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Will Democrats control WA? Independents may decide

Manka Dhingra, left, and Jinyoung Lee Englund at a recent debate Credit: Lizz Giordano for Crosscut

In a half-filled hall on Microsoft’s Redmond campus, two first-time candidates presented voters with a choice: maintain the balance of power in Olympia or undo gridlock by giving Democrats full control of state government.

Clinging to a one-vote majority in the state Senate, Republicans are looking to Jinyoung Lee Englund, a former staffer for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and an entrepreneur, to hold the seat left vacant after the 2016 death of Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond. Democrats, who control the state House and governor’s office, hope to turn the state completely blue by electing Manka Dhingra, a senior deputy prosecutor for King County.

After a contentious legislative session, which was extended three times, a state budget was finally passed, barely averting a government shutdown. Today, the one-vote majority is letting  Senate Republicans push for resolution of a water rights dispute, which they say has largely halted construction in rural areas, by preventing a vote on the capital budget.

The district already leans blue, represented in the state House by Democrats Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, and Larry Springer, D-Kirkland. Both easily won re-election last year, with Springer failing to even draw a challenger. At the same time, many in the 45th district — which includes Duvall, Woodinville and parts of Kirkland, Sammamish and Redmond — shy away from much of Seattle’s progressive politics, alarmed recently by a city plan for an income tax on high earners.

Dhingra finished first in the August primary, leading Englund by 10 percentage points. But Republicans say they have a strong base and hope to reach independents.

The lack of a capital budget, which allocates construction funding for the state, has forced the state parks department to begin laying off workers, with more layoffs expected at additional agencies, The News Tribune recently reported.

“Republicans should be embarrassed and ashamed not to have passed the capital budget,” said Washington State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski. “There are schools that aren’t being built, at a time when school overcrowding is a tremendous issue.”

Susan Hutchison, who chairs the Washington State Republican Party Republican, said there’s larger issue at stake in keeping the state from being run by one party, with its roots in Washington’s biggest and most self-consciously progressive city. “The people on the Eastside despise Seattle’s agenda and they don’t want it polluting the area they live in,” she said.

At the forum, both candidates pressed home the party messages.

“What does a vote for Ms. Englund get us?” Dhingra said. “It gets us the same as we have been getting for the last six years — gridlock in Olympia, special sessions, 200 days of overtime. We get the status quo. This is our opportunity to actually govern.”

“This is actually a very unique opportunity for every single person in the 45th district to change governance,” she added during the debate, moderated by the Seattle City Club and KIRO 7.

Englund argued that the issue is control in Olympia. “At the end of the day, If we’re serious about our government governing, and if we are serious about being different than the extremism we see in Seattle and the extremism we see at the national level, we will vote for a balance of power,” she said. “Keep Seattle’s ideas in Seattle.”

Englund contends a vote for her will help maintain a two-party system in the Legislature, ensuring neither party can cater to special interests.

 Englund repeatedly promised the debate audience, “I would be the deciding vote against a state income tax.” But Dhingra, in sync with many Eastside voters, also opposes the Legislature instituting an income tax.

“I think it’s up to the people. If people want an income tax, they do [a ballot] initiative on it,” Dhingra told the crowd. “But let’s solve real problems with real solutions — and that means taking a look at the options in front of us.”

Indeed, whoever is elected, it’s not clear they’ll even have a chance to cast a vote against a state income tax next session. “I don’t think there is anything on the table related to an income tax,” said Podlodowski, the Democratic chair. “Whether you can get anything done in a short session, in a non-budget session, remains to be seen.” Republican Hutchison see the upcoming session somewhat the same way. She predicts the Legislature will spend next year tackling unfinished business, including passing a capital budget and reaching an agreement on the rural water rights legislation.

Instead of an income tax, Dhingra favors implementing a capital gains and polluters tax, while closing tax loopholes to increase funding she says is still badly needed for education, mental health and other social services.

Englund countered, “More money doesn’t equal outcomes, and doesn’t equal good outcomes. We need to be smart.” She wants lawmakers to practice fiscal responsibility, vowing to prioritize education while not raising property taxes.

Both candidates agree education, traffic congestion and taxes remain the top issues in the district.

Joining Senate Republicans in their attack on Sound Transit, Englund has called light rail expansion a “Hail Mary.” She supports a Republican proposal to reduce car tab fees, which Sound Transit says would create a $12 billion hole in the agency’s budget and could delay the completion of projects. Instead, to relieve congestion, Englund proposes increasing bus service while eliminating one of the toll lanes on Interstate 405 and reducing the carpool lane minimum occupancy requirement from three people to two.

Dhingra, if elected, wants to ensure cities are planning appropriately to take advantage of light rail as it expands across the region. “Growth is here, growth is coming and is going to continue to come,” Dhingra said. “So let’s plan for the future.”

During the debate, Dhingra voiced support for taking another look at the Sound Transit car tab fee valuation many suburban residents have criticized as being unfair. “But the bottom line is that’s how we are paying for our transportation,” Dhingra added. “That is what the people voted on.”

With control of Olympia at stake in this election, almost $5.5 million has poured into the race. Each candidate has raised just over a million dollars, with the rest of the spending coming from political action committees.

 Of the roughly $1.6 million in independent expenditures opposing Dhingra and supporting Englund, over half has come from the Sammamish-based political action committee, Working Families. All of the GOP-associated PAC’s funding comes from the Leadership Council. The council’s largest donors this cycle have been the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Building Industry Association of Washington, the tobacco company Altria and the Washington Association of Realtors.

Independent expenditures from Democratic organizations, opposing Englund and supporting Dhingra, have totaled $1.6 million. Most of that money comes from the Eastside Leadership Council, exclusively funded by two committees: the Kennedy Fund and New Direction PAC. The biggest donors to these groups include the Democratic Party, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Washington Federation of State Employees and the Washington Conservation Voters Action Fund.

After losing the August primary by double digits, England faces a difficult fight. But the GOP’s Hutchison remains optimistic, as long as Englund continues pushing her message. “That message,” Hutchison said, “has to be loud and clear, that a vote for her opponent, the Democrat, is a vote for the Seattle agenda.”

It might come down to the voters who supported Parker Harris, the independent candidate eliminated in the primary. Harris, who picked up 7 percent of the vote in August, told supporters his vote will go to Dhingra, but he has not officially endorsed her.

“This is going to be a race between our two candidates as to who can get the most independent votes,” Hutchison said. “Because the Republicans are quite strong and the Democrats are quite strong, but neither one has a majority.”

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