Democrat expected to win in 29th District
Two Tacoma Democrats who have spent much of their young lives working on political campaigns are running for the first time as candidates.
Ben Lawver, 34, and David Sawyer, 29, both want a seat in the state House. Both predict that only one of them will survive the Aug. 7 primary, leaving the winner as the heavy favorite against Republican Terry Harder this fall.
The 29th Legislative District has the largest population of racial and ethnic minorities of any in Pierce County. It favors Democrats, though less so since post-census changes that added voters from the fast-growing areas east of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The redrawing kept South Tacoma, eastern Lakewood and parts of Tacoma’s South End and Parkland in the district, which now stretches south to Spanaway and Frederickson.
The three candidates are running to succeed Rep. Connie Ladenburg, who is leaving in hopes of winning a seat on the Pierce County Council. The district’s other House member, Rep. Steve Kirby, faces no opposition for a seventh term. Ladenburg and Kirby are helping Sawyer, while the district’s senator, Steve Conway, has sided with Lawver. All the lawmakers are members of the Democratic majorities.
“I see that race as kind of an opportunity to start a new generation of young people” representing the area in Olympia,” Kirby said.
FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS
Their allies match their backgrounds. Trial lawyers and business groups have contributed to Sawyer, a law clerk and the co-owner with Ladenburg’s husband, John, of a firm that does lobbying and advocacy. Lawver comes out of the labor movement, where he has done lobbying, advocacy and campaign work and until recently was a field representative for the AFL-CIO. Unions account for most of the biggest campaign contributions to Lawver, who also has support from environmental groups and is leading in fundraising.
Lawver is well-versed in legislative issues after pushing as Washington State Labor Council political director for the group’s goals, including public-works projects and a ban on employers holding mandatory meetings to press their political views.
“I think (Lawver) has a broader understanding of what the issues are, and of course that comes from his length of time having worked with them,” former state Sen. Rosa Franklin of Tacoma said. But she has not endorsed either candidate and said of Sawyer, “I think he’ll be a quick learner.”
Lawver learned about a key state program from personal experience. Diagnosed with cancer at age 22, he said he depended on the state’s Basic Health Plan, state-subsidized insurance for people whose incomes are low but not low enough to qualify them for Medicaid.
“The state picked up the tab. I stopped counting the doctor bills when they broke $300,000,” he said. It took surgeries, chemotherapy and other procedures to beat lymphoma. “If that happened to someone today they’d be put on a waiting list and probably die.”
Lawmakers have limited the rolls of the program as part of recent budget cuts and now are waiting for the federal health care law’s expansion of Medicaid in 2014 to pick up the slack.
Sawyer campaigned around the country in 2008 for then-candidate Barack Obama, including in Iowa, Obama’s first victory on the way to the presidency.
“He’s actually a pretty seasoned campaigner for somebody his age,” Kirby said.
As a clerk at Ladenburg Law, he has worked on lawsuits involving injury claims against businesses and claims of wrongful foreclosure against banks. And at Ladenburg Law Governmental Affairs, he has represented Tacoma’s Safe Streets in trying to maintain funding from the Legislature.
Sawyer is studying to be a lawyer, but not through the conventional means of attending law school. Instead, he is essentially apprenticing. He’s a year into a four-year program overseen by the state bar association, which enrolls 45 to 60 law clerks in the state at any given time, according to the association.
“There’s no way you learn better than mentorship and practicing,” Sawyer said. Compared with law school students, “The difference is I spend $5,000 instead of $170,000.”
Sawyer and Lawver both speak sympathetically about the rising tuition costs triggered by the Legislature’s cuts to colleges. “Basically, it’s our generation that’s struggling the most,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer and Lawver have few clear differences on policy issues, which may be the reason that their residences and work are becoming campaign issues.
HOME AND WORK
Sawyer accuses Lawver of moving to the 29th district simply to run for the seat.
Sawyer tells voters about the recent move during doorbelling, and it’s one of the first things he brings up in an interview: “My opponent’s trying to use our community for his own political gain. He moved here four months ago, and he’s going to have to explain that to folks.” And his supporter Kirby says he told Lawver, “carpetbagging doesn’t go over real well in this district.”
Lawver counters: “I’m kind of flattered that Sawyer has to talk about me and not about what he’s going to do. I think that’s a good position to be in.”
No one seems to be disputing that Lawver has lived in the Tacoma area most of his adult life. But until recently, he lived about a mile and a half north of the district on South 7th Street. He says he moved out of that house in January and into an apartment near the Tacoma Mall after the house, bought with his ex-wife at the peak of the housing market, became too expensive to keep on a single income.
Pierce County doesn’t have a record of him registering as a voter in the 29th district until this year, in records that date to 2002. But Lawver says while he moved frequently, he lived in the district for a collective total of roughly four to five years during the decade between graduating from high school in Colville and buying the house.
Sawyer, who grew up in Puyallup, has been registered to vote in the district since February 2010.
“David has not been in the district that long,” said Pierce County Councilman Tim Farrell, a Lawver supporter from the neighboring 27th district, “and to basically attack his opponent for just having moved there
that’s not a line of attack I would make.”
Court records show Lawver’s central Tacoma home is up for a foreclosure auction July 27, but Lawver says it’s expected to sell before then; he is in the final steps of negotiating with a buyer. He says the stress of unaffordable house payments left him with an understanding of the problems faced by other homeowners.
As for their work histories: Lawver objects to Sawyer, who is not an attorney, telling voters he makes a living “representing” clients suing big banks. That’s what Sawyer says in the voter pamphlet, but he also says he is a law clerk and studying to be a lawyer.
A former intern on Lawver’s campaign, Chad Harper of Tacoma, filed a complaint against Sawyer with the bar association over the characterization, but the association said it only investigates grievances against lawyers.
Sawyer said his work includes researching, drafting complaints and talking to clients.
FUNDING AND TAXES
Lawver said cuts in state government have gone far enough. Government workers “have really stepped up to the plate” by taking reductions in pay, health and retirement benefits, he said.
Lawmakers need to find new tax revenue, he said. While they raised taxes in 2010 and scaled back a tax exemption for banks this year, Lawver said there are still scads of exemptions that need rethinking, such as for private airplanes and club memberships.
Sawyer wants to put more money into education and calls for universal preschool. But he’s not sold on the need for new revenue to pay for it. He doesn’t want to rule out that the state can find other ways to save money, he said, such as by combining agencies.
But he said he would support tax reform that would shift more of the tax burden to the rich from the lower and middle classes.
Sawyer said he is fine with asking voters if they want to raise transportation taxes to fund projects such as state Route 167, Interstate 5 improvements and a cross-base highway.
The cross-base road at JBLM is the biggest proposed project that would affect the district, and Lawver said he would support it, too, as long as it’s built to accommodate mass transit, bicycles and other forms of transportation.
Rather than endorse putting transportation taxes on the ballot, though, Lawver said he wants to first examine how the funding from previous measures he supported has been spent. He does want to give local governments more ability to raise transportation revenue on their own.
Though the district is more socially conservative than its Democratic tilt would indicate, both Sawyer and Lawver support same-sex marriage rights.
A native of the area, Harder, 61, embraces the gap between the ages of the candidates.
“As you’ve been around awhile and have had a few jobs and have had those life experiences, it’s pretty hard not to learn,” he said.
Harder is a business consultant with Staples, selling products to small business. He previously owned his own computer-repair company and founded a group doing activities in support of the armed forces.
He also has worked for U.S. Bank, where he helped make loans to small businesses. Reading companies’ financial documents there made him aware of the mountains of regulations they have to meet, he said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire did well to put a moratorium on new rules, he said, but that should be only a start. Rules made redundant by corresponding federal regulations should be eliminated, he said.
He says schools should be funded separately before every other area of spending, a common refrain of House Republicans. He wants Washington to allow charter schools and go further to allow money to follow students to private schools – much like a voucher system, although he says vouchers have not worked in places where they have been tried because parents don’t get the full amount of money they should be owed.
He said the state’s business-and-occupation tax is ripe for changes. Washington has the second-highest rate of business closures in the nation, he said. But he argued against tax increases on the wealthy, saying that would hit small businesses.
All tax increases should go to a public vote, he said. He also said he supports putting a transportation tax increase before voters and echoes the other candidates’ support for the cross-base highway.
Kirby and Conway defeated Harder in his previous campaigns for the Legislature. He acknowledges he was tilting at windmills in those runs but says he thinks his luck could be better going for an open seat.
He has not raised much money for his campaign. But he figures that if he wins more than 40 percent of the primary vote against two hard-working candidates, Republicans might start contributing.
With the Democrats in a dispute over residency, how long has Harder lived in the district? “Longer than both of them have been alive,” he said.
29th Legislative District
Occupation: Business consultant.
Education: Associate degree in electronics, Bates Technical College.
Civic experience: Co-founder, Operation Support Our Troops; chairman, Northwest division of the Washington State Army Advisory Board; Republican precinct committee officer.
Total raised/spent*: $151/$147.
Top donors: Not reported because fundraising falls below a reporting threshold.
Occupation: Former senior field representative, AFL-CIO.
Education: Graduated from Colville High School (including some college credit through Running Start); completed program at the National Labor College.
Civic experience: Co-founder, Washington Bus; former political director, Washington State Labor Council; former interim executive director, Senate Democratic Campaign Committee; volunteer, Rebuilding Together South Sound; volunteer, United Way.
Total raised/spent*: $45,381 (including $900 in personal funds)/ $30,544.
Top donors: Jamila Johnson of Seattle, $1,800; Washington Machinists Council, $1,800; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77, $1,000; Service Employees International Union 1199NW, $900; SEIU Healthcare 775 NW, $900; Washington Education Association PAC, $900.
Occupation: Law clerk, Ladenburg Law; co-owner, Ladenburg Law Governmental Affairs.
Education: Bachelor of Arts, political science, Central Washington University. Bachelor of Arts, geography and land studies, Central Washington University. Participating in Washington State Bar Association Admission to Practice Rule 6 Law Clerk Program.
Civic experience: Former board member, Project U; volunteer, Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Total raised/spent*: $34,864.25/ $22,819.15.
Top donors: Northwest Credit Union Association, $1,800; Paul Brainerd of Seattle, $900; Justice for All PAC, $900; Nisqually Indian Tribe, $900; David Vail of Lakewood, $900; Paula Vail of Lakewood, $900; Washington Beverage Association, $900; WashBank PAC, $900. *As of July 17, source: Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.