Washington

Are Democratic lawmakers ‘jumping ship’ from Legislature?

Eight of the 11 candidates for Washington lieutenant governor take part in a debate last month in Spokane. From left, Marty McClendon, Paul Addis, Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, Bill Penor, Javier Figueroa, Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, and Phillip Yin, all stand at their podiums.
Eight of the 11 candidates for Washington lieutenant governor take part in a debate last month in Spokane. From left, Marty McClendon, Paul Addis, Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, Bill Penor, Javier Figueroa, Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, and Phillip Yin, all stand at their podiums. The Associated Press

Washington’s Legislature will lose more than a few familiar lawmakers next year.

Ten are retiring, and others could lose elections in the fall.

But a pack, mostly Democrats, is hoping to leave the Capitol by winning other elected offices.

Eight Democratic lawmakers and nine total legislators are aiming for positions in statewide office or Congress. It’s a miniexodus from the statehouse that some say shows Democratic strength in statewide races in a year when five statewide offices have no incumbent. Others argue it demonstrates Democrats are hoping to land cushy jobs and avoid battling on education funding when they might be the minority party in the House and Senate.

Three Democratic lawmakers are running for lieutenant governor: Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, Sen. Cyrus Habib of Kirkland and Sen. Karen Fraser of Olympia.

State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, is running to be Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, and state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, is hoping to be state treasurer.

Three state legislators also are running for Congress: Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, and Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle.

Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, vying for state auditor, is the lone Republican lawmaker running for statewide office or Congress, but Sen. Bruce Dammeier is aiming for Pierce County executive, and Sen. Pam Roach is a candidate for Pierce County Council. (Roach has said she plans to hold both offices for at least one legislative session if elected to the County Council.)

All the representatives are giving up their seats in the Legislature win or lose, along with Fraser and Dammeier in the Senate.

Eight sitting lawmakers ran for statewide offices or Congress in 2012. One ran in 2008, six in 2004 and five in 2000. None of those presidential election years had quite the party imbalance in lawmakers running for other offices.

Conservative takeover at the Capitol?

Republican consultant Keith Schipper said anticipation that Democrats could soon be outnumbered at the Capitol is causing the wave of liberals campaigning to leave the Legislature.

Democrats held control of the House and Senate from 2005 through 2012 and had a 28-seat lead in the House in 2008. That strength has been dwindling. Democrats are now the minority in the Senate and hold a slim 50-48 majority in the House.

Schipper and other Republicans are predicting their party will win key legislative races this fall and own majorities in both chambers come January.

The 31st District seat relinquished by retiring Democrat Chris Hurst of Enumclaw is one that could flip from blue to red.

“It’s pretty clear that Democrats are jumping ship right now,” Schipper said. “...They can see the writing on the wall that it’s going to get worse before it’s going to get better.”

Miloscia, who could leave behind a majority if elected auditor, echoed Schipper’s sentiments. Schipper manages Miloscia’s campaign.

“When you’re in the minority it’s no fun,” he said. “I can see why a number of colleagues would want to try for a different seat.”

When you’re in the minority it’s no fun. I can see why a number of colleagues would want to try for a different seat.

State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way

Schipper went further, criticizing Democrats who have been bullish about meeting the state Supreme Court’s McCleary education funding decision but are now running for other largely “ceremonial” offices ahead of the court’s 2018 deadline. He said the flood of Democratic lawmakers campaigning for statewide office shows they don’t want to fight a possible Republican majority to implement their education proposals.

Some Democrats running for statewide office have made a point of saying they would use the position to help fix the way the state pays for education.

Habib in particular has traded barbs with outgoing Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat, over how much one can affect McCleary policy from the office. Habib says a lieutenant governor could declare a budget bill unconstitutional if it doesn’t comply with the state Supreme Court’s orders to fully fund public schools.

But some Republicans, such as House Minority Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, say that’s a cop-out. Most of the open statewide positions such as treasurer and lieutenant governor are “not offices that create change and impact the state of Washington” the way legislative positions are, Wilcox said.

Two-term state Superintendent Randy Dorn mulled over a run for governor to have more sway on education funding. Dorn, who is not seeking re-election as schools chief, ended up deciding against a gubernatorial campaign.

“I think if you’re serious about addressing McCleary you’d stay in the Legislature or run for governor,” Schipper said.

A blue state

Some Democrats, on the other hand, see 2016 as a year of opportunity. Rarely are there so many statewide offices where an incumbent is not trying for re-election, Reykdal said.

And U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, retiring after 14 terms, created an opening in Congress in a Seattle district no Republican is likely to win.

“It was just an incredibly unusual year with so many doors opening up,” Reykdal said, adding he’s “not sure any of us walk away” from the Legislature if there weren’t so few incumbents.

It was just an incredibly unusual year with so many doors opening up.

State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater

No one is hiding from tough legislative battles that mark essentially every year in the Legislature, Habib said. Instead, he said, other Democrats are clamoring to make more of positions some Republicans are unfairly labeling inconsequential.

“I think it’s really exciting that you have a host of candidates bringing new energy and ideas to these statewide offices,” Habib said.

Longtime lawmakers leaving the Legislature allows “fresh faces on both sides of the aisle,” which could help solve the McCleary decision, Reykdal added. Many legislative hopefuls are campaigning on education funding changes and will come to Olympia “laser focused” on the high court’s ruling, he said.

Republicans might have followed Democrats to line up for statewide offices and Congress too if they had a shot at winning some of them, said Cornell Clayton, a political science professor at Washington State University.

Statewide elections already prove tough for Republicans to win, he said. Secretary of State Kim Wyman is the only Republican currently in statewide office. The last time a Republican was elected treasurer was 1952.

And divisive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could increase statewide turnout even more than normal in Democrats’ favor, Clayton said.

“Republicans (in Washington) are going to be running in a headwind given who is running at the top of their ticket in the general election right now,” he said.

Habib pointed to Republicans not even fielding a candidate to challenge incumbent Attorney General Bob Ferguson this year as evidence the party focuses “its entire political capital” on legislative district races because it can’t compete statewide.

Washington Democrats, meanwhile, are primed to excel in this election, Habib said, predicting gains in the Legislature because of Trump.

Wilcox said he doesn’t buy the competing narrative. Although he ultimately turned away requests to run for commissioner of public lands, it wasn’t because of Trump or because he thought he wouldn’t win, he said.

The chance at a majority in the House and growing Republican numbers kept him at the Capitol. Plus, he said, he couldn’t abandon candidates he’s been recruiting to run for the Legislature.

Republicans, Wilcox said, are “making a huge impact where they are.”

Whatever the perspective, Habib said every year in state politics has a theme to it.

Last year was focused on the Republican-led Senate, he said. Senate Republicans made headlines all session for maneuvers like publicly firing state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson and launching an independent investigation of a Department of Corrections sentencing issue and the erroneous release of up to 2,700 prisoners.

“This year will be the year of the statewide races,” Habib said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826

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