Democrats' whole game plan at risk in 30th District Senate race

Meet the Key Districts: Gaining control of the Legislature will be doubly hard if the party loses a Senate seat in the Federal Way area.
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Mark Miloscia

Meet the Key Districts: Gaining control of the Legislature will be doubly hard if the party loses a Senate seat in the Federal Way area.

Editor's note: Big issues are looming for our state when the Legislature meets next year. Our roads and bridges are still crumbling. We're still staring at major, court-mandated upgrades to our education system. Gov. Jay Inslee's still pushing for action on climate change lest the acidifying Pacific dissolve every last oyster shell in Shelton. And, whatever we do (assuming we do something) means a battle over how to pay for it: raise taxes, close loopholes or cut services. This is the first of several reports on key districts in the upcoming Nov. 4 general election. The others, in our list revised after the primary results, are the 42nd District in the Northwest corner of the state and the 28th and 45th in central Puget Sound.

This is where the Washington Senate Democrats wobble the most. Where the D's are on defense big-time. The most likely extra Senate seat that the GOP might pick up in November.

It's the 30th Legislative District — Federal Way and its sister suburbs.

It's a key to Democratic legislators hopes of moving forward on issues they and Gov. Jay Inslee have made priorites: money for school improvements, new measures to address climate change and passage of a long-stalled transportation package. For Republicans, the election is key to having a say on how those issues are handled, and holding down the rate of state revenue increases.

The Washington Senate is split between 26 members of the Majority Coalition Caucus and 23 minority Democrats. That means the minority Democrats need to hold onto all their seats and pick up two belonging to coalition members to gain control of the Senate, which would give them the governor's office, House and Senate. The 24 Republicans and two Democrats in the Senate majority coalition is the strongest hurdle to Gov. Jay Inslee's agendas, which is good or bad depending on your political beliefs.

If the Democrats lose the 30th, that means they would have to pick up three Senate seats elsewhere — a scenario that is possible, but highly unlikely.

In theory, this district's Senate seat was supposed to be a toss-up between Democrats and Republicans, with maybe a slight advantage to the Democrats. Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, had won four straight elections — the last two by 60 percent and 52 percent — before deciding to retire this year. Before the Aug. 5 primary, Republican Mark Miloscia and Democrat Shari Song were considered to be in a dead heat to replace Eide.

Then on Aug. 5, Miloscia became the strong favorite, beating Song in the primary 10,542 to 7,909 — a 57 percent to 43 percent split. Anything more than a 10 percent primary shortfall is rarely overcome in politics.

Song's best chance to beat the 10 percent curse is with a very high voter turnout, something that historically the 30th doesn't achieve.

Eide's 2006 race tallied roughly 31,000 votes for both candidates. The two-candidate total in 2010 was roughly 39,000. The 30th's presidential-year 2012 state representative races totaled roughly 47,000 votes apiece. By comparison, the somewhat similar suburban 28th District south of Tacoma pulled off roughly 54,000 total votes each in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

So, theoretically, Song and Miloscia could be fighting over more than 29,000 uncast votes — which would diminish the impact of a 2,633-vote deficit. But 30th's past record puts the remaining uncast votes more likely in the 13,000-to-21,000 range, marking that 2,633-vote deficit even harder to overcome.

The 30th currently has one Democratic and one Republican state representative, each elected with little more than 50 percent of the votes in 2012. "My district doesn't do left wing or right wing," Miloscia said.

The GOP is seriously gunning for this seat. Miloscia's campaign chair is Republican Party operative Keith Schipper, who was Jan Angel's campaign chairman when the party picked a seat last year as she downed incumbent Democrat Nathan Schlicher in a special election on the Kitsap Peninsula. And Schipper was chair of the re-election campaign of Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, one of two Democrats in the majority coalition, when Tom was expected to face a strong challenge from the vengeful Ds over his Bellevue-oriented 48th District Senate seat. But when Tom dropped out, Schipper switched to running Miloscia’s campaign. Ironically, Tom's dropping out signals a likely move of the 48th Senate seat from the majority coalition to the minority Democrats — making the 30th race more important for both sides.

So far, Song is outpacing Miloscia on campaign contributions slightly, having raised $287,00 and spent $163,000. Miloscia has raised $253,000 and spent $142,000.

Song and Miloscia both have deep roots in the 30th. But both will have to shake off labels — Song as a carpetbagger and Miloscia as a party-switcher.

Miloscia, 56, was a Democratic state representative for the 30th for seven terms, dropping out in 2012 to make a run at state auditor, which fizzled with 9.8 percent of the votes in a four-way primary. However, the U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and former B-52 bomber pilot won his state representative races with 67 percent of the votes in 2008 and 60 percent in 2010. He was a lobbyist for the Washington State Catholic Conference in 2013. Miloscia picked up two master's degrees, from the University of North Dakota and Chapman University. He later attended the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In April, he switched to the Republican Party when he announced his candidacy for the 30th's state Senate seat. Miloscia, a devout Catholic, had taken stances against abortion and gay marriage in the House, and felt Democrat legislators ostracized him because of those positions.

On his website, Miloscia wrote: "The Democratic Party has changed. ... On the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination last November, I followed a discussion on whether President Kennedy, a moderate Catholic, would be welcomed in today’s Democratic Party. That got me thinking: Could party heroes like a President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, or the evangelical Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., be supported by today’s Democrat leaders and activists? Before, I’d felt there was a place as the party publicly promoted a 'big tent,' and respected cultural diversity. Some leaders worked to insure that candidates like myself, had a place. Not anymore. Today’s Democratic Party demands 100 percent adherence to its position on every social issue. Washington state voters have decided gay marriage and abortion laws through initiative and referenda at the polls. This is settled state law and it’s not my goal to change these laws."

Later on that same Web site entry, Miloscia wrote: "Today, I see the Republican Party vigorously debating its own flaws and its future while still promoting the diversity of its elected leaders here in Washington. The Republicans have managed to include both strongly conservative Members from Eastern Washington and Puget Sound moderates."

However, in 2013 and 2014, the Senate's majority coalition maintained strict caucus discipline with the more conservative members controlling the caucus' positions and strategies. In the last two sessions, the caucus leaders allowed the moderates to break from the conservatives only twice to allow what had originally been Democratic legislation to pass as redubbed Republican bills. One was for college aid to students of undocumented immigrant parents and the other was on financial aid for the homeless. The majority coalition took lots of public flak for opposing both bills until it allowed its moderates to vote for them. Meanwhile, the coalition never allowed anyone to break ranks on budget, education, tax and tax break votes.

Song criticized Miloscia's party switch: "Serving in the Legislature is not a game where you flip-flop back and forth."

Song, 50, has to deal with accusations that she moved from Bellevue to Federal Way this year solely to run for Eide's seat against Miloscia. Song said the reason for her move from Bellevue is to take care of her mother-in-law in Federal Way after heart surgery.

Her marriage brought the University of Illinois graduate to Federal Way in 1986. Her sons attended the Federal Way schools, and she helped found the Federal Way-based Mission Church Preschool in 1991. She began her real estate career in Federal Way in 1993. And she was on the city's Diversity Commission from 1994 to 1996.

She moved to Bellevue to follow her husband’s career. She has participated in numerous Korean-American and Asian-American organizations. In 2013, she lost a race for King County Council to Reagan Dunn by a 58-percent-to-42-percent split. 

Thirty-seven percent of the 30th's voters are not white. "As a small business owner ... I understand what they have to hurdle," she said. "Also, I want to try to encourage people of color to run for office. We need our government to more reflect our demographics." 

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. Tom's dropping out of his Senate race means that now a slight majority of the majority coalition opposes its own transportation proposal, which adds a major haziness factor to the current deadlock.

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, Miloscia believes the Supreme Court succumbed to political pressure by giving the Legislature until mid-2019 to meet all of that ruling's target, calling that time frame unrealistic. He also believes the push to improve student-teacher ratios is getting too much emphasis at the cost to other fix-it measures. "The states with the best ratios are not necessarily the states with the best test scores or the best dropout rates," Miloscia said.

He believes education reforms need to be tackled. He did not rule out raising taxes or closing tax breaks in some cases, but added that those options should be kept in reserve and used only if they could be linked to educational results.

Song said, "If the Legislature was doing its job, then the Supreme Court would not have to step in." She supported keeping education as a top priority without cutting into social programs. But Song said she would consider raising taxes or trimming tax breaks on a case-by-case basis.

On the transportation deadlock, Miloscia is open-minded on where the talks should go. He said the negotiators need to keep in mind how all the pieces of a transportation package are interlinked money-wise, geographically, and traffic-flow-wise. "Ultimately, it's a system. You can't be parochial. You've got to think of the system," Miloscia said.

Song hopes that a Democratic majority in the Senate will break the current deadlock and get a transportation package passed. She also sees a transportation resolution as a jobs package, but she said she is unsure how much of a gas tax hike she would support.

On Inslee's likely carbon emissions measures, Miloscia supports cutting back on carbon emissions, but added that Washington ranks near the top in the nation on clean air. And he questioned whether Washington's efforts would be effective if other states and nations, such as China, don't take similar measures. He is undecided on whether he supports a cap-and-trade system. He believes the state should stress energy conservation more. "I'm glad Inslee is making (climate change) an issue and getting things started," Miloscia said.

Song is unsure how she feels about cap-and-trade legislation, saying she needs to see the actual bills before she makes up her mind.

As the voting begins with the mailing of ballots later this week, both parties will have their eyes closely on the 30th District. For the Democrats, there will be the tension of wanting to hold on to the seat. For Republicans, the tension may be leavened by a sense of opportunity. 


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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