Safety net, taxes at issue for candidates in Pierce County’s 29th District

Tacoma’s longest-serving lawmaker at more than 21 years, Sen. Steve Conway, is up for re-election this Nov. 4 against five-time legislative candidate Terry Harder.

At the other end of the longevity spectrum, Lakewood freshman Rep. David Sawyer is seeking a second term against political newcomer Jason Bergstrom of Spanaway.

All four are vying to represent parts of Spanaway, Frederickson, Parkland, eastern Lakewood, South End and South Tacoma in the 29th Legislative District, one of the state’s poorest.

The third Democratic incumbent in the district, Tacoma Rep. Steve Kirby, is running unopposed.

Just how steep is the uphill climb for Republicans Bergstrom and Harder? Conway led by 26 percentage points in August’s low-turnout primary election and in July his campaign had $65,000 in cash to Harder’s $5,000 in debt. Sawyer had a smaller lead but still led by 18 points and had more than $29,000 on hand to Bergstrom’s $25.


Views on tax breaks for Boeing separate the House candidates.

Sawyer was one of just 13 from both parties who voted against extending aerospace tax exemptions by 16 years, a proposal by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee that was endorsed in less than a week by lawmakers who hurried back to Olympia. (Conway supported the tax incentives.)

To build its 777X airplane in Washington, Boeing demanded $8.7 billion in exemptions for the aerospace industry, quite possibly the biggest corporate subsidy in U.S. history, along with a new contract with Machinists.

It got both. The plane will be built in Everett and its carbon-fiber composite tail in Frederickson.

Without the incentives, Bergstrom said: “They would have packed up and left and that would have devastated Pierce County.”

Sawyer said he doubted the quality of any law passed so quickly in response to pressure from the governor and Boeing, bypassing public notice and legislative input.

His suspicions have been borne out, he said, as the aerospace giant has moved more engineering jobs out of state.

“My dad is a Machinist and I grew up on a Boeing income, and it helped pay for my college and health care,” Sawyer said. But, he said: “I just trust my instinct. I was raised to stand up to bullies.”


Harder’s goals include giving principals more authority to hire and fire teachers.

A semi-retired Tacoma resident now doing part-time sales work at Sears, Harder said he’s heard from teachers who like the idea of more local control over those decisions, even though the teachers union has opposed, for example, a proposal to give principals a veto over school assignments.

Harder added the personnel moves should be “performance-based rather than just an arbitrary decision.”

But Conway, a retired union leader, wants fewer legal requirements for teacher hiring and firing, not more.

He was one of three senators who along with 16 House members voted against a major 2012 measure requiring student achievement data to be a substantial factor in teacher evaluations and those evaluations to be one factor in personnel decisions such as hiring and firing.

It came in the wake of a Tacoma teacher strike over some of the same issues, and Conway said hiring and firing is best left to local collective bargaining agreements.

“I trust that process as opposed to seeing legislative mandates,” Conway said.


The incumbents tout their role in passing laws reacting to local crimes. For Conway, it was the creation of stalking-protection orders. For Sawyer, it was making it harder for prisoners to sue their victims or their families.

Sawyer made efforts on behalf of Indian tribes, passing a law that will clear their members’ criminal records for fishing violations that courts have long since ruled were legal.

If Conway wins another four-year term, expect him to push to raise Washington’s $9.32-an-hour minimum wage. He has supported proposals for a $12-an-hour wage.

Republicans and even some Democrats have shown little inclination for an increase, but Conway is in line to lead the labor and commerce committee that deals with those issues, if Democrats retake the Senate — something that looks like a long shot this year.

If Sawyer, who is studying to be a lawyer as part of an apprenticeship program, wins a second term, he would likely resume an effort to stop local marijuana bans.

He disputes Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s position that local governments have the legal right to ban state-licensed pot businesses, and he’s worried about closing off much of his district to the market, especially if lawmakers merge the new system with medical marijuana.

Both Sawyer and Conway want a gas tax increase to fund highway projects, including state Route 167.

Harder said higher gasoline taxes would be a drain on the economy. Bergstrom said it would hurt the poor and small businesses. Bergstrom did identify one source of transportation revenue he would be likely to support, though likely a small one: increased fees on electric vehicles.

Both Harder and Bergstrom want to untangle regulation affecting businesses. Bergstrom, who works for Kliemann Bros. Heating and Air Conditioning, calls for a central statewide website for people applying for building permits.

And Harder said: “Rules and regulations should really have a grandfather clause to revisit what the rules and regulations are and see if they still apply.”


The Legislature will be under pressure to find more money next year for its operating budget.

The state Supreme Court is pressuring lawmakers to raise unconstitutionally low levels of school funding. In August, the justices added the shortage of mental health treatment slots to lawmakers’ to-do list, ordering the state to stop letting detained patients languish in emergency rooms while waiting for treatment.

Sawyer said state government should accept full responsibility for mental health treatment, adding state money while doing away with local mental health taxes.

On education, he joined with other House Democrats to back a proposal last year that would have found extra money for schools by scaling back or eliminating a host of tax exemptions and extending a higher business tax rate that was set to expire. The Senate rejected the plan.

Conway worked on mental health issues last year, getting a law passed aimed at a bottleneck that keeps inmates with mental illness stuck in county jails. The larger problem, he said, is a need for more psychiatric beds.

In funding education, Conway wants to review tax exemptions. And he wants to avoid a tactic used last year when lawmakers added $1 billion to education: raiding infrastructure funding in the capital budget that funds public works. “Our capital budget is a big jobs driver,” Conway said.

Harder wants to avoid new taxes, preferring to find money for schools by redirecting money spent outside the classroom. A 2012 audit found just a bit more than 60 percent of school spending goes to classrooms, roughly the national average.

Bergstrom, too, takes a dim view of taxes, especially those that hit small business. But he said he wouldn’t take the option off the table, and might consider some kind of tax to fund mental health treatment, perhaps tied to alcohol.

Mental health is one reason Bergstrom is running. He’s experienced problems in Washington’s system up close, he said.

Bergstrom said his mother had hoped to find help here after moving from Florida to live with him but made repeated visits to the emergency room with nothing to show for it except prescriptions for antidepressants. On about the sixth hospital visit in two weeks, she was finally sent to a mental health facility for an evaluation, he said. But despite cuts on her wrist, he said, he was told she couldn’t be kept there against her will any longer.

Back in Florida, Bergstrom said, his 50-year-old mother shot and killed herself eight to 10 days later.

“My mom committing suicide was a direct correlation of just a failure in the system in general when it comes to mental health,” Bergstrom said.

He said a better system would be better funded and staffed, would not force use of jails as surrogate mental health wards, and would cut down on homelessness.

On the other hand, he said some homeless people simply don’t want help, and he has spoken approvingly of “spikes” that some cities have placed in popular sleeping spots to discourage vagrancy.

Sawyer has championed funding for anti-homelessness programs in the form of fees on real estate transactions. Lawmakers renewed the fees last winter after a long debate over the details of the renewal.

Now Sawyer said he’s trying to organize a safety-net caucus of lawmakers arguing against shortchanging social services as part of meeting the court order to find money for basic education.

“We absolutely underfund education. We also underfund our mental health system, and it’s devastating Pierce County,” Sawyer said. “We underfund our safety net, especially housing.”

He argues that social services and education are linked. The state reported more than 30,000 homeless students in the 2012-2013 school year, a 47 percent increase from five years earlier.