Two young Democrats vie for an open seat in the House

Joe Fitzgibbon and Mike Heavey — two Democrats jockeying for an open House seat in Nov. 2 General Election — appear to have much in common.

They share the same stance on all the statewide initiatives before voters — supporting, for instance, a measure that would impose an income tax on the state’s wealthiest residents and opposing ones that would privatize state liquor sales.

They’re also both young — Heavey is 30, Fitzgibbon, 24. And they both have connections that are proving beneficial: Heavey comes from a politically connected family and boasts a well-known name in statewide politics. Fitzgibbon, a former aide to Rep. Sharon Nelson, has enjoyed her unabashed support; she recently made a plug for him at a Washington Conservation Voters breakfast, where she was honored as lawmaker of the year.

But those who support Fitzgibbon or Heavey in their pursuit of a house seat in the 34th District, which includes Vashon-Maury Island, note their differences — subtle but important in a state strapped for revenue and a Legislature facing another round of tough choices as it struggles to put forward a balanced budget.

Dave Rogers, an Islander who supports Heavey, says he believes the political newcomer would be able to make tough choices, in part because Heavey supports zero-based budgeting, a system of governance that requires every line item to be reviewed rather than built on existing budgets.

“Some programs are very helpful and some are more like window dressing,” said Rogers, a retired lobbyist who has campaigned on Vashon for Heavey. “And he’ll be interested in figuring that out.”

Kyle Cruver, an Island activist who held a fundraiser for Fitzgibbon last week, said he’s working on Fitzgibbon’s campaign for a different set of reasons — because he thinks Fitzgibbon, also new to electoral politics, will fight for Vashon’s interests in the tough budget battles that lie ahead.

“He’s shown that he’s a collaborator and willing to work on building that coalition and even cross party lines,” Cruver said. From ferries to funding for schools, Cruver said, he thinks Fitzgibbon understands “the touchpoints for the Island community.”

In interviews, each sounded a conciliatory note about the other. Indeed, Fitzgibbon referred to Heavey as “a good guy with good values.” And Heavey said the two agree on “95 percent of the issues.” Still, the race for the open house seat — a position being vacated by Nelson, who’s running for the state Senate — is spirited and intense. Both men are working long hours and have raised more than $70,000 — hefty sums of money for a House race.

And while they’re gentle in their jabs, both also note their differences, suggesting their contrasting stands can be found in part by looking at their biggest financial supporters.

Fitzgibbon, for instance, has considerable support from organized labor, suggesting, Heavey said, that he may not be willing to make some of the hard budget decisions the state will likely face — especially in terms of education funding, where, Heavey says, the state’s powerful teachers union holds considerable sway.

“When you receive so much support, it’s hard to think independently,” Heavey said of Fitzgibbon’s labor support.

Fitzgibbon, meanwhile, takes aim at the fact that the region’s Master Builders’ Association supports Heavey; the organization is frequently seen as not very friendly to the environment.

“He’s being supported by organizations that are not in Vashon’s best interests,” Fitzgibbon said.

Heavey, a West Seattle resident, works for King County Councilwoman Jan Drago and is her lead on several issues, including youth violence, the South Park bridge and the proposed expansion of the Vashon library. Though new to politics, he’s not without some experience, backers note: He served as field organizer for Dow Constantine’s successful bid to become the King County executive last year.

Asked to name his top issue, he’s quick to mention public education and to take aim at the Washington Education Association, a powerful union, he said, that is standing in the way of important reforms.

The key to a child’s education, he said, is the quality of his or her teachers.

“And yet, we don’t have any data to evaluate teachers’ performance. The teachers’ union has been 100 percent against policies that would do that,” he said.

The Obama administration has offered up $4.35 billion in federal grants as part President Obama’s Race to the Top education reform — an incentive-based system to encourage school systems to strengthen standards, recruit better teachers and fix failing schools. According to Heavey, Washington fared poorly in its application for the funds, the largest pool of federal discretionary education money in U.S. history — scoring 32nd out of the 36 states that applied.

“For a state with a strong commitment to education, it leaves a lot of people scratching their heads. I’m one of them,” he said.

Fitzgibbon, a Burien resident who heads the city’s planning commission and who worked as Nelson’s legislative aide before stepping down to run for the House seat, is considered by some a legislative prodigy. Should he win, he’d be the youngest member of the House by a considerable margin.

For his part, Fitzgibbon questions Heavey’s embrace of market-based reforms to public education. Heavey, for instance, favors paying math and science teachers more in those parts of the state where they’re hard to find. “I disagree with that,” Fitzgibbon said.

“I’d really like to see more data. Which specific changes to our education system have demonstrated success? I don’t think we know that yet,” said Fitzgibbon, who lists adequate state support of public education as one of his top issues.

As for other key issues, Fitzgibbon points to expanding what he calls the “transportation infrastructure” — building new ferries, keeping buses running throughout the district and supporting a “pedestrian infrastructure.”

He also supports the state taking a leadership role on proposals that address climate change, noting that even if Washington is ahead of the pack nationally, it won’t necessarily hurt the state’s business climate.

In fact, he said, it could help, putting Washington “at the forefront of a new kind of economy.”

“I don’t think we’ll get there if we wait for the federal government to decide it’s a priority,” he added.

Heavey sees it differently, suggesting the state should support regional or national climate standards but not try to lead the way.

The two men boast considerable endorsements, with Fitzgibbon taking the lion’s share in environmental endorsements and Heavey garnering a coveted endorsement from the Seattle Times. The Municipal League of King County rated Fitzgibbon “very good” and Heavey “good.”

Both also say they’re opposed to Glacier North-west’s efforts to expand its sand-and-gravel operation on Maury. During the primary, some suggested Marcee Stone, a third Democratic contender for the seat, was sympathetic to those who support Glacier’s expansion. Now, in the general election, some Vashon activists are saying the same of Heavey, noting he’s gotten support from some of Glacier’s friends.

The issue rankles Heavey, who calls them “pandering lies.”

“Marcee, Joe and I want the same thing for Maury Island,” he said. “Any attempt to say otherwise is not true.”

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