Callaghan: Election activity freeze period chills out challengers

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

There was a time in Washington when legislators facing re-election had to stop taking advantage of taxpayer-funded staff and resources three weeks before they filed for office.

No press releases written by public information officers. No updates to their official website. No staff-written letters to the editor or op-ed columns. No town hall meetings or field hearings in their districts.

The reason such a time existed is because there was a time before that when using taxpayer-funded staff on re-election campaigns was commonplace. Partisan staff hired by the four legislative political caucuses (House and Senate Democrats; House and Senate Republicans) were chosen for their campaign skills and fired if they refused to do what is now — and was then — illegal.

The freeze on campaign activity was included in Joint House-Senate Standards of Conduct that were just one part of a 1992 stipulated agreement between the Public Disclosure Commission and the legislative caucuses to settle findings of widespread violations of law. The caucuses were fined $100,000 each, and six top staffers were fined $2,500. In the aftermath, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars were spent settling lawsuits by former staffers fired or demoted for refusing to do campaign work on the clock.

Twenty-two years later, however, the standards on use of state resources during legislative campaigns have been weakened — inadvertently perhaps, but weakened nonetheless. That’s because the Legislature moved up the date of the state’s primary election from the third Tuesday of September to the first Tuesday of August but failed to change the date — June 30 — when the election-year activity freeze begins.

Incumbent advantage

Failing to update the start of the freeze period has allowed partisan staffers to continue to use state resources to benefit incumbents seeking election long after they have become official candidates. Senate Republicans have taken the most advantage.

“Federal order on oil-train transports doesn’t go far enough to address top safety concerns,” stated the press release for state Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale. “Medal of Honor recipient talks ‘true character’ at Lakes High School in Lakewood,” said a press release about Sen. Steve O’Ban’s appearance at a ceremony last week. “EWU expands Spokane presence at Riverpoint — Baumgartner’s leadership on transfer instrumental in Senate,” was the headline on a release for Michael Baumgartner.

All three are running for Senate seats considered up for grabs. All three are vital to the GOP retaining control of the Senate.

Hunter Goodman, the chief administrative officer of the Senate, said he has been trying to enforce the freeze period rules since the May filing period. For example, he said he denied the use of a staff photographer at the Lakes High School ceremony and another to honor Seahawks player Jermaine Kearse.

But under current policy, Senate partisan staff do not have to seek his approval for press releases or district events until June 30. It is only then, according to Senate policy, that “many routine member activities are presumed to be election-related.”

“This is something we need to address,” Goodman said of the start date. “We don’t want to create a competitive disadvantage” for challengers of incumbents. Goodman said he would bring the issue up the next time the Senate’s administrative committee meets.

It’s not as though the Legislature hasn’t had time or opportunity to fix the freeze period. The primary was moved to the third Tuesday of August in 2006 and to the first Tuesday of August in 2011. Part of the problem is that 1992 was a long time ago. A handful of current staffers and two current legislators were around back then. It is easy, then, to conclude that the scandal didn’t happen or at least couldn’t happen today.

But the temptations to seek any edge possible will always be there, especially when the stakes — party control of the House and Senate — are so high.