Democrats' best hope for picking up a Senate seat is on Eastside

Meet the Key Districts: A critical state Senate race in the state is being fought east of Lake Washington.
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Sen. Andy Hill's new bill attempts to help the state's homeless and soothe ruffled feathers in Olympia.

Meet the Key Districts: A critical state Senate race in the state is being fought east of Lake Washington.

This is the biggest money race. The biggest nail-biter. Probably the best bellwether on who will control the Washington Senate in 2015.

In the race for the 45th Legislative District's state Senate seat, Redmond Democrat Matt Isenhower is challenging Republican freshman Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond. The 45th consists of Redmond, most of Kirkland and Sammamish, plus several other northern Eastside towns. It went strongly for Barack Obama, marijuana legislation and gay marriage in 2012, but also went slightly for GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.

This is the Democrats' best chance to gain a seat in the Senate. Hill tallied 13,625 votes to Isenhower's 11,706 in the Aug. 5 primary, which is a 54 percent to 46 percent split. That was the closest that a Democratic challenger came to matching a GOP Senate incumbent in the primary.

The Hill-Isenhower race is part of a statewide struggle for control by the Senate with the Majority Coalition Caucus of 24 Republicans and two Democrats currently holding a 26-23 edge over the minority Democrats in the upper chamber. Democrats expect to effectively gain one seat in the November general election in the nearby 48th District, where the leader of the Majority Coalition Caucus, nominal Democrat Rodney Tom, chose not to seek re-election. If they hold all their current Senate seats (a very big if, especially in the Federal Way area's 30th District), defeating Hill would return Democratic control of the entire body.

Majority Coalition sway in the Senate has meant that Republicans have easily defeated most significant bills pushed by the House Democrats and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee for the past two annual legislative sessions. At stake in the 45th District are the direction of key decisions by the 2015 Legislature about the future of education, transportation, climate and taxes and spending.

Consequently, this is the state's most expensive legislative contest. So far, Hill has collected $878,974 and has spent $620,865. Isenhower has collected $411,855, and has spent $320,193. 

"I feel Andy Hill has not served the people of the district very well over last four years," Isenhower said.

Crosscut made more than 30 interview requests of Hill, beginning in early June. Two interviews were set up, but postponed both times one or two days ahead of time. On Oct. 7, his campaign manager Jess Honcoop emailed Crosscut: “I’m sorry I haven't been able to get you scheduled for a one-hour sit-down That's a big commitment with the voter contact and fundraising goals we have and I apologize we weren't able to make it work." Honcoop attached a list of Hill's accomplishments to the email.

Hill is chairman of the powerful Senate Ways & Means Committee, which makes him the chief Republican budget writer in Olympia. He is considered a moderate, having supported legalizing gay marriage in 2012. However on most legislative votes, he has not broken away from the conservative wing that dominates the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.

One example is the Dream Act, to make the children of undocumented immigrants eligible to apply for college financial aid from the state. Supposedly, the moderate Republican senators supported it. But Hill and the other moderates joined the Majority Coalition's conservatives to stop minority Democrats' attempts to put the Dream Act to a full Senate vote in 2013. An unwritten, but strong rule in the Capitol Dome is that both Democrat and Republican legislators are supposed to vote on strictly party lines on "procedural votes," such as when a minority caucus tries to bring a bill like the Dream Act directly to a floor vote. This is how majority caucus leaders prevent some of their members from splitting from the leadership's wishes on a potential floor vote, by preventing such a floor vote.

In 2014, the coalition's leaders again stopped the Dream Act bill in committee, but took a lot of political flak. Consequently, they had Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, introduce a clone of the Democrat bill with a $5 million appropriation added to it, which passed easily. Hill voted for Bailey's bill in 2014.

Another example is the Reproductive Parity Act that would require health plans that cover maternity care to include coverage of abortions as well. Again, supposedly some Senate Republican moderates privately supported the bill. But all, including Hill, voted to keep it from a 2013 full Senate vote through a pair of party line procedural votes. In the 2014 session, the coalition's leaders stopped the Reproductive Parity Act bill behind the scenes, but the Democrats did not call for a procedural vote to try to get it to a full Senate floor vote.

"Andy is unwilling to break with the majority coalition. He cares more about the Ways & Means chairmanship than [about] representing the people of the district," Isenhower said. He said he would be willing as a senator to break with Democrat leader Sen. Sharon Nelson to support good legislation.

Hill, 50, has a physics degree from Colgate University and a master's of business administration degree from Harvard University. He led software projects at Microsoft. After surviving lung cancer, he ran for the state Senate in 2010, winning by 51 percent to 49 percent split out of roughly 58,000 total votes.

In 2013 and 2014, he introduced 52 bills with 22 bills getting through the Senate and 14 surviving the Democrat-controlled House to become laws. Most, if not all, legislators end up with less than half of their bills dying in their originating chambers for a wide variety of reasons. Twenty-two bills passing the Senate with 14 becoming law is a significantly better record than most legislators have. Most of his bills address budget and financial matters.

The email of Hill's accomplishments included his budget work, the fact the last two sessions did not raise college tuitions, no taxes being increased and three tax breaks being closed. The Democrats introduced and pushed the tax break closures, eventually persuading the Majority Coalition Caucus to drop its initial opposition to accept those closures. His accomplishments also include legislation to help developmentally disabled persons. Hill's Web site also identifies welfare fraud as a priority, citing KING-TV investigations on the subject. At a June fundraiser in Bellevue, Hill told the crowd: "I want to dig into fraud and abuse. It's a wide open area."

Isenhower, 34, is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served on a destroyer off Somalia and at the Pentagon, finishing as a lieutenant. He then earned a master's degree in business administration from Harvard, eventually working as a manager at Amazon until last April, when he decided to run for the Senate seat.

Perhaps the biggest question before the next Legislature will be how to resolve a deadlock between Democrats and Republicans over dealing with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court mandate 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 from the McCleary decision, while the Democrats in Olympia support additional revenues. The Supreme Court has promised to intervene if the 2015 Legislature again fails to provide school funding, potentially wiping out part of the Legislature's budget or nullifying existing tax breaks until adequate money for schools is allocated.

Hill was one of the architects of appropriating $1 billion for the McCleary improvements in 2013-2015. However, it was determined that roughly $4 billion to $4.5 billion in extra money would be needed from 2013 through mid-2019 to meet the McCleary requirements. The $1 billion appropriation, however, fell short of the court's expectations of spending increases large enough to make gradual progress toward the 2019 spending levels,  and is part of why the Supreme Court is threatening sanctions.

At the end of the 2014 session Hill introduced a bill likely to come into play in 2015. Hill's bill would set up a statewide referendum on whether to route two-thirds of any new state general funds to early learning programs, public schools and higher education. No financial analysis of that proposal has been made public, including how much of the additional education money would go specifically to McCleary improvements. Hill has taken no public position — pro or con — on closing tax breaks or raising taxes to meet the McCleary requirements. And he has taken no apparent public position on whether social services should be cut or safeguarded when the McCleary obligations are addressed in 2015 budget talks.

Isenhower is against cutting social services and wants to explore closing tax breaks to help fund the McCleary obligations.

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Transportation is a big Eastside issue, including in Bellevue where I-405 traffic heads toward the upper Eastside of King County. Video by Zachariah Bryan.

Another standoff has blocked action on proposals for a multi-billion-dollar transportation package. In May 2013, the Democratic House passed a $10.5 billion proposal to build and fix highways, bridges and ferries, using a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. In the Senate, 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. But the coalition's senators have given it little support, with the leadership never claiming more than 13 of the coalitions' 26 members supported it. The majority coalition would reveal the names of only eight of the 13 members supporting its own package; Hill is among the eight who publicly supported the November 2013 proposal.

On his Web site, Hill said: "New investments are needed in our infrastructure, but reforms in the way we build and deliver transportation projects must take place before we raise gas taxes." To the Democrats, a pair of transportation-related budget shifts — the top reforms sought by the GOP — has been deal-breakers so far, largely because the changes would hurt the stat's general fund, which covers education, social services and other general state government activities.

Isenhower said he supports gas tax increases for the transportation package, but believes the transportation talks will likely start from scratch again in 2015.

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.

Isenhower said he would support either a carbon emissions tax or a cap-and-trade system. Hill has taken no public position on either proposal. The Seattle Times' editorial board has interviewed Hill about climate change issues. In a column, an editorial board member, Jonathan Martin, wrote about Hill:  "He shows a lack of curiosity about climate change and the overwhelming scientific consensus of its threats: 'You can find scientists on either side.’ He believes carbon should be tackled, however, to diminish U.S. dependency on foreign oil."

The Times editorial board endorsed Hill over Isenhower, citing the Republican's experience and budget stances. Editorial board endorsements' political impact with voters is open to serious question, but this is a critical race. The candidates will look for any advantage they can find.


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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