In a changing Eastside, who will control the state Senate?
The maze of a suburban cul-de-sac with one road curving into another had Rituja Indapure slightly lost.
A candidate for Sammamish City Council, Indapure was out hitting her turf, knocking on as many doors as possible before the dinner hour began. Visiting with voters, Indapure, an Indian immigrant who has made the Eastside home for the last 25 years, also took time to talk about the high-stakes 45th District state Senate special election unfolding on the Eastside, including parts of Sammamish.
The outcome of the 45th District fight is crucial to Republican control of the state Senate, which rests on a one-vote margin. Republicans’ control of the Senate has allowed them to bargain as equals with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on the budget and major state legislation.
In the Aug. 1 primary, two high-profile — and high-spending — first time candidates who reflect the district’s growing diversity are battling it out, attempting to build momentum before they face off in November. Indapure supports a fellow Indian-American, Manka Dhingra, a King County senior prosecutor running as a Democrat against Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, a former staffer for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the daughter of Korean immigrants. A third candidate, Parker Harris, a private school teacher, is running a shoestring campaign aiming to tap into constituents’ frustration with both parties.
Washington State Republican Party Chairman Susan Hutchison predicted $10 million could be spent during the fight to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond. By mid July, as primary ballots were reaching voters, over $1.9 million had been raised for the election, according to Washington State Public Disclosure Commission records.
In just the past five years, the Asian population in Sammamish has skyrocketed, growing over 300 percent according to Census data. The rapidly-changing demographic mix mirrors that of other nearby Eastside cities.
“We need to have a more representative government,” Indapure said. “And the onus is on people like me to be the voice of the community.” So, inspired by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s election as the first Indian-American member of Congress as well as the concern created by the election of President Donald Trump, she’s out campaigning for herself and offering her support to Dhingra.
As classical Indian music floated through the air, shoppers browsed booths scattered outside Sammamish City Hall. Many families lingered at the weekly farmers market, now in its 10th year, where products reflected the changing region. One booth offered residents henna tattoos while another specialized in Asian fruits and vegetables. Food trucks parked nearby sold dishes with Uzbek and Bombay roots to a city that was once a plateau covered in chicken farms and lumber mills overlooking Lake Sammamish.
A 2012 redrawing of the electoral maps placed a larger, more dense swath of Sammamish inside the 45th district, which also stretches across parts of Kirkland and Redmond and encompasses Duvall and Woodinville. Englund and Dhingra’s roots reflect the near tripling of the ethnic Asian population in the 45th district since 2000, when it stood at 8,679, to 2015’s total of 22,436.
The 45th remains one of the few purple districts left in the Puget Sound region, having consistently elected Republicans to the state Senate although residents rejected President Donald Trump by more than 2-to-1.
In November’s aftermath, a handful of community groups have sprung up, established by stunned residents disappointed with the outcome of the presidential election and wanting to do more. Many of them were becoming politically active for the first time.
Om Sharma, a resident of the 45th district, has witnessed a gradual shift among many immigrants, from passive to active community members, over the last 25 years after moving to the United States for graduate school.
“I’ve seen a lot more people, from the Asian-American community and the Indian-American community, now look to how to give back to the state they have adopted,” Sharma said. “People have gotten to a point where they, in some sense, have grown up and are looking around to see what they can do for the community.”
Sharma is leaning toward the Democrat, Dhingra, despite voting for the late Republican, Hill, in the last election. Dhingra’s stance on education and involvement in the community are big draws for Sharma, as is Dhingra’s unwillingness to consider an income tax as a means of raising revenue.
Both candidates, in fact, oppose implementing an income tax to increase state revenues, with Englund making it a top issue for her campaign. With the Seattle City Council recently approving an income tax on the city’s highest earners, Englund’s strong opposition to the tax has resonated with many Republicans in Woodinville.
“The idea of it terrifies people. It just opens up another way for the government to dip their hands into our wallets — at a time when state revenues are at an all-time high,” said Dale Fonk, head of the 45th District Republicans.
“Without much increase in benefit,” another member chimed in, during the group’s monthly meeting inside a small white-clad church in Woodinville. “That’s the most important part. If you’re paying for something you value, that’s one thing; if you’re paying for something you don’t value that’s another.”
Dhingra called Englund's focus on opposing an income tax a scare tactic.
“An income tax is not even an honest conversation in this state; the only person talking about it is my Republican opponent,” Dhingra said. “Unless it comes down from the Supreme Court or from the people, it really is not a realistic conversation.”
Dhingra, who says new revenue is needed, supports implementing capital gains and polluter taxes while closing tax loopholes.
“We never went and fixed all the [budget] cuts that were made during the time of the recession,” she said.
“And now we are [at] a point of crisis,” she added, referring to the education as well as the mental health and criminal justice systems issues she has worked on for many years as a prosecutor. “If you want to take care of the population, you have to make sure you are investing in the population.”
Englund, who didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, kicked off her campaign in April, promising to work for better funding of education and improve policies for the developmentally disabled. And she emphasized her immigrant roots, calling her family “the embodiment of the American dream.”
The campaign website also describes Englund’s platform as “protecting Washingtonians from a new state income tax, fully funding education, reducing traffic congestion, and grounding skyrocketing car tabs.” In a video on the campaign’s Facebook page, Englund told residents, “I don’t believe it’s an elected official's job to push a partisan agenda, or frankly my own. The job is to hear from real people in our district and represent them.”
During an interview with Dori Monson of KIRO Radio, Englund said,“This isn’t just a state Senate race. This is a race for all Washingtonians.”
The conservative talk show host — who termed it "critical" to keep Democrats from controlling the Senate — replied, "It's control of Olympia."
That’s what has hundreds of Republican and Democratic contributors and volunteers, like Indapure, fired up about supporting their candidates.