County’s politics may see shake-up

Many statewide, local races still too close to call as candidates rally

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Whatever happens Tuesday, the 2010 midterm election will change Clark County’s political landscape.

For the first time in a dozen years, voters will elect a new member of Congress to represent Southwest Washington, choosing between state Rep. Jaime Herrera, a 31-year-old Republican who has served three years in the Legislature, and 58-year-old Democrat Denny Heck, a successful business entrepreneur who served in the Legislature for eight years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Voters will fill two open seats in the Washington House of Representatives and decide whether to return three Democratic incumbents — two in the 49th District, one in the 17th — to the Legislature or replace then with Republicans.

Statewide, they’ll decide whether to return Democratic Sen. Patty Murray to the U.S. Senate for a fourth six-year term or send Republican Dino Rossi to Washington, D.C.

Clark County voted for Rossi in the 2004 and 2008 governor’s races, and like the 2004 contest, this year’s Senate race has been an expensive cliff-hanger that remains too close to call. Murray, who brought Vice President Joe Biden to Vancouver to campaign for her this month, was leading by 5 points in a new poll released Friday.

In local races, voters will choose a new member of the Vancouver City Council, a new Clark County prosecuting attorney and a new county assessor. They’ll decide whether to give Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart a second full term and whether to keep incumbent Sheriff Garry Lucas and county treasurer Doug Lasher.

Statewide, voters will decide a raft of state ballot measures, including initiatives that would establish a state income tax for high earners; limit the Legislature’s ability to raise taxes; privatize state liquor sales; and give businesses the option to buy private industrial insurance instead of coverage administered by the Department of Labor and Industries.

They’ll weigh in on whether to repeal sales taxes on candy, bottled water and carbonated beverages enacted by the 2010 Legislature to help fill a budget hole. A new Washington Poll indicates that repeal of the taxes is likely, which would deepen the fiscal hole facing the 2011 Legislature.

Finally, voters will decide whether to authorize the state to sell $505 million in bonds to pay for energy efficient projects in schools. Supporters say the measure would yield big energy savings for school districts and generate thousands of jobs.

Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state’s top election official, predicts that two-thirds of the state’s 3.6 million registered voters, nearly 2.4 million, will take part in Tuesday’s election, the highest participation rate since 1970. Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey is forecasting a 61 percent ballot return in Clark County. As of Friday, 34 percent of registered voters in the county had returned their ballots, and candidates in every race were staging last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts.

“The voters are wide awake and paying attention,” Reed said last week. “This is being called a ‘wave’ or ‘change’ election across the country, and here in Washington, we have a hot Senate race that some pollsters say is too close to call and congressional seats that both parties are targeting. We also have six initiatives and record spending, which fuels a lot of attention and airtime. We have great local elections and legislative and judicial races. Top to bottom, it’s a very compelling election.”

David Ammons, former veteran political reporter for The Associated Press and now Reed’s communications director, said the 2010 midterms could be a political watershed.

“We’ve seen the rise of big money, special interest money” in campaigns to privatize liquor sales, repeal taxes on pop and bottled water, and allow businesses to buy workers’ compensation insurance on the private market, Ammons said.

“If the business lobby and other people with deep pockets are able to succeed in bypassing the Legislature, this may be a new trend,” Ammons said.

The election also could also worsen the state’s latest budget crisis by limiting the Legislature’s options. For example, passage of anti-tax activist Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1053, which would reinstate a requirement that any tax increase win a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, would give the 2011 Legislature no choice but to pass an all-cuts budget.

“Even the conservatives might wonder if they want to cut that deeply,” Ammons said.

U.S. Senate and House

At the top of the ballot, the new Washington Poll released Friday showed Rossi closing the gap in the Senate race, with 45 percent of the vote to Murray’s 49 percent. A poll conducted a few weeks ago by the same University of Washington-based pollsters gave Murray an eight-point lead.

The contest is on the national radar because it could help decide who controls the U.S. Senate in 2011.

Locally, the 3rd Congressional District race to succeed six-term U.S. Rep. Brian Baird has been the highest-profile race as well as the most expensive ever in the 3rd District. Counting spending by Republican-leaning “independent” groups, political action committees, political parties and the campaigns themselves, at least $5.5 million has been spent to influence the race.

Herrera and Heck survived the August top-two primary and have been campaigning hard across the district ever since. Negative ads funded by their campaigns and outside groups have flooded the airwaves on Portland TV for weeks.

However, the candidates never held a face-to-face debate in Clark County, which is home to about half the district’s registered voters. They did debate live in Longview, and in a forum taped by KGW-TV. In those face-offs, they sharply disagreed over the number-one issue in a region with persistent high unemployment: The proper role of government in creating middle-class jobs to help lift the region out of recession.

Heck supports an activist role for government, with federal tax breaks for small businesses, tax incentives to get credit flowing again, and strategic investments in manufacturing and green energy. He spent five weeks this fall touring the district and meeting with business owners, bank executives and others to better understand the challenges facing businesses.

Herrera, echoing the positions of the House Republican leadership, favors repeal of the national health reform bill, has called for defunding the unspent portion of the federal job stimulus bill, and says the answer to the nation’s economic woes lies in sharp reductions in federal spending — though she also favors extension of all the Bush administration tax cuts. The government should not pick “winners and losers,” she says, but instead let businesses succeed or fail on their merits in a free-market economy.

Each candidate has tried to tie the other to the record of his or her respective political party. The Herrera campaign has dug up Heck’s legislative votes on taxes and spending from the early 1980s. Over the past two weeks, each campaign has challenged the other to take stands on specific issues. The Herrera campaign has demanded to know where Heck stands on cap and trade legislation. Heck’s campaign wants to know where exactly she would cut the federal budget.

Both candidates have stayed on message rather than respond to their rivals’ questions.

A King 5/SurveyUSA poll released Wednesday showed the lead Herrera has held throughout the general election campaign has dwindled to four points, within the poll’s margin of error, which means the race could now be a dead heat.

“I like our chances,” Heck told the Longview Daily News last week. “I’m full of cautious optimism.”

Herrera spokesman Casey Bowman said Herrera “hasn’t taken this race for granted for a second” and would continue to meet as many voters as possible through Election Day.

State Legislature

In Clark County legislative races, all three Democratic incumbents seeking reelection — Reps. Jim Moeller and Jim Jacks in the heavily Democratic 49th District, and Rep. Tim Probst in the 17th, a swing district — face aggressive challenges from Republicans.

Health care administrator Craig Riley is running hard to unseat Moeller, a four-term House member and former Vancouver city councilman. Bill Cismar, who has an extensive background in the technology field, hopes to unseat Jacks, a one-term legislator who has worked as a mediator for the city and as Gov. Chris Gregoire’s representative to Southwest Washington.

Gas station owner Brian Peck, a Republican who, like Cismar, is running his first political race, outpolled Probst, a Democratic moderate and rising star in the Legislature, in the August primary. Probst, who has consistently voted against tax increases, has denounced TV ads run by the Peck campaign that accuse him of voting for the largest state budget in history. With both political parties pouring money into the race, the Peck-Probst contest is the most expensive in Clark County.

Two open seats also are up for grabs. In the 17th District, Democrat Monica Stonier, a middle school teacher, and Republican businessman Paul Harris are battling to succeed state Rep. Deb Wallace, a Democrat.

In the strongly Republican-leaning 18th District seat, which is being vacated by Herrera, Republican consultant Ann Rivers is running against Democrat Dennis Kampe, the director of the Clark County Skills Center. State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, is running unopposed for reelection to the other 18th District seat.

Although Republicans are expected to gain seats in the Washington Legislature, former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance is among those predicting that the minority party won’t wrest control from Democrats in either the House or the Senate this year.

Prosecuting attorney

For the first time in decades, Clark County voters will elect a new prosecuting attorney. Art Curtis, who has held the post for 29 years, is stepping down, and two candidates with sharply different agendas and backgrounds are vying to replace him.

Democrat Tony Golik, a major crimes deputy prosecutor, has handled some of the county’s most high-profile criminal cases and is running on his record as a seasoned trial attorney. He’s been endorsed by Curtis as well as by his fellow deputy prosecutors and all law enforcement agencies in Clark County.

Republican Brent Boger, a senior assistant Vancouver city attorney on the civil side, is campaigning on the diversity of his legal background. He has criticized the way the prosecutor’s office is being run.

Golik points out that Boger has never taken a case to trial in Washington and has virtually no criminal law experience. The race has turned into a heated battle over what kind of background is most useful in a job that involves both prosecuting crimes and handling the county’s civil litigation.

Vancouver City Council

The race for nonpartisan Vancouver City Council Position 4 remains an enigma.

Bart Hansen, the incumbent, who was appointed to the seat in January, edged John Jenkins, his challenger, in the primary election, but one-fifth of voters who cast primary ballots didn’t choose any candidate.

Hansen has consistently voted against any budget cuts that would affect public safety, while Jenkins’ rallying cry is “no tolls, not this bridge.”

Hansen has raised three times as much as Jenkins, but Jenkins also has the backing of the NoTolls.com political action committee, which has spent more than $100,000 on radio ads and mailers for the anti-bridge toll candidates.

County commissioner

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, the only Democrat on the three-member commission, faces Alan Svehaug, a Republican whose campaign has been mostly financed by David Madore of NoTolls.com.

Stuart was appointed to the board in 2004 to fill an unexpired term and elected in ’05 to finish the term. The Clark County native won a new four-year term in 2006.

The heavily-endorsed Stuart said he understands the complexities of the job, which involves setting policy for 12 departments headed by directors and approving the budget for those departments as well as budgets for eight county departments headed by elected officials.

Svehaug, founder of Learning Excellence Corp., a speed-reading program, has campaigned against a proposal to place tolls on a replacement Interstate 5 bridge. He also said the county needs to be more accommodating to developers.

Other county races

Clark County Assessor Linda Franklin opted not to run for a third term, setting up a race between one of her employees, Janet Seekins, and Peter Van Nortwick, a self-employed appraiser who has been highly critical of assessments.

Seekins, a Democrat, said Van Nortwick, a Republican, doesn’t understand mass appraisal techniques.

The assessor supervises a total of 67 employees in the assessor’s office and the Geographic Information Systems department and a total two-year budget of approximately $12 million.

The job pays $92,364 a year, the same salary as that of the county auditor, treasurer and clerk.

Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher, a Democrat, is seeking his eighth term. He faces Republican Mike Appel, a purchasing agent for an insulation and exterior finishes distributor who has no financial management experience.

The treasurer manages an investment pool worth $480 million, has a two-year office budget of approximately $5 million and manages 25 employees.

Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas, a Republican, faces the same challenger he did four years ago: Democrat Timothy Shotwell, president of the jail custody officers’ guild. Lucas started with the department more than 40 years ago and ascended the ranks, culminating in his 1990 election.

Staff reporters Andrea Damewood, Laura McVicker and Stephanie Rice of The Columbian contributed to this report.