Rich Cowan is the lord of the zombies, a filmmaker with a national following in the popular sci-fi genre who would now like to join the political combat in the Washington state Legislature. He's taking on Mike Baumgartner, a four-year state senator who has already made a name for himself in Olympia, sometimes with outspoken stances.
Democrat Cowan is a longtime Spokane business owner, running a film company that is currently producing the television series "Z Nation” on the Syfy Channel. Freshman Republican Sen. Baumgartner, who has a background in international economics, is seeking re-election in Spokane County's Sixth Legislative District.
The Democratic Party has considered Baumgartner vulnerable, pumping extra money into an effort to unseat him. But the Aug. 5 primary results dealt a significant blow to the Democrats' hopes: Baumgartner outpolled Cowan 18,471 to 13,804 in the primary, a 57 percent to 43 percent split. As a rule, a 10 percent primary deficit is difficult to overcome. Baumgartner won his first 2010 election to the state senate by a 54 percent to 46 percent split, but he fared less well two years ago in a U.S. Senate race when his home district favored incumbent Maria Cantwell over him 51-to-49 percent.
The Cowan-Baumgartner race is part of a statewide struggle for control of the state Senate, the Legislature's upper chamber where the Majority Coalition Caucus of 24 Republicans and two Democrats holds a narrow 26-23 edge over the minority Democrats. That means that the coalition has easily defeated most significant bills pushed by the House Democrats and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, a good or bad thing depending on your political beliefs.
Probably four Senate races — the 28th, 30th, 44th and 45th — have outcomes in legitimate doubt. Democrats also believe that they have chances of knocking off Republican incumbents in another three, including the Sixth, 26th and 42nd. With the attention on the Cowan challenge, the Sixth's campaign donations are significantly above those in most individual legislative races: $427,615 for Baumgartner and $216,147 for Cowan.
The Sixth consists of northern and southern parts of Spokane, plus much of west-central Spokane County. It leans Republican, going for Mitt Romney and Rob McKenna in 2012, although it narrowly went for Obama in 2008. In 2012, redistricting trimmed Spokane's portion of the Sixth from 77 percent to 56 percent, with the urban Democrat-leaning Third District taking over the lost city portions. The Sixth includes medical facilities, Fairchild Air Force Base, Cheney (with Eastern Washington University), a Kalispell tribal casino, several small towns and lots of wheat growers.
Cowan, 58, is the hometown boy, growing up with Spokane, graduating from Washington State University and working his entire life in the city, initially at WHQ-TV. Then he went out on his own in 1990 to form North By Northwest Productions, which produces Grade B thrillers, family flicks, commercials, documentaries and instructional films. It employs roughly 45 full-time employees. It is currently producing a filmed-in-the-Northwest zombie apocalypse television series called "Z Nation, in which the heroes are trying to get a zombie bite survivor — he did not turn into a member of the walking dead — across the nation to be studied in a lab. The series employs roughly 200 people beyond North of Northwest's staff.
"In 'Zombie Nation,' there is hope, and hope is a very important thing," Cowan said.
Cowan talked about job creation and being a small business owner, meeting payrolls and interacting with the Spokane business community. "We've got to keep people employed," he said. Pointing to his own creation of a business, Cowan said of his opponent, "He doesn't have that business background."
Baumgartner, 38, grew up in Pullman and graduated from WSU. He earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University in 2002. He did social work in Mozambique and worked as an economics officer for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the Iraq War. He met his wife in Afghanistan. They moved to Spokane where Baumgartner has worked as an economics consultant for various national and international ventures. In his 2012 challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, he lost by a 60-to-40-percent split statewide.
Baumgartner is vice-chairman of the powerful state Senate Ways & Means Committee, making him one of the Republican Party's chief budget writers. He is also on the higher education and trade and economic development committees. In 2013 and 2014, he introduced 28 bills with five leaving the GOP-dominated Senate and two passing the Democrat-controlled House to become law. Most legislators get less than a half of their bills out of their own chambers for a wide variety of reasons. He has also championed Eastern Washington's efforts to create a WSU medical school.
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 Supreme Court recently warned the Legislature of potentially serious steps if lawmakers fail to map out adequate funding for the McCleary obligations in the 2015 session.
Even before the latest court statement, Baumgartner introduced three bills that were symbolic digs against the Supreme Court's McCleary-related pressures. These were to order the Supreme Court to increase the number of cases it hears, to trim the number of justices from nine to seven by attrition, and to change the definition of "basic education." None made it beyond the committee stage. He also once tweeted a photo of a hammer and sand to tell the court to "pound sand."
Cowan said, "That hijinks kind of approach to state government is not right.”
Cowan thinks closing tax breaks should be considered for implementing McCleary improvements. Baumgartner said: "If there is a legitimate reason state needs extra revenue, I'm willing to look at it, but it has to be accompanied by reform of some sort." Baumgartner also stressed that funding for higher education should not be lost in any struggle between public-school education and social services budgets.
The 2015 legislative session also faces a long-term standoff over a multi-billion-dollar transportation package. In May 2013, the House and Senate Democrats announced their $10.5 billion proposal to build and fix highways, bridges and ferries with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase over the current state tax of 37.5 cents per gallon. The House quickly passed it. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. The majority coalition waited until November 2013 to unveil a $12.3 billion, 10-year counter-proposal with an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase.
The problem is that the majority coalition has been wishy-washy about its own proposal. Caucus leaders have said only 13 of the coalitions' 26 members supported the Republicans' November proposal. They also wouldn't reveal the names of all the supporters. But Baumgartner joined the coalition's moderates to support the November 2013 proposal. Cowan also supports a gas tax increase, but added that Baumgartner "is not getting the job done" on a transportation package compromise.
Both Baumgartner and Cowan said additional work on northern Spokane's new U.S. 395 corridor should be a top priority for the state, with Baumgartner saying he has gotten the Senate to appropriate more for this project than what the House earmarked for it.
Inslee is also expected to introduce some type of legislation to deal with global warming and ocean acidification in 2015. The Inslee administration has shown interest in both a carbon emissions tax and a cap-and-trade system, but it is leery about putting both concepts simultaneously into a legislative package.
Baumgartner believes Inslee's propositions could increase the costs of business without making a legitimate dent on global climate change. Cowen contended adopting one of Inslee's potential measures "doesn't have to be a job killer at the same time. ... I've seen no evidence that the two are mutually exclusive."
While Baumgartner has to be regarded as the favorite in this race, it is a contest that the GOP seems unlikely to assume it has won — you never know what danger lurks in the night.