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The ‘Grandma’ scenario: Candidates go for broke in high-stakes primary

Travis Couture Credit: Seattle Top Story

Call it the "Grandma Williams scenario."

Challengers hoping to knock veteran Sen. Tim Sheldon out of his 35th District seat point — directly or indirectly — to his 2010 race against obscure Belfair Republican candidate Nancy Williams. She won 38 percent of the votes in that November election despite running an almost non-existent campaign on $6,245. Sheldon spent $113,990. The ballot identified her as "Nancy 'Grandma' Williams," and her stances on the issues pigeonholed her as an early Tea Party candidate.

That 38 percent smells like opportunity for Sheldon's 2014 challengers. The incumbent, they reason, is too liberal for nearly more than a third of the 35th's voters. If a dark horse grandmother can nab the conservative crowd, so can they. If that 38 percent is still in play then Sheldon is vulnerable in the August 5 primary.

The Grandma Williams scenario goes like this: The district's restless 38 percent would choose libertarian challenger Travis Couture of Belfair, the most conservative of Sheldon's primary challengers. If Democrat Irene Bowling of Bremerton could then pick off enough of the district's more liberal voters, the ones to Sheldon's left, it could leave the veteran State Senator in third place in the primary — and out of the running.

Sheldon's fate could change the complexion of politics statewide, as well as in the district on the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, where he has been a fixture for decades. The state Senate, held by a Republican-dominated coalition with a precarious three-vote majority, is up for grabs this year. Sheldon, a Democrat, crossed party lines last year to help create the coalition and wrest control of the Senate from his fellow Democrats. The result has been virtual gridlock on transportation proposals and climate change, and a standoff that has favored Republicans on taxes and the new education spending necessary to comply with the state Supreme Court's mandates for better state support of public schools.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the majority House Democrats see an opportunity to move forward in all those areas if they can just regain control of the Senate. Republicans seek to maintain their strong bargaining position by holding the Senate. And they hope that continuing to stall Inslee's efforts on climate, energy and education will damage his chances for re-election in 2016.

If the Democrats could replace Sheldon, they would be a half way to the two seats they need to regain control of the Senate. The high-stakes nature of the 35th district race has led to a lot of talk about the Grandma Williams scenario, in which conservatives go heavily with a Republican in the primary.

If, as in the 2010 general election, 38 percent of 35th District voters were to opt for the most conservative of the three primary candidates, libertarian-leaning Republican Travis Couture of Belfair, then Democrat Irene Bowling of Bremerton might well pick up enough votes to the left of Sheldon to put him in third place, and out of the running for the fall's top-two election.

That would amount to the felling of a giant political tree. Sheldon, 67, who lives on a bit of family-owned logging land next to the Hood Canal community of Potlatch, has been elected three times as the 35th District's state representative, four times as its state senator and twice as Mason County commissioner. That's nine unbeaten races across 22 years. He is simultaneously county commissioner and state senator.

Sheldon and Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, left the Senate's Democratic caucus in December 2012 to create the 23- Republican-two Democrat Majority Coalition Caucus that took control of the Senate and dominated Olympia politics ever since. The majority coalition picked up an extra Republican in a 2013 special election. But personal reasons led Tom to decide against seeking re-election this year. That leaves Sheldon as the only Democrat in the majority coalition.

Sheldon has been a Democrat since he tagged along when his brother attended the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. He doesn't want to change parties. But he does intend to stay with the de facto Republican caucus. He believes the majority coalition has been more tolerant of dissent within its ranks than the Democrats, and he is more comfortable with the current Republican political positions.

The Aug. 5 primary is the first time that voters will get to weigh in on Sheldon's decsion to joining the Majority Coalition Caucus. The primary will also show whether the 35th is legitimately in play in the battle for control of the state Senate. Democrats think Sheldon is vulnerable; many Republican leaders around the state strongly believe otherwise.

Travis Couture, the only candidate in the race who identifies as a Republican, sees a chance in the Grandma Williams vote.

"I don't think he's unbeatable," said the 26-year-old Couture, a Bremerton U.S. Navy shipyard mechanic and former Navy petty officer second class who owns a couple tiny legal services and insurance businesses on the side. "There are a lot of independents in Mason County. if I pick up 38 percent in the primary, I win."

Republican legislators "need to be less like a country club and more like everyone else." He added, "We need to start accepting people with tattoos and ponytails." He could be an example: He sports a skull-dominated forearm tattoo done to a design from the late H.R. Giger, a Swiss artist who created the alien in the film Alien.

Democrat Bowling, too, sees the incument as beatable, referring to "Sheldon fatigue" among voters. 

"I'm also very unhappy with the Majority Coalition Caucus, especially with Tim Sheldon. … A lot of people are unhappy that he did what he did,” said Bowling, 57, who owns a long-time small music teaching business.

Sheldon is confident of his own place in the middle. 

"I think on the Democratic side, the politics have gotten so extreme that they don't fit any more with my district. … (Couture) doesn't have life experience. He's extremely young. He speaks in absolutes," Sheldon said. On Bowling, he said: "She'd be a perfect vote for Seattle liberals."

Bowling dismisses that idea, saying she has no connection to Seattle. "I would not consider myself a knee-jerk liberal," she said. "He doesn't hold a monopoly on candidates who understand what the people want." The daughter of a family with roots in shipyards and logging in the area, she is a former concert pianist and has a doctorate in music from the University of Washington.

Couture has been a Republican precinct officer, a delegate to the GOP's 2012 county convention and an unsuccessful candidate for county commissioner that same year. He has testified in Olympia on industrial hemp matters. "I feel a lot of what's going on in Olympia is absolutely corrupt," he said.

Both Bowling and Couture criticized Sheldon for collecting a significant amount of campaign donations from lobbying interests. However, Bowling has pick up several labor donations. As of July 27, Washington Public Disclosure Commission records showed Sheldon had raised $189, 988; Bowling had collected $64,802; and Couture had garnered $14,111.

Both Couture and Bowling also criticized the 2013 special legislative session that provided an $8.7 billion in tax breaks to Boeing — passage prompted by a Boeing threat to move the 777X production out of state without the tax exemptions. Only two state senators, Seattle liberal Sens. Adam Kline and Bob Hasegawa, voted against the Boeing tax breaks. Across the state, however, many GOP and Democrat challengers of incumbents are attacking the Boeing tax breaks.

"When you cut Boeing's regulations and taxes to zero, when does that happen for mom-and-pop businesses?" Couture said.

Each of the three candidates has points of emphasis. Beyond some of the big state issues, Couture also talks about property rights advocates: He wants to repeal the state's Growth Management Act. And he believes that the United Nations' Agenda 21 on sustainable development is playing a questionable role in land-use regulations.  

Bowling talks about her frustration with the Majority Coalition Caucus' blocking of legislation. "I think it's a dam that needs to be broken down. I hope to be the little Dutch boy who takes his finger out of that dike," she said. 

The incumbent Sheldon, a Wharton School of Business graduate, remains fascinated by the mixing of economics and politics. And economics and politics intertwine in the biggest issues that the 2015 Senate will face.

One of the biggest is the 2012 Washington Supreme Court decision — the McCleary ruling — that ordered the Legislature to dramatically increase spending on K-3 education. Couture believes the court overstepped its bounds, but also believes the state should comply with the ruling. He is against raising any taxes. But he supports closing some tax breaks. 

Sheldon agrees with the Republican that the Supreme Court's educational requirements need to be funded first, and what is left over should be allocated among the rest of the state's programs. He believes any tax increases would go against what his district's voters want. He believes tax exemptions get bad publicity because people think the state is giving money to businesses, while he contends the breaks nurture firms so they can send more tax money to the state.

Democratic candidate Bowling wants to fully fund the state's McCleary obligations by closing some tax breaks on major corporations, but does not want to raise taxes. Bowling wants to keep tax exemptions for small businesses. She believes social services should not be cut in order for the McCleary obligations to be fully funded. She wants the state to find extra revenue somewhere.

On Gov. Jay Inslee's push to limit carbon emissions in Washington, she supports exploring the issue, noting that such emissions are linked to increasing acidity in sea water that has begun killing baby oysters in Washington's shellfish industry. "It's a real issue in that we're already feeling the effects," Bowling said.

Couture opposes a likely cap-and-trade proposal, contending it is government interfering with the free market.

Sheldon downplayed Inslee's expected push on limiting carbon emissions. He said: "We probably have the cleanest air outside of Alaska in our country. It's hard to convince the average voter that it should be a top priority."

Democrats and half of the majority coalition are looking at 10- to 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax hikes to help pay for $10 billion to $12 billion in transportation projects over the next 10 years. Sheldon contended that any gas tax increase for the long-stalled transportation package should go to the voter in a referendum. And he is pessimistic about Democrats and Republicans resolving their deadlock on the transportation package in 2015 because of delays and cost overruns on the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington and the Seattle tunnel project. 

Couture is against raising any taxes, including for transportation projects.

Bowling expressed concern about the effects of a gas tax hike on the rural 35th District in which people frequently drive an hour a day to work with Kitsap residents also dealing with Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls. She said she might vote for a gas tax hike that is less than 10 cents.

Sheldon's life in Olympia changed when when he switched to the Majority Coalition Caucus. Before that, the Democratic caucus leadership had apparently retaliating against him for a tendency to vote with Republicans on major budget and social service bills. In 2011-2012, he was given only one committee assignment — transportation — instead of the traditional three for each senator.

Under the Majority Coalition Caucus, more of the bills that he introduced made their way to passage (a brief summary of the results for both the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 sessions is here). And the majority coalition appointed him vice chairman on both the energy and environmental committee and the rules committee, which controls the flow of bills to the Senate floor. He is also the Senate's president pro tempore, meaning he is in charge of parliamentary matters on the chamber's floor when Lt. Gov. Brad Owen is absent.

But what about the Grandma Williams scenario? It will almost certainly fall apart if Sheldon survives the primary. In any November faceoff that includes Sheldon, he is a virtual cinch. Couture's voters are unlikely to switch to Bowling, and Bowling's supporters are unlikely to support Couture if either comes in third. For Sheldon, the district and the state's political future, a lot is riding on the primary results that will start coming out next Tuesday.

For all Crosscut's stories on the 35th District race, click here.  

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