, an audience member asked Fleetwood to explain how long he had lived at the address he has registered to vote from.
“I was born in the 42nd District,” Fleetwood said. “For 18 of the last 20 years I’ve lived in the 42nd. The reason I don’t is because redistricting redrew the lines. I made it well-known I was going to, in the name of running, move back to the 42nd to run against Mr. Ericksen.”
But Ericksen questioned whether or not the Irving Way home was Fleetwood’s primary residence.
“I have all of my stuff in my house in Ferndale,” Ericksen told the club members. “Win, lose or draw this election, I’m living in the 42nd District. I’m not sure if my opponent can say the same.”
The large home where Fleetwood is registered is up for sale, with a sign and fliers for the taking waiting at the edge of the private drive. Fleetwood said his landlord has had the house on the market for years.
“I have a lease agreement to live in the 42nd District. I live there, sleep there, bathe there, eat there and receive my mail there,” Fleetwood wrote in an email Friday, Oct. 10. “Should the house sell I will move to another home in the 42nd District. I have deep roots in this community and have represented Whatcom County for many years. This issue is a distraction.”
During the debates, Fleetwood has asked Ericksen why he keeps proudly referencing an oil-by-rail safety bill he introduced this year when the bill failed to make it to a vote.
Ericksen references a procedural motion brought by Democrat Sen. Christine Rolfes to block a vote when the bill was on the floor of the Senate.
“We worked so hard to pass that,” Ericksen said during the Northwest Business Club debate. “Nobody has a greater interest in that than us in Whatcom County.”
Fleetwood said the procedural motion should not have prevented legislation.
“I would only add the irrefutable fact that truth-checking would identify: My opponent failed to build the necessary coalition to ensure that this important legislation pass,” Fleetwood wrote in an email. “He blames the Democrats for a procedural vote but that was only a 24-hour delay. Had he had the support of his own caucus he could have brought it back for another vote, but he didn’t because he didn’t have the votes. Meanwhile, our communities were left at further risk.”
Ericksen said he would have loved to have brought the bill back for a vote, but environmental groups brought pressure to not allow it a vote.
General election ballots are due Nov. 4 and must either be postmarked by that date or dropped off at an official dropbox.