Jim Kellett caught lots of people by surprise with a good showing in the 44th Legislative District's Senate primary in August.
But he wasn't caught off-guard by his close race with an incumbent — 10,680 votes to Democratic Sen. Steve Hobbs' 11,705 for a 48 percent to 52 percent split. "I have a good understanding of the pulse of the district. We wanted to be at 46 percent. We worked really, really hard. I never expected to win in the primary," Kellett said.
The 44th's spine starts in the Marysville area and goes south through Lake Stevens and Snohomish to end up in the Mill Creek area. It is a district almost evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters, with one Republican and one Democratic state representative. Hobbs won with 51 percent in 2006 and again with 51 percent in 2010. When he tried for a place on the national stage, he came in fourth out of seven candidates in the 2012 primary with 7 percent of the vote for the 1st Congressional District seat currently held by Suzan DelBene.
The Kellett-Hobbs race is part of a statewide struggle for control by the Senate with the Majority Coalition Caucus of 24 Republicans and two Democrats holding a 26-23 edge over the minority Democrats in the upper chamber. That means that the coalition has easily defeated most significant bills pushed by the House Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee, a good or bad thing depending on your political beliefs.
A question is how serious are the Republicans in trying to pick up this seat because the GOP-oriented money is not really there. Instead, the big donation bucks have gone to defending GOP Senate seats that the Democrats are targeting.
Washington Public Disclosure Commission records show Kellett has raised $84,208 so far including $10,000 from the state Republican Party, and has spent $75,579. Most candidates in serious races have already raised more than $100,000. Plus the hardcore races in the swing districts have the candidates each collecting $200,000 to $600,000. By comparison, Hobbs has collected $357,739 so far and has spent $214,043.
Hobbs is a 44-year-old Washington National Guard major in the infantry and moderate Democrat, who occasionally crosses party lines to vote with Republicans. But Kellett, a 60-year-old financial advisor, argues that Hobbs does not cross the aisle enough. "He hasn't jumped out in front on the issues. If he did, he'd be in the Majority Coalition Caucus. ... The Majority Coalition Caucus held the line on raising taxes," Kellett said.
Hobbs said it is hard to face pressure from both his own caucus and from the majority coalition on some issues. "I have a proven record of doing this. I've got the scars to prove it," he said. He tends to be attuned to the Democrats on most issues including social ones, but will cross party lines occasionally on some fiscal matters.
When the Majority Coalition took over the Senate in late 2012, Hobbs accepted a coalition invitation to be chairman of the Senate Financial Institutions, Housing and Insurance Committee to the chagrin of the minority Democratic caucus. A few weeks into the 2014 session, the coalition demoted Hobbs to be a co-chair of that committee with Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard. The majority coalition contended that it wanted to take advantage of Angel's financial expertise, and did not think about appointing her until a few weeks into the session.
However, the Democratic caucus and Hobbs contended he was retaliated against because he would disagree with the coalition on some issues. Last January, he speculated that that the coalition's conservatives might be upset with him for unsuccessfully fighting to get a landlord-tenant bill referred to his banking and housing committee, where he could have helped tenants. He also speculated that the conservative wing might be mad that he supports bills to have insurance companies provide abortions coverage, to make college financial aid available to children brought here as undocumented immigrants and to restore suspended cost-of-living teacher raises — all which the coalition's conservatives oppose.
Kellett disagreed with Hobbs' outlook on his demotion. "Part of the reason for the co-chairmanship is he doesn't play well with others," Kellett said.
In 2013 and 2014, Hobbs introduced 47 bills, getting the Senate to pass 17 and the House to pass 10. Most, if not all, legislators end up with well less than half of their bills dying in their originating chambers for a wide variety of reasons. Hobbs' bills focus mostly on technical financial issues. However, he repeatedly tried without success to get the Reproductive Parity Act — requiring insurance companies providing maternity coverage to also provide for abortions — through the Senate against overwhelming opposition by the majority coalition.
The winner 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.
Kellett believes that the Supreme Court is overstepping its authority by forcing the Legislature to meet the McCleary timetable. He wants education appropriations tackled separately from the state's remaining operating budget. He supports reducing class sizes in Grades K-3, but is not sure where the money would come from. When asked about closing tax breaks, Kellett replied: "Everything is on the table."
Meanwhile, Hobbs wants to study tax-increase ideas, closing tax breaks such as on bottled water, and installing levy swaps between the state and local school districts. "We've got to step up to the plate," he said.
The 2015 legislative session also faces big questions around 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 passed that package in May 2013. 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.
Near the end of the 2014 session, Hobbs floated a proposal to both sides that more or less split the differences between the coalition's and Democrats' packages in order to resolve the impasse. Neither side appeared enthused about his proposal.
Kellett is against any gas tax increase, saying gasoline taxes are a burden on the middle class. And he does not support the majority coalition's November 2013 proposal. He does support the coalition's stance to get rid of the sales tax on transportation construction materials, which would modestly cut construction costs but also reduce money to the state's general fund. "I say wipe the slate clean and start over," Kellett said.
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 creating a carbon emissions tax to encourage carbon reduction measures. Another alternative is a cap-and-trade system.
Hobbs wants to boost incentives for research on alternate energy sources, speculating a permanent fund could be set up for this research similar to an existing fund for life sciences research. He is interested in a cap-and-trade system, but stressed that such a network would need regulatory oversight.
Kellett is skeptical about the state government's push on climate change measures. "I haven't been convinced one way or another that it is caused by man," he said of global warming. Kellett opposes the cap-and-trade concept, saying those measures would increase industrial costs. And he speculated that climate-change measures are a social engineering effort to cut back on the use of cars.
After his initial primary showing, Kellett gained considerable attention, but it's open to speculation whether he can surpass that performance by enough to unseat a senator who has won close races before.