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An Eastside race has Republicans scrambling for a foothold

Linda Darnell Credit: John Stang

This was supposed to be Washington's juiciest election fight, finally answering the question: What do his Eastside district's voters think of Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom's joining with Republicans to control the state Senate?

But Tom, who was the key to the creation of the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Caucus Coalition, decided against running for re-election, citing personal health problems and the need to look after his ailing father. And the race that has emerged looks like it could be an easy one for a Democrat who had no plans to seek the Senate seat before Tom's decision against a run.

In late 2012, Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch joined 23 Republicans to form the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, which took control of the Senate from the Democrats on a 25-to-24 split. In return, Tom was named the coalition's leader. Then in late 2013, the coalition picked up another Senate seat in election to grow to 24 Republicans and two Democrats.

After Tom decided not to run, the Democrats juggled their 48th District candidate line-up, moving Rep. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland to the Senate race, and realigning former Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride, who had planned to challenge Tom, to run for Habib's seat. For several weeks, no GOP candidates for the Senate spot surfaced until rookie Michelle Darnell filed the day before the May 16 deadline. Darnell had been thinking about running in 2016 until the King County GOP recruited her for an immediate campaign.

"I'm the Republican mom in tennis shoes," said Darnell, 44, of Kirkland, referring to Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray's 1990s campaign slogan. "But I favor flip flops,"

Darnell has an uphill battle. The 48th District  — consisting mostly of Kirkland, Medina plus parts of Redmond and Bellevue — appears to be growing more Democratic. Last April, a Crosscut analysis found that the 48th's non-white population had grown from 10 percent in 1990 to 33 percent today. The district favored President Barack Obama and Gov. Jay Inslee in the 2012 elections. The Washington Public Disclosure Commission's records show Habib has raised $161,626 to Darnell's $7,022.

This race is important because if Habib wins, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus would see its 26-23 majority shrink to 25-24. And that means the minority Democrats need to pick up only one more seat of another seven potentially vulnerable coalition Senate seats to regain control of that body — assuming the minority Democrats hang on to two of their own seats that the GOP might legitimately threaten.

Darnell is a paralegal specializing in foreclosure matters, siding with homeowners against banks. She described her self as fiscally conservative, "socially tolerant," and a "bleeding heart." She added, "The Republican Party needs some rebranding."

She picked up an interest in politics when the 2008 recession hit and when she later attended an Occupy Seattle event about three years later.  "It's not a right thing or a left thing. It's a corporation thing."

"I'm against 'Corporations are people,' " Darnell said. Darnell labeled herself for small government, and for a smaller tax burden. She believes that Seattle's $15-an-hour minimum wage will hurt small businesses and their employees, but added that she would be willing to discuss raising the state's minimum wage.

Darnell would like to be on a financial services committee. She wants to install stronger protections for homeowners in the state's foreclosure laws.

Habib, 32, has one term in the Washington House under his belt. He won that seat in 2012 with 61 percent of the vote. He is a civil attorney specializing in start-ups and high tech law. He also teaches intellectual property law and legislation at Seattle University. He previously was a civil rights commissioner for King County and a human services commissioner for the City of Bellevue.

In the House, Habib was vice chairman of the Technology & Economic Development Committee, and belonged to the business & financial services, rules and transportation committees. In 2013 and 2014, Habib introduced 14 bills, of which nine passed the House and five passed the Senate. The bills addressed a variety of issues and one became Washington's first law to address crowd-funding. As a rule of thumb, a majority of all bills never pass the originating chamber for a variety of reasons.

Habib lost his eyesight to cancer when he was 8 years old. A device reads for him, using a Stephen-Hawking-like voice. An iPhone app helps him track legislation. He noted that his quality of life would have been significantly worse 50 to 75 years ago. "Technology can solve civil rights problems faster that the Legislature can keep up," Habib said.

His legislative priorities include the intersection of technology and public policy, the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, non-polluting technologies, biotech, education, transportation and arts. He favors tax exemptions for biotech and pharmaceutical ventures.

Whoever wins in November will face decisions about a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans on how to deal with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court mandate — the so-called McCleary ruling — to improve the student-teacher ratios in Grades K-3 and take some additional measures to help public schools. The GOP is against increasing taxes and closing tax breaks to tackle those requirements, while the Democrats in Olympia support those tax-related measures. The 2015 legislative session also faces a long-term standoff over a possible $10 billion to $12 billion transportation package, which would likely include a gas tax increase of 10 to 12 cents a gallon. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to introduce some type of legislation to deal with global warming and ocean acidification in 2015. The most likely measure would be one creating limits on carbon emissions in the state, and possibly installing a cap-and-trade system. Under a cap-and-trade system, Washington would have an overall annual limit on its carbon dioxide emissions. Limits would be set for specific geographic areas. Firms would obtain rights for specific amounts of emissions in those areas and could trade their rights.

On McCleary, Darnell believes the state constitutional language needs to be explored more regarding the state's obligations. Also she believes a system could be created to allow parents to choose the schools for their children, setting up competition among schools to attract students. She is against raising taxes and against closing tax exemptions.  "We need to get creative," Darnell said.

Habib is close to the Democrats' legislative stance that K-12 education spending and revenue should get top priority without cutting into other services — a scenario that would require closing some tax breaks or raising new taxes. He wants state government to expand discussions with the business community to improve the goals for the state's schools.

On Olympia's deadlocked transportation talks, both Darnell and Habib stick with their parties' positions. Darnell is against a gas tax increases. Habib is for one, citing needed work on the Bel-Red corridor and the State Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

Regarding Inslee's expected climate change measures, Darnell is undecided, saying she wants to study the issue more. Habib contended climate change must be tackled and that job creation can be part of those efforts. His climate change thoughts focus on fuel efficiency for vehicles, and encouraging the use of electric cars.

Tuesday's primary results are essentially a straw poll, with Habib and Darnell facing off again for real in November. But the outcome Tuesday will have a bearing on how much support each candidate receives from donors, making the vote important to Republicans' chances of narrowing the funding gap their candidate faces in a race that they expected to be much more competitive. 

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