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Money and moderation: The battle for a key state Senate seat

Nathan Schlicher and Jan Angel at a debate. Credit: Photo: John Stang

The ALEC question popped up. Jan Angel, the Republican candidate in a key state Senate race where donors are spending money like water, appeared to expect it.

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, and state Rep. Angel, R-Port Orchard, is its Washington chairwoman. ALEC is a national conservative organization consisting of state legislators and corporate interests that collaborate on creating "model bills" to be pushed in individual states.

Angel and her opponent, Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, were answering questions from the League of Women Voters and roughly 100 people in Bremerton as part of their duel for the 26th District state Senate seat covering an area from south Bremerton to Gig Harbor. It's a special election in a swing district race that is being closely watched because of its effects on the tight balance of power in the state Senate.

ALEC is an important issue in a race where both candidates want to be seen as moderates. It happened to be Schlicher's turn to answer first when the ALEC came up. To him, it's an organization that hurts the middle class and lets lobbyists and legislators act in concert out of public view in writing bills. With its donors unknown, he said, "There's no transparency."

Angel acknowledged the question was likely prompted by her chair role but she said of Schlicher's contentions, "This is a bunch of hooey." As chair, she said, she passed ALEC recommendations to the caucuses of both political parties, not just her own Republicans.

An occasional Washington Democrat has belonged to ALEC, but all have severed ties. There are currently 14 Republican legislators in Washington who belong to ALEC, and most are considered among the most conservative lawmakers.

If Angel wins, the Senate's Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus will gain a slightly bigger 26-23 cushion. A victory for Schlicher, who was appointed in January to replace a Democrat elected to Congress, would leave the split at 25-24. But it would also make it much easier for Democrats to have a shot at regaining control of the Senate in the November 2014 elections. The well-disciplined Majority Coalition Caucus would likely maintain its tight control with the one-vote margin next year. A Democratic win, however, might create more momentum for aggressive transportation improvements later this year or in the legislative session that begins in January.

In the August primary, Angel, who has good name recognition from serving in the state House since 2009 and earlier on the Kitsap County Commission, scored first blood by taking 54.6 percent of the vote.

Already, the two candidates' direct contributions total nearly $1.1 million, far exceeding the $814,000 raised in 2012's most expensive legislative race. That was the bitter battle between Vancouver Republican Sen. Don Benton and Democratic challenger Tim Probst where Benton's 74-vote victory led two Democratic senators to switch sides to create the Majority Coalition Caucus. So far, Angel has collected some $624,00 and Schlicher has raised $472,000, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

And that's not even the half of it. A Gig Harbor-based Political Action Committee — She's Changed PAC, aimed against Angel — has raised nearly $1 million in cash. Meanwhile, the Times reported that the Centralia-based Good Government Leadership Council, which is reportedly backing Angel, has raised at least $575,000 in cash.

Bottom line: This is a $2.5 million race with two weeks still to go.

At the League of Women Voters forum, Schlicher and Angel both portrayed themselves as moderates. Schlicher pointed to an endorsement by the editorial board of The Seattle Times, which also backed Republican Rob McKenna for governor last year, as a sign of his moderation. Angel demonstrated her moderate bona fides by saying she broke with the House Republicans 53 times on votes last session.

Angel, 66, is the political veteran of the pair. She was a Kitsap County Commissioner from 2000 to 2008, and a state representative since 2009. At the League forum, Angel said she has more life, business and political experience than Schlicher. She has been a chief financial officer of a construction firm, a small business owner and worked in the insurance and real estate industries. "I've walked in every experience that every woman has," said the great-grandmother, adding that "when working as a senator, it's best to have many different things under your belt, and I do."

Schlicher, almost 31, graduated from college at 17, went to law school and then to medical school. He is an emergency room doctor in Tacoma. His jobs during school included farm hand, a McDonald's employee and telemarketer. He got involved with politics in his late 20s when he and other emergency room physicians successfully tackled changes in state hospital regulations forbidding roughly 700 types of ailments from being treated by ERs, including asthma, which Schlicher's son suffered from.

Schlicher, whom Crosscut interviewed (Angel declined three requests, citing a busy campaign schedule), says treating ER patients is a plus. They are people under stress, people who are hurting, people who are not lobbyists and government officials, and people who don't know he is a legislator. He believes that experience gives him a unique perspective as the legislature's sole doctor. "We need at least one doctor in Olympia," he said. "I've come to the conclusion that maybe it's a psychiatrist we need."

As minority members in their respective chambers, both Angel and Schlicher struggled in the 2013 session to build resumes for a key election a few months later.

Angel introduced 18 bills in 2013. The Legislature passed two: on plat approvals and unemployment benefits for corporate officers. But Angel said passing bills is not the only measure of effectiveness. "We played really strong defense. …We stopped $1.3 billion in new taxes and fees," she said. (The $1.3 billion referred to the House Democrats efforts to close 15 tax exemptions, plus extend two beer and business-and-occupation taxes.)

Schlicher introduced 15 bills in 2013. One passed. Involuntary mental detentions, with the Senate majority caucus waiting until almost the last possible minute before calling a floor vote on it. Legislative tradition calls for every legislator to get at least one bill passed. Schlicher said he got nine pf the items he was seeking piggybacked onto other bill, including health legislation, saving $6 million in the ferries budget to help keep the Bremerton-Seattle runs at full strength and a limit on shifting Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll revenue to other purposes. "Results do matter," Schlicher said.

At the forum, the two self-proclaimed moderates charted out different positions on several issues.

Schlicher is for emergency birth control pills; Angel is not. This could be relevant if an attempt is made to revive the bill to require insurance companies offering maternity coverage to also cover abortions. Schlicher has concerns about a potential increase in coal trains in Washington because of air pollution, global warming and infrastructure worries. Angel does not have a position on the issue yet, although she is skeptical about some of the environmental concerns.

Schlicher is against cutting ferry routes, which has become an almost annual budget issue in the Legislature. "Less service is not efficiencies. It's less service," he said. The Angel comeback: "My mom said: 'Never say never.'" She believes that all the routes and schedules should be examined to make the big picture more efficient.

Both Angel and Schlicher voted against a $10 billion transportation revenue package that died in June in the Senate. The proposal included a 10.5-percent-per-gallon gas tax hike. Angel opposed the tax, and told the forum that the package was not well designed. Schlicher said he had been concerned about the packlage's lack of guarantees against Tacoma Narrows Bridge toll increases, but that the guarantees issue could have been addressed. He now supports tackling the package in a November special session that Gov. Jay Inslee could call.

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