Pierce County voters could set state direction with Senate choice in 28th District

Meet the Key Districts: Two familiar names are slugging it out in a race where the Republican incumbent may look safer than he is.
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Steve O'Ban

Meet the Key Districts: Two familiar names are slugging it out in a race where the Republican incumbent may look safer than he is.

On paper, Republican Steve O'Ban has a legitimate upper hand over Democrat Tami Green as he tries to keep his 28th District's Senate seat in Pierce County.

The 28th is one of a few swing districts in which the Democrats may have a fighting chance of taking away from the GOP as they try to overcome a 26-23 deficit in the Washington Senate.

While Democrats control the Governor's office and the House of Representatives, where Green currently represents the district, Republican domination of the Senate has given the GOP a big voice in Olympia. The outcome of the Nov. 4 Senate elections will have a huge role in determining how the state tackles such issues as global warming, transportation, tax levels and education spending.

O'Ban has the cash advantage by raising $650,612 so far to Green's $301,088. Plus he outpolled Green 10,508 to 8,091 in Aug. 5's primary — a 56 percent to 44 percent split. A rule of thumb in electioneering circles is that it is almost impossible to overcome a 10 percent primary deficit by a November election.

All this is the picture on paper.

But that picture has a couple of huge blanks in a race where both candidates are familiar names to voters.

First, O'Ban and Green's August total of 18,599 votes is just over a third of the more than 54,000 people who voted each in the 28th's 2010 and 2012 legislative races. So the pair is still fighting over 35,000 to 36,000 potential remaining votes.

Also, O’Ban spent two-and a-half times what Green did during the primary season — $233,246 to $90,595, according to Washington Public Disclosure Commission records. His spending advantage could be less dramatic this time around. California billionaire and financier of environmental causes Tom Steyer is expected to sink vast amounts of pro-Democratic money in some Washington State Senate races because he wants Inslee's agenda on how to deal with carbon emissions to get through the Legislature. In fact, the 28th is a logical race for independent political action committees on both sides to spend huge sums of soft money in the war to control the Senate. Large sums of independent money are pouring in, pretty much evenly divided. And independent PAC soft money — supposedly not coordinated with the actual candidates' campaigns because that would be illegal — is frequently used for the nastier campaign tactics in an election.

In fact, if this race gets nasty, the likelihood will be is that outside forces will be the cause. Green noted she and O'Ban get along personally and suggested that their political stances as legislators over the past couple years — not their personalities —  will likely determine the winner. "We're both nice people doing the best we can," Green said of herself and O'Ban.

Green described the 28th District-- stretching from southern and western parts of Tacoma to Joint Base Lewis McChord -- as one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third independent. "This is a swing district in the true sense of the word,” she said.

“You have to win over the independents in this district. No one cares if you have an R or a D by your name," said Green, who has been a state representative since 2005.

Both are proven vote-getters. Green, a 54-year-old nurse from Lakewood, won her 2012 election to the House by a 55-to-45-percent split. O'Ban, a 52-year-old small private practice attorney from Tacoma, also posted a 55-to-45-percent victory margin in a 2012 state representative’s race. The Pierce County commissioners appointed him to the Senate in 2013 to finish the term of Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, who died that year.

Both O'Ban and Green had trouble getting their bills passed in a Legislature with opposing parties each controlling a chamber.

As a GOP state representative in 2013, O'Ban introduced nine bills and got two through the Democrat-controlled House with one surviving the Republican-controlled Senate. In 2014 as a senator, O'Ban introduced 29 bills, getting nine passed in the Senate with two surviving the Democratic House. O'Ban, chairman of the Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee and vice-chairman of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, concentrated on crime-related and veterans’ legislation. He is also on the Transportation Committee.

O'Ban's highest-profile bill this year was a response to Inslee declaring a moratorium on executions. Three of the nine inmates on Washington's Death Row committed murders in Pierce County. None of the current death sentences was commuted, meaning a future governor could lift the moratorium and green light the nine stalled executions. O'Ban's bill would require a recommendation from the Washington Clemency and Pardons Board before a death sentence could be commuted. But his bill was filed after a legislative cut-off deadline, so no action was taken on it. O'Ban speculated he might reintroduce the bill in 2015 if e-elected. Green opposes the death penalty.

Meanwhile in 21013 and 2014, House Majority Floor Leader Green introduced 26 bills, got the House to pass 10 with two surviving the Republican-controlled Senate. She concentrated on health care legislation. Green is on the House's Appropriations, Health Care, Labor & Workforce Development, and Rules committees.

One of the big decisions confronting the 2015 Legislature will be 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. Republicans have opposed 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.

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.

On McCleary, O'Ban said he might consider some type of tax increase or closing some tax breaks if education is guaranteed top priority over other state expenses and some Republican ideas for school reform measures are implemented. He said he would consider ending a tax break if the affected industry is in good shape financially. Green said she supports the Democrats' position on fully funding the McCleary requirements without cutting into social services. The Republican call for putting education spending first has been widely interpreted as a step that would — intentionally or not — force severe cuts in social service budgets.

The transportation deadlock is complicated by the fact that the Majority Coalition's leader, Rodney Tom, D-Medina, is leaving the Senate. Tom was one of 13 out of 26 majority coalition to support the on the caucus' own package, which includes a 12-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. Without Tom, not even half of the coalition's incumbents support their own transportation proposal. O'Ban is in the segment that did not support the coalition's own proposal. However, O’Ban said he might support some type of gas tax increase if the GOP's proposed transportation reforms are also adopted. He said he wants the deadlock resolved in order to lay groundwork to widen the routinely-clogged Interstate Highway 5 next to Joint Base Lewis McChord.

Green argued that the Republican insistence on installing reforms in the Washington Department of Transportation before considering a gas tax hike is disingenuous, because it pushes the hard questions about meeting transportation needs out for an indefinite time. "Everyone hates the gas tax. But the bottom line is that we don't have any other alternatives," Green said.

On global warming, O'Ban said he would have to see Inslee's specific carbon-emissions proposals before declaring a position on them. "Whatever we do, it's has to be a balanced approach. It can't hurt job creation," O'Ban said.

With the 28th District bordering Puget Sound, Green believes climate change measures need to be tackled, especially with increasingly acidic sea water harming the Sound's shellfish industry. She supports the broad concept of Inslee's climate change agenda, but wants to wait for details before voicing more specific opinions.

Voters’ opinions here will go a long way toward determining how the Legislature as a whole deals with all those questions.


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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 johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8