Democrats' Senate hopes ride on a former Bellingham council member

Meet the Key Districts: In the state's northwest corner, the two parties are slugging it out over a seat that could be key to controlling the state Senate.
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Seth Fleetwood

Meet the Key Districts: In the state's northwest corner, the two parties are slugging it out over a seat that could be key to controlling the state Senate.

Forty-second District Senate candidates Doug Ericksen and Seth Fleetwood uncorked their "A" games at a recent Bellingham City Club debate.

Sen. Ericksen, a Republican, got Fleetwood to acknowledge he would support revoking a tax break that benefits oil refineries, one of Whatcom County's biggest employers. Fleetwood, his Democratic challenger, ripped into Ericksen's inability to get many of his bills passed by fellow legislators. Each accused the other of loading up on political action committee donations from outside of Whatcom County.

Ericksen argued that the Legislature has worked well in a bipartisan way. Fleetwood countered that it is stuck in partisan gridlock.

The stakes in this race are high. Their race is one of the crucial ones in the fight for control of the state Senate — and the direction of state policy in such key areas as school spending, taxes, transportation and efforts to limit global warming. Right now, the Majority Coalition Caucus -- an alliance of 24 Republicans and two conservative Democrats -- controls the Senate, essentially stopping any major bills proposed by the Democratic-controlled House and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

Three to seven of the Senate's 49 seats could be realistically considered in play in November, with the 42nd being less tight than some of the other six. Democrats need to pick up two Republican seats while losing none to take control of the Senate. But the August primary results give a solid edge to the GOP in the races to control the Senate in 2015, including this one.

On paper, Democrats believe, Fleetwood of Bellingham has a good chance of upsetting Ericksen, R-Ferndale. But right now, the odds favor Ericksen. After six terms as a 42nd District state representative, Ericksen was elected to the state Senate in 2010 by a 60 percent-to-40-percent split out of roughly 60,000 votes. In August's primary, Ericksen outpolled Fleetwood 17,233 to 13,304 — a 57-percent-to-43-percent split. An electioneering rule of thumb is that a deficit of more than 10 percent in a primary is very hard to overcome in November.

The 42nd consists of most of Whatcom County except for a small southwestern chunk that includes part of Bellingham. It is home to two oil refineries, an Alcoa aluminum plant, timber firms, dairy farms, two tribes, fishing and the part of the Cascades dominated by Mount Baker

This might be one of Washington’s most politically polarized districts counties, with a portion of liberal college town Bellingham facing the rest of a rural county, including conservative stronghold Lynden. In the 2012 elections, the 42nd went slightly for President Barack Obama and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna. Bellingham residents went 69 percent for Obama, while Lynden went 76 percent for Mitt Romney. The Romney percentage was even greater in some of the county's more rural areas.

That polarization echoed through the Sept. 17 debate before 250 people in liberal Bellingham between Ericksen, 45, whose main profession is state legislator, and Fleetwood, 52, an attorney with four years as a Bellingham City Council member and eight years as a Whatcom County Council member.

At the debate, Fleetwood argued that revoking some tax breaks — along with budget cuts elsewhere — should be considered as a way to help pay for a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state is not meeting its constitutional duty to provide an adequate basic education to students in Grades K-3. Ericksen opposed cutting tax breaks. "Corporate loopholes is a loaded term. One person's loophole is another person's job," Ericksen said.

Ericksen noted that a "hog fuel" tax break — designed for sawmills but later applied to oil refineries through a language technicality — has been at the top of the Democrats' hit list of tax breaks to eliminate. Washington has five refineries, including two in the 42nd District. "You're talking about putting thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of jobs that you're putting at risk," Ericksen said. Eliminating this tax break would send $41 million in extra revenue annually to the state.

In 2011, Washington's five refineries provided 4,895 direct and contract jobs with annual salaries averaging $120,000 to $125,000, according to the Western States Petroleum Association. In 2011, the five refineries paid $261 million in taxes. The refineries spent $22.9 billion on expenses plus purchases of crude oil, receiving $24.2 billion in revenue.

Ericksen pushed Fleetwood on which tax breaks should be targeted, and Fleetwood replied that the hog fuel tax break should be considered.

Meanwhile, Fleetwood zeroed in on Ericksen being the leading recipient in 2013 of free lobbyist meals worth $25 or more — 62 times for a total of $2,029 — in a 2013 joint investigative project by the Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio. And Fleetwood criticized Ericksen for meeting with oil lobbyists at an event at the Suncadia resort. Ericksen called Fleetwood's statement "silly" and "ridiculous."  Ericksen said he is always "working with constituents and working with many different groups."

Minutes after the debate, Ericksen said the AP and Northwest Public Radio skewed how it tallied his and other legislators’ figures on the free lobbyists’ meals such as counting tiny bit of nibbling as a $25 meal. "Those numbers are false and made up, and they know it," he said.

(Chris Grygiel, the AP's northwest news editor, responded:  “The reporting by AP and public radio stations was based on an extensive review of public documents and has prompted the Legislative Ethics Board in Olympia to propose limiting the number of free meals lawmakers can receive from lobbyists.”)

In its own review, the Washington Legislative Ethics Board tallied 72 free meals worth $25 or more for Ericksen from lobbyists in roughly the same period — the highest of any legislator. The ethics board looked at all legislators, but decided no ethics violations legally occurred, because no one had defined what an allowable number of free meals is. The board this week adopted a rule setting a maximum of 12 free meals a year for any one legislator, which will go into effect on Jan. 1. Until now, there was no clear number, with legislators allowed to accept free meals infrequently.

In the debate, Fleetwood and Ericksen also accused each other of getting most of their campaign donations from political action committees and partisan contributors outside of Whatcom County. So far, Fleetwood has raised $301,489 and Ericksen has raised $414,681, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records. Earlier this month, a quick look at each candidate's donors at the maximum or near-maxium allowed, $950 and $900, showed Ericksen with 143 donations at those sizes totaling $128,700 from outside of Whatcom County, and 16 donations at that level totaling $13,800 from Whatcom County donors. Fleetwood collected 53 out-of county donations including $20,000 from the state Democratic Party, while collecting $4,700 from six in-county top donors at the same level.

Meanwhile, San Francisco hedge fund manager and billionaire environmental cause backer Tom Steyer recently put $1 million into a Washington  PAC aimed at the state's Senate races. A small chunk of that PAC money reportedly will go to Fleetwood.

Ericksen introduced 55 bills in the 2013 and 2014 sessions, with 14 passing the Senate and eight passing the House to become law. However, most, if not all, legislators get significantly less than 50 percent of their bills out of their own chambers for a wide variety of reasons. Ericksen's bills tend to focus on energy, environmental and telecommunications matters, which match the Senate committee he chairs.

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 Supreme Court recently said if the Legislature does not map out adequate funding for the McCleary obligations in the 2015 session, the court will take major action, which might include nullifying all or part of the 2015-2017 budget until the obligations are met. Or the court might nullify all 650-plus Washington tax breaks until adequate McCleary funding is nailed down, with the Legislature then allowed to reinstall as many tax exemptions as it wants.

In earlier interviews, Fleetwood and Ericksen echoed their McCleary points made at the Bellingham City Club debate. Ericksen also pointed to a proposal by Sen. Andy Hill, R- Redmond, to allocate two-thirds of the state's future revenue growth to education. No financial analysis has been done on the proposal to produce specific revenue figures. Fleetwood said any analysis should include how such a move would cost other programs as well as map out benefits to education.

The 2015 legislative session will also face 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. The House quickly passed it. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon. Meanwhile, 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 coalition package completes some work that the Democratic proposal does not.

The majority coalition has been wishy-washy about its own proposal. Caucus leaders have said 13 of the coalitions' 26 members supported the Republicans' November proposal, and hemmed and hawed in the 2014 session when asked about when serious internal caucus debates and follow-up internal vote counting would occur. Not all of the Republican supporters were willing to have their names released.

Ericksen declined to say where he stood on the GOP's November 2013 proposal, saying that package is now outdated and irrelevant. He believes that the Legislature should look at a 5-cents-per-gallon tax increase proposal, with most going for construction. Fleetwood believes a gas tax increase of seven to 10 cents a gallon is realistic.

Gov. Jay Inslee is also expected to introduce some type of legislation to deal with global warming and ocean acidification in 2015. The most likely measure would be creating a carbon emissions tax to encourage carbon reduction measures. Another alternative is a cap-and-trade system.

As chairman of the Senate Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Committee, Ericksen has been the majority coalition's point man on contesting Inslee efforts to install either a carbon emissions tax or a cap-and-trade system. He was on a bipartisan 2013 panel that split along party lines on how to deal with carbon emissions.

Of interest to Whatcom County is the Legislature's duel over oil train safety. House Democrats and the majority coalition had somewhat similar bills to set up equipment and training for oil-train-disaster response teams across Washington. Ericksen sponsored the majority coalition bill. But both bills died in the last session over whether, as the Democrats wanted, information on the train schedules, volumes of oil and chemical make-up of the transported oil should be made available to the general public. The majority coalition agreed with providing the information to emergency agencies, but did not want to make that information available to the general public, contending that would unveil business-proprietary data.

"You took out some of the most important requirements because the refineries you represent didn't want them," Fleetwood charged at the City Club debate.

Ericksen did not respond directly to Fleetwood's charge, but he blamed Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, for threatening procedural motions before his bill went to a vote of the full Senate, saying, "she did it for purely political reasons." 

It's that kind of control that Republicans hope to preserve in an other Democratic-led state government — and Democrats hope to change it by unseating a few GOP senators.


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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