The 26th Legislative District's state Senate seat was worth $3 million in 2013. This year, the seat representing part of the South Sound area is worth only about 12 percent of that so far — at least in campaign donations.
In 2013, Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, tallied roughly $3 million in total donations for a special election for the state Senate slot. Every special interest donated big. It was the only Democrat-vs-Republican contest that year for a Senate seat. The stakes were whether the GOP-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus would have a 25-24 or 26-23 advantage going into this year and the November's general election. Angel won with 52 percent of the votes, expanding the margin.
This year, Angel and Democratic challenger Judy Arbogast of Olalla have tallied less than $360,000 so far — $232,661 for Angel and $122,340 for Arbogast.
While the 26th was the only Senate seat in play last year, three to seven could be considered up for grabs this time, depending on how you crunch the odds. While the 26th might have been counted as one of the seven potential swing districts at times during the year, the district appears to be no more than marginally competitive as the Nov. 4 election approaches. Contests in the 28th, 42nd, 44th and 45th districts are much closer and are attracting more donations.
The 26th, on the southern part of the Kitsap Peninsula, elects a fair number of Democrats despite being slightly conservative. But the odds are clearly in the GOP's favor. Angel outpolled Arbogast 19,491 to 14,752 — a 57 to 43 percent split — in the Aug. 5 primary. An electioneering rough rule of thumb is that a 10 percent deficit in primary votes is extremely difficult to overcome in a November showdown.
This is Angel's third race in three years, and she is ready for a break from campaigning. She was elected to her third term in the Washington House in 2012, knocked off Schlicher in 2013, and is fending off Arbogast this year.
Angel, 67, was in real estate and insurance before concerns about land restrictions led to her becoming a Kitsap County commissioner. The GOP recruited her to run for the Washington House in 2008. Angel might well be the oldest legislator to have a tattoo. She told her daughters they could get tattoos only if their tats were ones they could live with at the age of 50. As a gesture to her daughters, Angel herself — at age 50 — got a small tattoo of an angel on her back near her left shoulder.
Arbogast, 67, is a recently retired teacher after 42 years in education, who also was president of the South Kitsap Education Association. Special education students fascinate her enough that she switched to that field. "It was a puzzle to me why some kids need special classes," she said. Every child, she said, wants to learn. "I could see it takes something different for each."
Arbogast pointed to the Legislature's current gridlock on many issues as her reason for running. "The Senate leaving so much hanging upsets me, she said." And she pointed to Angel's participation in the American Legislative Exchange Council, as another reason for running. ALEC is a national conservative organization consisting of state legislators and corporate interests that collaborate on creating "model bills" to be pushed in individual states. Arbogast contended some of Angel's bills seem to use planks proposed by ALEC.
Angel defends her ALEC membership as a matter of becoming educated about issues and ideas that could be shared with other legislators. Eight Washington state senators belong to ALEC, with most, if not all, easily pigeonholed into the conservative wing of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Angel said she also belongs to similar centrist and liberal national legislative organizations in order to be exposed to ideas.
In 2013, Angel introduced 18 bills in the House, getting three passed out of the Democrat-controlled House with two passing the Senate to become law. In the 2014 session as a senator, she introduced 17 bills with three passing the Republican-dominated Senate and none passing the House. 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.
Angel's biggest legislative splash was in late February. As co-chairwoman of the Senate Financial Institutions Committee, Angel blocked a House bill to protect the $40 home-sales recording fee, which is used to help low-income and homeless people with rent in public and private housing. She took a lot of flak for that unexpected move while waiting days before explaining it. Angel said the state Commerce Department did not give her adequate data about what the bill was supposed to accomplish. At the time, Gov. Jay Inslee countered that the department had already provided sufficient information.
She said the bill was poorly done, but she made a commitment to improving it. "I've been close to homelessness myself. I'll be damned if it takes away money from people who deserved it," Angel said.
A measure did get passed. Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, introduced a substitute bill to keep the $40 fee to 2019, guaranteeing the funds through most of the decade. The fee had been scheduled to be phased out over four years, dropping in $10 steps annually to disappear in 2018. The final bill also required 45 percent of the proceeds to be spent on private rentals, and an audit of the program by July 1, 2015. Much of the final legislation came from a "striking amendment" by Angel, rewriting the bulk of the bill over the structur of Hill's measure.
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 has generally been against increasing taxes and closing tax breaks to tackle those requirements, while the Democrats in Olympia have supported 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.
Arbogast supports the Supreme Court's stance. And she disagrees with the GOP approach, which would require social services to be cut sharply to comply with the court's ruling. "It's difficult to educate a child who is hungry, who is having difficulty finding some place to sleep. Kids can't learn when they're hurting, when basic needs are not met," she said. She believes closing tax breaks should be looked at, but is undecided on which should be addressed.
Angel supports a Hill proposal to allocate two-thirds of the state's future revenue growth to education. No financial analysis has yet been done yet on Hill’s proposal to produce specific figures on how much would go to education. She said she is willing to listen to any tax break closure or tax hike proposal as a potential McCleary fix.
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. 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 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, and hemmed and hawed in the 2014 session when asked about when serious internal caucus debates and follow-up internal vote counting would occur. Also, the majority coalition has reveal the names of only eight of the 13 members supporting its own package. One of those, Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, won't be back next year, adding more haziness to the propspects for breaking the deadlock.
Arbogast supports the Democrats' general approach because she cannot think of other practical alternatives. "We have crumbling infrastructure in this state. I don't want to wait until a bridge falls and kills someone before we do something. I’m willing to listen to any and all options," she said.
Angel said she did not take a formal stance on the November 2013 version of the majority coalition's transportation package because the caucus never took a formal vote on it. She thinks the Legislature should rethink such a package's priorities. She is leery of a gas tax increase, but is willing to consider one. Angel suggested that increasing license tab renewal fees could be an alternative to a gas tax hike.
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.
Angel said: "I wish (Inslee) cared as much about homelessness as climate change." She wants to see what Inslee before deciding whether to support it. "I don't see this as a lead issue," she said.
Arbogast said, "We're going to have to do something. I don't know what the answers will be."