Forget what you heard about 2017 being a ho-hum local election year. Control of the Washington Senate — and by extension, the balance of power in Olympia — could pivot in a few months, after special elections are held Nov. 7 for a handful of legislative seats.
Republicans rule the Senate by a slender vote. The safe bet is that they’ll lose their majority coalition, based on Democrats’ strong primary showing in the 45th Legislative District in the suburbs east of Seattle.
The one Senate race that touches Pierce County isn’t creating that kind of statewide splash. Observers don’t expect big waves on election night in the Republican-leaning 31st District.
And yet 31st voters in Auburn, Bonney Lake, Sumner and elsewhere in the shadow of Mount Rainier have an important choice on who will most effectively represent them — not only in the Senate, but for a House seat, too.
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Regretfully, we made the rare decision to take a knee and not endorse either candidate for Senate. Enthusiastically, however, we support retaining Rep. Morgan Irwin, R-Enumclaw, in House Position 2.
Voters might need a flow chart to keep track of all the movement in the 31st. A year ago, long-time senator Pam Roach was still in office while her protege Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, was campaigning for the House seat he later won.
When Roach resigned in January to join the Pierce County Council, Fortunato was appointed to replace her in the Senate. Then Irwin, who lost to Fortunato in the primary, took the indirect route by winning appointment to replace Fortunato in the House.
Irwin has grown into his new role and represents the district with equanimity and tact. Fortunato? Not so much.
An environmental consultant who served one unremarkable House term in the late ‘90s, Fortunato talks up his expertise in stormwater and erosion management, and holds firm views on government overregulation. That’s fine as far it goes.
Fortunato, 64, has an occasional good policy idea that gains traction, such as teacher housing allowances as part of school funding reform. But he’s mostly known as a provocateur, a freshman who trots out dead-on-arrival bills to drive home an extreme point or to pull a prank — we’re not sure which.
His ideological stunts include a constitutional amendment to ban the (non-existent) income tax, a proposal to de-fund the Evergreen State College and a bill to isolate Seattle into its own county.
With his anti-tax, anti-Sound Transit, pro-Ayn Rand rhetoric, he’s plugged into the district’s zeitgeist. But his cantankerous style renders him a poor vessel to carry those interests to Olympia, to negotiate in good faith or to be taken seriously.
What the Seattle Times said about Fortunato in 2003 applies today: Listening to him, you get the feeling he already knows everything he wants to know.
His opponent, Michelle Rylands, is a former military police officer, current 911 dispatcher and active PTA leader. The Auburn Democrat has a heart for children and a decent understanding of K-12 issues; it makes sense for her to move from bake sales to the political side of things, as she says.
Rylands certainly has potential to grow and compromise, unlike Fortunato.
But jumping directly from PTA to the Senate isn’t a formula for success. Rylands, 49, lacks depth on state issues beyond education. We’re also concerned she declined our voluntary background screening process, one of only two candidates of the 32 we interviewed this year who did so. Auburn School Board or City Council would be a logical next step for her.
For the House seat, short-time incumbent Irwin faces Democrat Nate Lowry of Edgewood.
Irwin, a 34-year-old Seattle police officer and former Enumclaw City Councilman, left an impression in his first legislative session with a moderate approach and ability to work across the aisle. It’s hard to go wrong with a knowledgeable platform of strong schools, public safety and traffic infrastructure.
We disagree with Irwin’s populist view that the Legislature’s 2017 school funding reform agreement should’ve gone to a vote of the people, but we respect his measured argument.
Lowry, 39, is a well-spoken, well-rounded candidate — a landscape architect who’s run his own business and worked for a national engineering company. Like Irwin, he was born and raised in the district.
But while the two men agree on many points, they’re far apart on taxation; Lowry blasts the new property-tax hikes to fund schools but would support taxes on capital gains and carbon emissions. At times, he sounds like he’s reading from the Democrat playbook.
Irwin seems more in tune with the 31st’s independent ethos; we’d like to see Lowry finish a full term on Edgewood City Council.
Residents of the 31st can feel proud about producing two highly regarded legislators in Irwin and Rep. Drew Stokesbary of Auburn. Don’t be surprised if these young stars ascend quickly in Republican caucus leadership.
What a shame that neither ran for Senate this year.
Checking their records
The TNT Editorial Board is partnering with CandidateVerification as part of our endorsement process this year. The Bellevue-based nonprofit watchdog coordinates background and resume screenings with the candidates’ consent.
For Legislative District 31, three of the four candidates signed up for a background check (Michelle Rylands declined) and no red flags came up.
To see the full database, go online to Candidate