Republicans in the state House are trying to trip up a Democratic candidate by tying her to a Puyallup controversy over where freed inmates should be allowed to live.
A television ad that began airing days before Tuesday’s primary election connects halfway houses to a vote taken in 2009 by former Rep. Dawn Morrell.
Morrell, a Puyallup nurse, is trying to return to Olympia two years after being defeated. She faces Republican Shelly Schlumpf, who leads the local chamber of commerce, in the general election for a 25th district House seat.
The ads are created by a political committee called Working Families for Change, a group that is funded entirely by a political committee run by House Republicans. It’s directed by GOP consultant Brett Bader.
Morrell called it “sleazy politics” and said she feels “set up” by Republicans attacking her for voting in favor of Republican-sponsored legislation.
WHAT THE AD SAYS
The ad shows pictures of Morrell and Senate Bill 5525, which the narrator describes as “a law allowing group homes for sex offenders and convicted criminals in our neighborhoods, with little regard for nearby schools and families.”
“And Dawn Morrell voted to use our tax dollars to help pay their rent. And now they’re ready to move in.”
Next to Morrell’s picture, the screen shows headline-style text describing the local dustup over group homes, such as “South Puyallup neighbors try to prevent ‘halfway house’” and “Concerns of South Puyallup ignored as state pushes ahead.”
Morrell, too, has questions about a proposed home for veterans on Shaw Road that might house inmates. “I have six grandkids. I live a half a mile from the place. I think that the community’s questions really need to be answered,” she said in an interview.
But she defends her vote to allow rent vouchers for newly released inmates. “They can keep them in prison at $97 a day or we can give them $15 a day for three months to go somewhere,” Morrell said. The alternative, she said: “They break into your house because they don’t have any place to be or any money.”
Bader said the law made it easier for halfway houses to exist in communities.
Neighbors are protesting Larry Parson’s proposal to turn his newly purchased house on Shaw Road into a shared living space for veterans. The neighbors are worried about felons and sex offenders moving in.
Parson says nothing has been decided, but acknowledges it’s a possibility. He has talked to the state Department of Corrections about having his house authorized as a place for newly released inmates to live, and to the founder of a local housing program for inmates leaving prison.
State rent vouchers could be used to pay the rent on Shaw Road. Parson said he doesn’t know if that will happen. He hasn’t yet talked to DOC about payment, he said.
Under SB 5525, DOC can give an inmate a voucher of up to $500 a month for up to three months for state-approved living arrangements.
To qualify, inmates must be under DOC supervision while receiving the vouchers and must agree to participate in some kind of transitional programs, such as educational or employment training or treatment for sex offenders, addicts or people who have mental illness. They must be at risk of staying in prison past their normal release date without the rent aid.
Morrell voted in favor of the vouchers. The law was sponsored by a Republican, Lakewood Sen. Mike Carrell, and had bipartisan support in the Senate and in House committee. However, Republicans opposed it on the floor of the House, saying the state sends the wrong message by paying rent for offenders when others are struggling.
The law doesn’t say anything about group homes or halfway houses. It’s not “a law allowing group homes,” as the ad labels it.
It didn’t change the rules for the kinds of places DOC can approve as residences for supervised ex-inmates, or say whether they had to live in group or individual settings or with family or friends. Nor did the law affect the local codes that govern how many people can live together.
It’s true, however, that the funding source created by the law could make it easier for residents to afford to live in such houses and for landlords to rent to them.
Kevin Carns, political director of the House Republican Organizational Committee, acknowledged the wording might need some work but said the distinction amounts to splitting hairs.
Carns said in an email: “The ad is completely factual, halfway houses were allowed prior and are allowed and encouraged under this legislation. If Dawn Morrell would like a clarification we would be happy to swap the word allowed for (the word) encouraged and re-run the ad.
Bottom line, Dawn Morrell voted to use taxpayer money to house predators in your community.”
It’s worth noting that the group home that has stirred up a storm in Puyallup is more hypothetical than the imminent threat portrayed in the ad. Inmates aren’t “ready to move in” there.
DOC says an official visited the home to give advice, but no application to house prisoners there has been submitted.
After the ad began airing, the house’s future became even more cloudy. Responding to neighbors’ complaints, the Puyallup City Council last week passed a temporary ban on halfway houses in residential areas.
The ad is correct that Morrell voted to allow the use of tax dollars to pay released inmates’ rent.
The claim that she voted for a law allowing group homes for criminals is false. The law didn’t change any rules about where former prisoners could live.
Rent vouchers could indirectly encourage halfway houses, so there is a connection between the law and the kind of proposal being floated in Puyallup – albeit one that is exaggerated in the firstname.lastname@example.org