The bare-knuckle brawl that has become Tacoma’s 27th Legislative District senate race has witnessed an onslaught of escalating attacks: punches, counter-punches and counter-punches to the counter-punches, and a historic campaign financing feat.
In one corner, Jeannie Darneille – a six-term state representative – is banking on a staunchly liberal voting record as a social services champion and support from some of her big-name partisan friends to carry her to victory.
“Moving to the Senate has a lot to do with experience, and I have it,” Darneille said. “I know all of the players, and I’ve built relationships over time.”
In the other corner, Jack Connelly – a renowned trial lawyer – has smashed a state record for self-funding in a legislative contest and used it to fuel an advertising blitz to pound out his message that Darneille is out of step with her constituency.
“I don’t think my opponent has a lot to show for being in the Legislature for 12 years,” Connelly said. “But I do believe she’s controlled by special interests.”
Both candidates are Democrats – but with big distinctions. And both have made Darneille’s legislative record the centerpiece of their respective campaigns seeking to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Regala.
It’s an uphill battle for Connelly, whom Darneille bested 58 percent to 42 percent in the primary, and who tilts conservative on key social issues in what’s now one of Washington’s most liberal districts. But both candidates agree: The primary’s outcome means little now, in a race entering uncharted financial territory in Washington’s elections landscape.
The 27th’s post-redistricting lines are nearly identical to the old ones, only now they’re even more Tacoma-centric. Gone from the 27th is Fife, replaced by a new chunk of Tacoma on the district’s southeastern fringe. With more than 63 percent of voters choosing blue candidates in four recent races, the new 27th ranks as the seventh most Democrat-leaning district among 49 in Washington.
Connelly, 56, lists as top issues job and economic growth, improving education and public safety. He says Darneille has failed in all of those areas by ignoring local business leaders and by voting to cut education funding and against key public safety measures.
“Our focus is not in the right area,” Connelly said. “We need to focus on building Tacoma and on building business and small businesses here.”
Connelly said he supports funding the state Route 167 extension project to help spur the economy and create needed infrastructure to keep up with expanding business in the Port of Tacoma.
On education, Connelly said more emphasis is needed on early childhood education programs. He also favors expanding innovative public school programs, such as Tacoma’s School of the Arts and Science and Math Institute, over implementing a charter school system. “But I will listen to any idea on education,” he said.
Connelly cited his track record of successful lawsuits on behalf of families victimized by crime for helping improve public safety.
“In the Legislature, you can change policy on a wider scale,” he said. “And that’s what the goal would be – to keep doing some of the same work, but to do it on a wider scale.”
Among key distinctions between Connelly and Darneille are their opposing positions on two liberal litmus tests: abortion and gay marriage.
Connelly favors traditional marriage, saying he supports civil unions for same-sex couples. He likely would vote against allowing same-sex marriage if it came to a vote in the Legislature, he said.
“But I’ll support whatever the voters decide on (same-sex marriage Referendum 74).”
As a Catholic and father of nine, Connelly said he also opposes abortion.
“In our Legislature, we’re not going to overturn Roe v. Wade,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what this election is about. I know that Jeannie wants to make it about that.”
Darneille countered that such statements only underscore Connelly’s ignorance about legislative issues. She noted nearly 100 bills related to abortion and women’s reproductive rights were introduced in statehouses across the nation last year.
“Jack is nave to think that choice issues don’t come up in the Legislature,” she said. “It comes up in various bills, so many that it’s a smoke screen to say Roe v. Wade is protecting a woman’s right to choose.”
Darneille, who also supports same-sex marriage, noted her positions on abortion and gay marriage mirror the strong sentiment among district constituents.
“The differences in our politics on social issues are very stark,” she said. “I’m glad people are recognizing that.”
Darneille, 63, a mother of three grown children with a master’s in higher education, worked as executive director of the Pierce County AIDS Foundation and for other human services and higher education nonprofits before joining the Legislature in 2001.
She has since gravitated toward social issues and lists among her top issues strengthening education and “protecting the social safety net.”
“I try to be a voice for people who’ve not yet found a voice for themselves,” she said.
But Darneille added that she has moved beyond just championing social issues, noting she has taken on diverse committee assignments and ascended to co-chair of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.
Counter to Connelly’s recent ads, Darneille said she’s been a strong, progressive advocate for increasing public safety through supporting “evidence-based” measures proven to reduce recidivism.
She cited as examples her support of an eventually successful bill to reform the law for restoring felons’ voting rights, and a measure seeking to collect DNA for all felony crimes.
“I’m smart on crime,” she said. “We need be more scientific about our decision-making, so that when budgets are tight, you’re able to make decisions based on evidence, not knee-jerk reactions.”
Connelly’s self-funding, which accounts for $571,000 of his campaign’s $647,000 in contributions to date, also has forced Darneille to step up fundraising. She’s raised about $217,000 – none of it her own – from a mix of individuals and special interest groups.
Connelly says his self-funding isn’t trying to buy an election, but rather frees him from indebtedness to donors.
“There’s a freedom that comes with self-funding,” he said.
Darneille countered she’s an independent-thinker who attracts a broad range of support.
“I’ve never been beholden, ever,” she said. “To say I would be is preposterous.”
A LOOK AT THE 27TH DISTRICT SENATE CANDIDATES
Education: Bachelor’s in human biology, Stanford University; law degree, UC Hastings Law School.
Civic experience includes: Tacoma Rainiers ownership group; Washington State Association for Justice, former president; Tacoma Library Board, trustee; Martin Luther King Housing Development Association board of directors.
Total raised, spent: $646,507, $495,905.
Top donors include: Self-funding $571,100; Justice for All PAC, $1,800; Terry Lumsden of Tacoma, $1,800; Lincoln Beauregard of Seattle; $1,800; Brad Cheney of Tacoma, $1,600.
Occupation: State representative.
Education: bachelor’s degree, Western Washington University; master’s in education, Colorado State University. Civic experience includes: Pierce County Asset Building Coalition, founder; Associated Ministries, board member; Pierce County Human Services Coalition, former chairwoman; City of Tacoma Human Rights Commission, vice chair.
Total raised, spent: $217,185, $96,600.
Top donors include: Phyllis Izant of University Place, $3,600; Campaign for Tribal Self Reliance By WA Indian Gaming Association, $1,800; CenturyLink Washington PAC, $1,800; Premera Blue Cross, $1,800; Vigor Industrial LLC, $1,800.
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542