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In the 34th District, a lively race divides the party
A race for the 34th District seat in the state House of Representatives has turned into a lively campaign among three strong Democratic contenders. It has also proven divisive among the 34th District Democrats — where an acrimonious debate has unfolded over the Democratic party’s decision to endorse one of the candidates.
The seat is the one held by Sharon Nelson, who decided to run for the Senate after Sen. Joe McDermott announced his intention to run for a position on the King County Council. Nelson, a veteran of Vashon Island politics, is running unopposed.
But the void that she left behind is anything but quiet. Into the fray have stepped three well-connected Democrats — Joe Fitzgibbon, Mike Heavey and Marcee Stone — as well as Independent Geoffrey Mac McElroy. And now, with ballots in the mail and the Aug. 17 primary weeks away, some leaders within the 34th District are taking aim at each other as well as the House candidates in their own party.
At issue is the fact that the 34th District Democrats — a politically influential organization in what is largely considered a single-party stronghold — changed its rules recently in order to ensure it could make sole endorsements.
In the past, several Democratic candidates would sometimes win the coveted local party endorsement. But at a time when a new primary system is said to have weakened political parties, the 34th District — by a vote of its membership — recently decided to issue only sole endorsements.
And earlier this year, it threw its collective voice behind Stone, a 57-year-old community organizer who has been a stalwart in the local Democratic party and who has made a name for herself in campaign finance reform circles.
“She’s been a volunteer and leader in the party for many years,” said Tim Nuse, who chairs the 34th District Democrats. Noting her upbringing in White Center and her years of political activism in West Seattle, he added, “She has a breadth of knowledge and experience throughout the district.”
But Ivan Weiss, an Islander and the former chair of the 34th District Democrats, supports Fitzgibbon, a 23-year-old former aide to Sharon Nelson and a young man he calls a “legislative prodigy.” He’s also harshly and openly critical of the local party’s decision to endorse Stone.
Weiss — who continues to hold a leadership role in the local party — refused to deliver to Vashon’s precinct committee officers (PCOs) the sample ballot produced by the 34th District Democrats. Known for his upfront style, Weiss told Nuse that if he wanted the PCOs on Vashon to have the 34th District Democrats’ sample ballots as campaign material, Nuse would have to deliver them to the Island himself.
Weiss, meanwhile, has also taken on Stone.
Stone recently received an endorsement from former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, a lawmaker who blocked Nelson’s efforts three years ago to advance legislation that would have made it more difficult for Glacier Northwest to move forward on its controversial barge-loading pier on Maury Island. According to Weiss, such an endorsement compromises Stone, who has made a point of saying that she’s running without the backing of any special interest groups or money from political action committees.
“Lynn Kessler is the enemy of my community, Vashon Island,” Weiss said. Kessler’s support, he added, “tarnishes Stone. ... I’d say it blows her whole ‘purer-than-the-driven-snow’ persona out the window.”
Nelson, a strong Fitz-gibbon supporter, also questioned Stone’s decision to seek Kessler’s support of her candidacy. “I was surprised that someone from the 34th would go for that endorsement,” she said.
But both Nuse and Stone defended the decision, noting that Kessler has been a powerful and progressive force on a number of statewide issues and that her endorsement says nothing about Stone’s stance on the Glacier controversy.
“Marcee will be fighting tooth and nail, just like Sharon is, to protect Maury Island,” Nuse said. “To say this one endorsement is a blemish ... is silly.”
The 34th District takes in all of West Seattle, White Center, Burien and Vashon Island — and for years, its delegation to Olympia has been comprised of Democrats. And if fundraising is any indication, the three Democrats have far outpaced the one Independent, McElroy, who calls himself fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Each of the Democrats have raised around $30,000, according to public disclosure reports filed with the state; McElroy has raised around $5,000.
But while the race is tense between Stone and Fitzgibbon, the two have taken similar stances on some of the high-profile issues; both, for instance, support tax reform and an eventual state income tax.
“We are really paying the price for not reforming our tax system,” said Stone, noting the state’s financial crisis of the last few years.
Loopholes exist in the way the state taxes corporations and other private interests, she said, and some of them will need to be closed if the state is to get back on its feet financially. “We just can’t do anymore cutting,” she said.
Fitzgibbon, too, said he’s concerned about the state’s heavy dependence on a sales tax and its lack of an income tax, but, unlike Stone, he suggested additional budget cuts may be in order.
“The only smart approach (to the operating budget shortfall) is a combination of cuts to places where we’re not getting our money’s worth and increases to revenue,” he said. Asked for examples of where the state is not getting its money’s worth, he noted Washington State Ferries, where news reports have unveiled the large amount of paid overtime and travel costs some workers are receiving. “We’ve seen lots of abuses of current state policy,” Fitzgibbon said.
Heavey, 30, whose father, by the same name, is a well-known judge and former state senator, sounds a slightly more conservative note. Heavey, an aide to King Councilwoman Jan Drago, calls for “performance-based government” and zero-base budgeting — a system of governance that requires every line item to be reviewed rather than built on existing budgets.
More taxes, he said, are not the answer, in large part because voters won’t tolerate them. “The message from the voters (during this election) will be clear — that we need to do more with less,” said Heavey, who was endorsed last week by The Seattle Times.
All three Democrats have secured plenty of endorsements that underscore their liberal credentials, with Fitzgibbon seeming to lead the pack. Fitzgibbon has been endorsed by Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, for instance, as well as several leading labor unions. Stone has also secured several labor endorsements, as well as the King County Democrats and the state Democrats’ progressive caucus.
Both Fitzgibbon and Stone were declared 100 percent pro-choice by NARAL. The Municipal League of King County, meanwhile, gave Fitzgibbon a “very good” rating, the highest possible; it gave both Stone and Heavey a rating of “good.”
When it comes to issues of importance to Vashon, all three said they’d support Nelson in her efforts to secure funding to transfer Glacier’s expansive holdings on Maury Island to public ownership. Both Heavey and Fitzgibbon also stressed ferry service on Vashon, noting the importance of a well-run ferry system to Vashon’s economic health.
As for what really distinguishes them, the three Democrats say they believe it’s their background and experience — more than their policy — that set them apart.
Heavey, for instance, noted that he has worked in both the public and private sector, including a stint at Expedia.com. He also has political experience, he said, first as a field organizer for Dow Constantine during his campaign for County Executive and currently as Drago’s head of constituent relations, where he’s in frequent touch with Islanders and Vashon leaders about a range of vexing local issues.
“I reject the premise that you have to have worked in Olympia to be an effective legislator,” he said.
Stone, too, said she would bring life experience — as well as street smarts — to the job.
“I’ve led a full life. ... I’ve had two different careers. I’ve educated my daughter. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college and the first woman in my family to not have had a child by age 18,” Stone said. “This well-rounded experience means something to people when I talk to them.”
As for Fitzgibbon, he notes that while he may be young, he’s the only one in the pack who has actually spent time in Olympia — a place where he earned high marks from not only Nelson, his former boss, but also several other lawmakers.
“While I’m younger, I have a deeper understanding of the issues and political landscape than my opponents,” he said.
What’s more, he added, why shouldn’t there be young people in Olympia? “I think it’s appropriate that a state Legislature be reflective of the population of our state, and currently, there aren’t a lot of younger people there.”
A forum featuring the candidates running in two contested primary races will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, July 30. It will be held at Courthouse Square and moderated by Islander Craig Beles. It will also be aired on VOV TV, Comcast 21.
All four of the candidates running for the 34th District House seat being vacated by Sharon Nelson are expected to attend. Their forum will run from 7 to 8 p.m. The four candidates vying for a position 8 on the King County Council — the seat formerly held by Dow Constantine — will face off from 8 to 9 p.m.
The two top vote-getters in the state’s new top-two primary system will face each other in the November General Election.
Ballots for the Aug. 17 primary were mailed out this week.