A series of recent campaign mailers and television spots from 27th Legislative District Senate candidate Jack Connelly attacks his opponent, fellow Tacoma Democrat and state Rep. Jeannie Darneille, for generally being soft on crime and supportive of criminals’ rights.
The ads feature family members of Meeka Willingham and Paula Joyce – two Tacoma residents separately killed during crimes committed by released felons who were still under state corrections’ supervision at the time of the deaths.
Connelly, a prominent trial lawyer, represented the families of both victims in separate negligence lawsuits against the state. Each family received more than $6 million in jury awards or settlements to resolve the cases.
With the victims’ family members voicing the claims about Darneille, Connelly’s ads cite Darneille’s votes on various bills to support contentions she consistently has voted to protect the rights of felons and sex offenders at the expense of public safety during her career in Olympia.
The claims: The TV spot featuring Willingham’s mother and sister makes two claims: that Darneille “twice sponsored bills to reduce the sentencing and supervision of violent felons and sex offenders;” and “when 95 of her peers voted to keep violent offenders off the streets, she alone voted for early release.”
A mailer that also features the Willingham family notes that Darneille sponsored a measure “to give felons a vote” and states she “voted to protect sex offenders and against SB 6184 designed to protect sex crime victims and to make sure that serious out-of-state sexual offense convictions could be used in sentencing.”
Except for the claims about Senate Bill 6184, the TV commercial and mailer featuring Joyce’s husband and daughter make the same assertions as the Willingham ads.
Both mailers also describe Darneille as a leading supporter of criminals’ “early release.”
All of the ads prominently cite Darneille’s “no” vote in 2001 against Senate Bill 5122, a measure to update the state’s civil commitment law for violent sexual predators, and her sponsorship last session of House Bills 2143 and 2144 to reduce sentences and supervision of criminals, as part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed cuts to corrections.
Connelly, when contacted about the ads, provided a list of 14 other bills that he said also support his claims.
The facts: In 2001, Darneille cast the lone “no” vote against SB 5122, a measure that sought to clarify and update the state’s civil commitment law for sexually violent predators due to a 2000 court ruling. Passed 95-1, the measure attempted in part to close a loophole related to potential defenses for early release by sex offenders.
The measure was among several bills dealing with civil commitment issues – including establishing a sex offender halfway house on McNeil Island – during the legislative session.
In 2012, Darneille, as vice chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, co-sponsored at Gregoire’s request HB 2143 and 2144, calling for reduced sentencing and supervision of state inmates, including sex offenders. Darneille did not author either of the measures, which were part of Gregoire’s all-cuts state budget proposal.
Darneille’s committee gave the bills a hearing but did not vote on either bill, and they went no further. During the hearing, Darneille spoke favorably about some elements of 2143, saying it used a research-based approach to more fairly address sentencing for low-risk and high-risk criminals and reduce recidivism based on what she believed was “scientifically sound” data.
In 2008, Darneille was one of two representatives to vote against SB 6184 – a successful measure that added some out-of-state sex offenses to Washington’s three-strikes list.
In 2009, Darneille sponsored a successful measure to reform the state’s felon voting right law that ultimately was approved and passed into law.
What the candidates say:
Darneille said she voted against ESSB 5122 in 2001 to protest state efforts to site a facility for released sex offenders on McNeil Island, despite the local delegation’s ongoing concerns about Pierce County becoming a dumping grounds for criminals.
“It was a protest vote,” Darneille said. “I am certainly not opposed to any of the provisions of the bill in creating a legal process to hold somebody past the time of their prison sentence, if it’s legal to do so. Knowing the bill was going to pass anyway, it was just a statement that there was a lack of any kind of serious discussion with our concerns.”
Darneille took umbrage with the ads’ depiction of her co-sponsorship of HB 2143 and 2144, the governor’s request bills. She contends that, as vice chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, she and committee Chairman Ross Hunter co-sponsored the measures simply as a procedural courtesy to introduce the governor’s budget proposal into the legislative process. Darneille said she did not support or vote for either bill, neither of which passed out of her committee. (Both Hunter and a spokesman for the governor supported her explanation).
Darneille defended her successful sponsorship to reform felon voting rights as one of several progressive measures she has supported to help thwart recidivism.
Connelly called the ads “100 percent accurate,” contending Darneille is simply ducking from a track record of “very odd votes” on public safety issues that are out of step with her constituents.
He said Darneille’s claims that her 2001 vote on ESSB 5122 was a “protest” vote with the Pierce delegation isn’t supported by the measure’s language, which dealt with early release conditions for sex offenders, not with the siting of a new facility. He also pointed out that no other Pierce County lawmaker took such a protest vote.
Regarding Darneille’s claims she co-sponsored HB 2143 and 2144 only as a “courtesy” to Gregoire, Connelly said: “A legislator should not be sponsoring bills that they don’t agree with. And she not only sponsored them, but advocated for the first one.”
Bottom line: Connelly’s ads provide factual statements about Darneille’s voting record and sponsorship of certain bills over her 12-year career as a lawmaker. They do not, however, provide context, which could affect how voters view those actions.
Whether Darneille’s votes and sponsorships support the ad’s conclusions – that she has “a record of being more interested in supporting criminals than law-abiding citizens” as one mailer states – is subject to interpretation.
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