WA lieutenant governor candidates try to stand out in debate

State Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck both are seeking to become the second-in-line to Washington's governor. 

Marko Liias and Denny Heck during debate

State Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood (left) and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, debate each other at the TVW studio in Olympia. The candidates were recorded in separate rooms as a precaution because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two Democrats with long careers working in government fought to distinguish themselves from one another Thursday as they debated who should be Washington’s next lieutenant governor. 

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, and state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, squared off at the Olympia studios of TVW, the state public affairs network Heck co-founded more than 25 years ago. During the hour-long debate they agreed on many topics and even skipped several opportunities to rebut each other.

But the two men did spar over who has done the best job of providing Washington residents and businesses with targeted relief from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as who is best qualified to preside over the state Senate in a fair and effective manner. 

Heck, 68, emphasized his decades of experience, saying he would be a steady hand as Washington’s No. 2 executive. The job involves not only presiding over the state Senate, but also filling in as acting governor when the governor is out of state. Many past lieutenant governors also have engaged in international trade missions and other projects as part of the job.

In addition to serving the last eight years in Congress, Heck spent nearly a decade in the state House in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, including a stint as House majority leader. He later served as chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner in the early 1990s, and co-founded TVW, Washington’s version of C-SPAN, in 1993.

Heck said that resume makes him the candidate “with the depth and breadth of experience that will come in handy as we deal with these problems,” referring largely to the crippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think there are a lot of problems here that I can bring my experience to bear in helping our state move forward,” Heck said.

Liias, 39, said he would use the lieutenant governor’s office to help enact “bold, transformational changes,” including working to expand public health care. One of his goals is to move the state toward a universal, single-payer healthcare system. Liias said he would advance such policies through the lieutenant governor’s role chairing the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which decides which bills advance to the Senate floor.  

The two Democrats both advanced to the Nov. 3  general election after outperforming nine other candidates — including five Republicans — in the August primary. In Washington’s top-two primary system, the two candidates who win the most votes in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

There’s a chance the lieutenant governor’s job could become more high profile next year. If Democrat Joe Biden wins the presidency, many have speculated that current Washington Gov. Jay Inslee could be in line for a federal cabinet position. If Inslee is re-elected next month and later vacates the position to take a federal job, whoever is elected lieutenant governor would serve as governor for most of 2021, until a November special election can be held. 

Both candidates said if that situation arose, they wouldn’t run for governor in November 2021.

“I am not seeking this office as a retirement job, or as a springboard to higher office,” said Liias, in a subtle jab at Heck, who announced he was retiring from Congress in late 2019. Months later, Heck decided to run for lieutenant governor after the incumbent, Democratic Cyrus Habib, decided to not seek re-election.

During the debate, Heck said he was retiring from Congress due to what he views as a toxic environment in Washington, D.C., but that he never said he had lost his passion for public service or working in state government.

The greatest contrast between the candidates emerged during a discussion about coronavirus relief. Liias touted his work in the state Legislature to pass $200 million in “immediate COVID relief” funds in March, which he said was carefully targeted to hospitals, nursing homes and buying personal protective equipment.

Liias contrasted that with the coronavirus relief package that Heck and other members of Congress passed earlier this year, which Liias said featured “a $500 billion slush fund that has bailed out private jet makers.” At one point, Liias said a business Heck is part owner of received some of the bailout funds, a charge Heck denied.

Heck said that the accusation from Liias showed that the younger lawmaker wouldn’t be able to preside over the Senate effectively, given a Senate rule that state senators cannot “impugn the motives” of other senators.

“He just impugned my motives,” Heck said, adding, “I think how you campaign is how you will govern.”

Heck was elected in 2012 to represent Washington’s 10th Congressional District, which includes Olympia and parts of Pierce and Mason Counties. 

Liias, meanwhile, served three years on the Mukilteo City Council before joining the state Legislature in 2008. He spent about six years in the state House before moving to the state Senate in 2014. 

Like Heck, Liias also began his career in elected office at the age of 24. 

Liias noted he would be the first openly gay person elected to state executive office. One of the policies Liias championed in the Legislature was a measure banning therapists from trying to change a minor’s sexual orientation using so-called “conversion therapy.” 

During the debate, Heck emphasized the knowledge of trade and international affairs he gained in Congress, including his work to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which helps finance the export of U.S. goods overseas.

The two candidates agreed on the need to increase funding for education and expand help to small businesses, as well as to reform the state’s tax code, which both said was unacceptably regressive because it burdens the poor more than the rich. They also agreed on the need to respect the sovereignty and treaty rights of Native tribes.

“I think Sen. Liias said it well,” Heck said during the discussion about tribal rights, when given an opportunity to rebut the state senator.

A Republican, Joshua Freed, is staging a write-in campaign for lieutenant governor, but didn’t appear as part of the debate Thursday, as his name isn’t on the ballot for the position.

Freed was one of 35 challengers who filed to run against Inslee this year, but was eliminated in the primary, causing Republicans to rally around him as a write-in option for lieutenant governor instead.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.