The lowdown on Seattle's hot Senate race

An eclectic docket of candidates has emerged to replace State Senator Adam Kline this year.
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Rowland Martin

An eclectic docket of candidates has emerged to replace State Senator Adam Kline this year.

Everyone says roughly 60 languages are spoken in southeast Seattle's 37th Legislative District. But only two voices will prevail after the primary election on August 5.

Six candidates want to replace retiring state Sen. Adam Kline, who has represented the heavily Democratic area for 17 years. The liberal, blue-collarish 37th curls around southwestern Lake Washington from the Seattle University area and Madison Street all the way down to Renton, and it's one of the most multi-cultural parts of Washington.

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Source: Wikipedia

Rowland Martin is the token Republican in the race, hoping to break a Democratic stranglehold on the district. Activists Pramila Jayapal and Sheley Secrest, teachers John Stafford and Louis Watanabe and retired state employee Claude Burfect are running as Democrats. In the state's top-two primary system, the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, will advance to the general election in November.

Whoever wins in November will likely face a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans on how to deal with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court decision — the McCleary ruling — to improve the student-teacher ratios in grades K-3 and make some additional school upgrades. The GOP is against increasing taxes and closing tax breaks to tackle those requirements, while the Democrats want more revenue for schools. The 2015 legislative session also faces a long-running deadlock over proposals for a $10 billion to $12 billion transportation package, which is almost guaranteed to 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 give legislators a proposal to deal with global warming and ocean acidification in 2015. The most likely measure will put limits on carbon emissions in the state, and possibly install 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. 

If races could be handicapped by donations, Jayapal is a strong first with Watanabe a distant second. But Watanabe has more than double of the remaining four candidate combined. Almost all of the 37th District donations are from private individuals, with Jayapal collecting a handful of union donors. Reports filed through early last week show Jayapal has collected $145,445 to Watanabe's $45,082. Stafford is in third with $13,032, while Secrest is fourth with $8,167. As of July 8, Martin and Burfect have not reported any donations. 

Here is a rundown of the six candidates 

Pramila Jayapal: Jayapal, 48, has spent at least 20 years trying to get elected officials to do things, and decided that she now wants to be one of those elected officials. The India native moved alone to the United States at the age of 16 to go to school. She earned an English literature degree with a minor in economics at Georgetown University, and worked on leveraged buyouts on Wall Street. She then earned an MBA at Northwestern University.

"It was terrific experience. I'm very comfortable with financial spreadsheets and numbers. I also learned what I didn't want to do. ... I didn't want to go home at night thinking I wasn't making a difference," Jayapal said.

She got into tackling social justice issues through economic development. In 1992, Jayapal moved to Seattle and, after the the 2001 terrorist attacks, she founded the immigrant advocacy organization now known as OneAmerica. She was OneAmerica's CEO for almost 11 years.  She currently works for the Center for Community Change, which aims to help low-income improve their communities and create more supportive public policies. 

On the McCleary education decision, she supports fully funding the Supreme Court's requirements without cutting into other programs, meaning new revenue would have to be found. She wants to eventually revive a proposal for a state income tax, acknowledging such a move would take years to have a chance. She wants to eliminate some of the smaller taxes and replace them with an income tax to ensure a more stable revenue source. And she wants to examine how much poor people and the very wealthy pay in taxes, and use that information to modify Washington's system.  She advocates an incremental approach to this.

Jayapal is not happy about a potential gas tax increase, arguing that it would be regressive. But she also stressed bus service in Seattle needs to be improved. She supports carbon emissions limits and a potential cap-and-trade push by Inslee. "We're leading the other states, but it is not enough," Jayapal said.

Louis Watanabe: The political bug bit Watanabe when the Bellevue College business instructor listened to a 2007 speech in Chicago by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D- Ga., at a National Education Association convention. A leader in the 1960s civil rights movement, Lewis talked about the need to improve health care for teachers.

Watanabe, now 57, grew up in a Green River farm family and sold vegetables at Pike Place Market as a kid. His Japanese-American family had been interned in World War II. With a bachelors' degree in math and applied physics from UCLA and an MBA from Loyola Marymount College, Watanabe was a co-founder and chief operating officer of Dynamical Systems Research, which became Microsoft's first acquisition in the 1980s. In 2002, he began teaching statistics and business at Bellevue College. He also became a business counselor at the Bellevue Entrepreneur Center.

The Rainier Beach resident believes the 37th District has been lost in the shuffle of Seattle and Olympia's priorities. Watanabe emphasizes the 37th District's need for more jobs (he complains that the city is zoning for gentrification rather than job creation), and he wants to use his state senator's role to gather economic development interests and businesses together to negotiate deals. He is worried about Seattle's phasing-in of a $15-an-hour minimum wages and what he sees as the likely result in which a firm increases prices and then has to pay more taxes on gross receipts; he argues that prospect is an extra reason to reform the state's tax system away from the business and operations tax imposed on gross receipts.

When it comes to the McCleary education decision, Watanabe wants to fully fund the Supreme Court's requirements without cutting into social services. "I don't want to see the stakeholders played off against each other. ... We don't want to do shell games with taxpayer dollars," he said. Watanabe said the Legislature should explore closing some tax breaks. "Everything should be on the table," he said.

Watanabe wants to keep a strong transit component in the Legislature's stalled transportation package talks, saying the 37th's residents strongly rely on buses to get to work. He supports Inslee's expected pushes on lowering carbon emissions and possibly installing a cap-and-trade program.

John Stafford: Stafford, 52, can read Principles of Corporate Finance and find it "thrilling." With a history degree from Dartmouth College, Stafford worked for Strategic Planning Associates, a management consulting and business strategy firm based in Washington, D.C. He became a partner in the firm in 1990.

Then he got a hankering to become a teacher. In the 1990s, he got a master's degree in teaching at Howard University and St. Martin's College. The North Beacon Hill resident has been a full-time substitute teacher in Seattle since 2000. "I enjoy the day-to-day of being with kids," Stafford said.

Stafford wants to speed up the Legislature's approach to trying to eliminate some tax breaks. If the Democrats gain control of the Senate in November, he wants to trim or eliminate 100 to 200 of the state's roughly 650 tax breaks. The extra revenue should be sent to fulfilling the state's McCleary funding obligations, he said. Stafford also wants to de-emphasize using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Also, he wants to increase the state minimum wage, speaking on his website of supporting Seattle's $15 per hour plan "with possible extension statewide." Meanwhile, Stafford supports a gas tax increase to put a major transportation package into play.

On climate change matter, Stafford is leery about a cap-and-trade proposal being introduced in the 2015 session. "Businesses like cap-and-trade because of the opportunities to game it," he said. Stafford wants Washington to consider a revenue-neutral carbon emissions tax similar to what British Columbia has; the state could then cut some other taxes. 

Sheley Secrest: Secrest, now 39, began her career interning for now-retired Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, while still an Evergreen State College senior. After graduating in 2003 from Seattle University's law school, Secrest was a federal law clerk; a staff attorney for The Defenders Association, which handles indigent criminal clients; a private practice lawyer specializing in civil rights matter; a policy analyst for the Alliance for a Just Society; and most recently a career direction manager for the Urban League of Municipal Seattle, a post in which she links people with jobs.

She has also served with the King County branch of the NAACP; the Seattle Office of Professional Accountability, which is involved with citizen reviews of police disciplinary matters; the Washington Commission on African American Affairs; and on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s advisory committee for tackling achievement gaps in education.

"I love all this stuff. It gives me a chance to change the everyday lives of others,” Secrest said. “I've sat in jail cells with children. I've cried with mothers. I've sat in on business chambers of commerce,"

On the McCleary ruling, she favors the schools being fully funded without cutting social services. She said tax exemptions should be examined with the idea of possibly repealing some. Secrest also said she wants to overhaul the state tax system. She said she would like to study gas tax increases more before taking a stance on how they should be used in a transportation package. Secrest would also like a transportation package put into effect as soon as possible as a job creation program. On tackling carbon emissions and cap-and-trade proposals, she said she believes in striking a balance between environmental and jobs concerns. 

Rowland Martin: The 55-year-old Boeing veteran of 26 years is the history buff among the candidates. And he's the conservative, small-government advocate. "I believe in the idea of the individual needing to be free to use his resources that are the fruits of his labor," Martin said.

He also said he did not like the idea of seeing Republicans conceding the 37th District to the Democrats, as both parties have increasingly tended to do across the state in areas heavily favoring their opponents. 

Martin believes the Washington Supreme Court's McCleary ruling is an unconstitutional disruption of the separation of government powers. He believes many tax exemptions should be closed, and he said a gas tax increase is needed to put a transportation package into effect. Meanwhile, he is skeptical about Inslee's probable 2015 push to limit carbon emissions and to install a cap-and-trade program. He said he is unsure whether humans contribute to global warming, and wonders whether tackling carbon emissions is worth the effort by just the state of Washington.

Martin believes the state should concentrate on overhauling its education system and contends its pension system should be revamped.

Claude Burfect: Attempts to reach Burfect by phone, email or Facebook were unsuccessful


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8