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30th District race poses new worries for legislative Democrats

Teri Hickel visits a 30th District resident while doorbelling.

Teri Hickel doorbells in the 30th District. Credit: John Stang

One Saturday this summer, 11 Republican legislators descended on Federal Way, simultaneously doorbelling for House GOP candidate Teri Hickel. Reps. Larry Haler of Richland and Matt Manweller of Ellensburg drove across the Cascades that hot day to join the group.

A few weeks later, Hickel’s campaign got another boost, a new manager — Keith Schipper. In 2014, Schipper ran Republican Mark Miloscia’s successful campaign to become the state senator in the same district, the 30th Legislative District. Since a Democrat had held the seat before, that campaign bumped the GOP’s razor-thin 25-24 advantage in the Washington Senate up to 26-23.

In this November’s special 30th District election, the minority GOP hopes a victory by Hickel will narrow its gap in the Washington House from 51-47 to 50-48. A Hickel victory over Democratic incumbent Carol Gregory would mean that the House Democratic caucus will need every single vote to pass any controversial bills in next year’s session of the Legislature.

And a 50-48 split would put control of the House within easy GOP grasp in the November 2016 elections.

“This is going to be hard,” said Gregory, who has held her seat for slightly more than eight months.

Gregory, 71, of Federal Way is a classic pro-labor Democrat. Hickel, 55, also of Federal Way is a classic pro-business Republican. In the Aug. 4 primary, Hickel tallied 7,982 votes for a 51.7 percent showing. Gregory captured 7,446 votes for a 48.3 percent showing.

Carol Gregory
Carol Gregory Credit: John Stang

In other words, the November election is far too close to call, especially in a suburban district that neither party can take for granted.

Last year, Crosscut political analyst Benjamin Anderstone wrote that elections in the 30th District — the greater Federal Way area — are difficult to predict. Along with Democratic Rep. Gregory, the district has one Republican, Miloscia, as its senator, and one Republican House member Rep. Linda Kochmar. She was appointed to replace the late Democratic Rep. Roger Freeman, who easily won last November despite dying a few days prior to the election.

The 30th has a growing population of younger, ethnically diverse voters — many of them renters — who have pushed the district leftward over the long term. But the 30th is also a working class district that narrowly voted against same-sex marriage in 2012. Anderstone’s analysis described the district’s voters as wanting to keep social services intact but hating taxes — which makes them particularly hard to predict.

This is Hickel’s first crack at elective office. Her husband, Tim Hickel, was the 30th’s state representative from 1994 to 1998. For the past 15 years, Teri Hickel managed the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce’s Advancing Leadership program, which exposes residents to local issues to nurture future community leaders. Prior to moving to Federal Way, Hickel was an events planner in California. She has been very active in Federal Way PTA activities and has worked on school levy campaigns.

“I have invested 20 years in this community. I know it inside out,” Hickel said.

Gregory spent seven years as an elementary school teacher and later was president of the Washington Education Association from 1976 to 1981. She was also a policy analyst for former Gov. Booth Gardner, and worked for Judith Billings when she was the state superintendent of public instruction in the 1990s. And she worked on education matters for Ron Sims when he was King County Executive. “I’m not beholden to any organization,” Gregory said of her stint more than 30 years ago as the WEA president.

Gregory successfully ran for the Federal Way school board in 2013 in the wake of the board president’s being charged with theft in his tire salvage business. The board elected Gregory as its president. She stepped down from the president’s slot in January when Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her to replace Freeman, who died of cancer, although she is still on the school board. She is also a former longtime executive director of Burst for Prosperity, a non-profit organization that helps low-wage employees work their way up to family-wage jobs.

As of Labor Day, Gregory’s campaign had collected $175,849, including $32,000 directly from the Democratic Party. Her donors include numerous labor and education organizations.

As of Labor Day, Hickel had collected $222,849 in campaign donations. That includes $52,050 directly from the Republican Party. Her contributors lean heavily toward business interests; the donors include Kenneth Fisher of Camas and Kemper Freeman Jr. of Bellevue, who are major backers of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1366. Although it will face legal challenges, I-1366 would require the Legislature to send voters a constitutional referendum mandating two-thirds votes in the Legislature to enact taxes or, if the referendum is not held, face a 1-cent cut in the state sales tax.

Hickel zeroed in on a proposed school levy overhaul as her top priority in the Legislature, supporting the concept. In the last legislative session, Democratic and Republican senators jointly produced a plan to shift local-level school-related property taxes to the state. Having the state take over the taxing responsibility would meet a key part of the 2012 Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling on education funding, which has generated massive conflicts in the Legislature.

However, the Republicans say the shift can raise enough money for schools solely through the additional property tax money. Democrats insist that the property tax shift would not raise enough money by itself to meet the Supreme Court’s requirements, suggesting that other tax measures will need to be implemented as well. Hickel agrees with the Republicans’ stance: “I’m not going to look for taxing opportunities at every turn.”

Gregory supports the bipartisan levy overhaul proposal to be tackled in the 2016 session. Unlike Hickel, she believes extra revenue beyond the proposed shift in property taxes will be needed to meet the Supreme Court’s mandate to dramatically reduce teacher-student ratios in Grades K-3 and to provide a more solid funding base for education in Washington. Gregory believes a capital gains tax should be seriously considered for that purpose.

This issue may well be the biggest controversy in the 2016 legislative session.

Another issue expected to resurface in 2016 will be the attempt to raise Washington’s minimum wage to $12 an hour over four years. The House passed that bill mostly along party lines earlier this year, but it died immediately in the Republican-controlled Senate. One factor next year will be King County venture capitalist Nick Hanauer’s talk of trying to put a more dramatic $16-per-hour minimum wage to a public referendum in late 2016. That has prompted murmurs in Olympia that a phased-in minimum wage increase enacted by the Legislature might be more palatable to business than a blunt-force public initiative.

Hickel said businesses might be able to handle a $12 minimum wage phased in over four years. However, she said, “I worry about the consequences of increased costs.” Gregory supports the $12-per-hour minimum wage phase-in proposal.

Gregory has taken flak from Republicans for opposing the $16 billion, 16-year transportation package approved earlier this year, which includes several projects for the 30th District. Gregory said she supports the projects, but voted against the package because it included an 11.9-cents-per gallons gas tax hike spread across two years. She felt that the gas tax increase would be too much of a burden on lower-income residents in her district. Gregory said: “A lot of people in the community are barely pulling out of the recession.”

In November, one candidate will win the chance to represent the community for the coming year. Until then, the 30th will have state politicians on the edge of their seats because of the district’s unpredictability and the importance of the vote to the House’s balance of power.

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