Challengers in rural 2nd Legislative District seek to unseat Republicans

A Democrat and a Libertarian are challenging two GOP state House members who they say have done a poor job done representing rural communities in east Pierce and northeast Thurston counties.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, is seeking a third term representing the 2nd Legislative District. He faces Libertarian candidate Steven Nielson, a quality engineer from Orting who serves as secretary of the state Libertarian Party.

In the same district, appointed state Rep. Graham Hunt, R-Orting, is fighting to defeat Democrat Greg Hartman, a retired firefighter from Graham. Hunt is seeking his first full term after he was appointed to fill a vacant seat earlier this year.

In both races, the challengers say they are looking to represent rural voters whose views fall outside those traditionally espoused by the Republican Party.

Nielson and Hartman could face a difficult road to election, though. The 2nd Legislative District — which includes Yelm, Orting, Eatonville, Graham, Roy, McKenna and Rainier — leans Republican, and currently is represented by three GOP legislators.

The races will be decided in the general election Nov. 4.


Nielson describes himself as an “outside-the-box thinker” who can bring new ideas to Olympia. Wilcox, a four-year veteran of the state House and former chief financial officer for his family’s dairy farm, questions the practicality of some of those ideas.

One of the candidates’ main areas of disagreement centers on education. The state Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to fully fund the state’s education system by 2018, and last month held the state in contempt over lawmakers’ failure to approve a long-term funding plan for schools.

But Nielson thinks the issue goes far beyond money, and that the state needs to reform its education system from top to bottom.

Nielson said he’d like public schools in Washington to mimic the system used in Germany and other parts of Europe, where students take a test in early adolescence to determine what kind of high school they’ll attend, along with whether they’re collegebound.

Nielson said making those changes would ultimately save the state money, because some students would pursue technical career tracks that require fewer years of schooling.

“I believe we need to throw out the current model and implement something that focuses more on the aptitude of the students, and what the students are capable of,” Nielson said.

Wilcox said he thinks that level of overhaul would be difficult to implement.

“I’m interested in what can be absorbed by the system without total chaos,” Wilcox said. “No one’s kids should be part of an experiment.”

Like many Republicans, Wilcox opposes raising taxes to generate more money for schools. Rather, he wants the Legislature to create a separate education budget and direct all of its resources there, and then consider whether to cut other programs or raise taxes to fund other parts of the state budget.

That candidates also disagree about how to pay for transportation improvements.

While Wilcox has never been a cheerleader for increasing the state’s gasoline tax, he said he could support a tax package as long as it includes highway projects that benefit the 2nd District, and certain transportation reform measures.

Some changes Wilcox would like to see include requiring the Department of Transportation to report construction and engineering mistakes to the Legislature, and placing sales tax revenues from road projects in the transportation budget instead of in the state’s general fund.

Nielson, meanwhile, said he is opposed to raising the state’s gasoline tax under any circumstance. He said the state should consider leasing highways to private companies and letting them run the roads, as well as collect all tolls.

Nielson thinks such a model could cut the overall costs by 20 percent to 40 percent simply by reducing the amount of waste by government contractors.

“The government does a poor job of maintaining roads and road management,” Nielson said. “Private companies do it much better.”

Wilcox said that while he would support privatizing more aspects of highway design and construction, he’d hesitate to hand over control of the state’s freeways long term.

“To me, transportation is such a basic function of government, that it would be irresponsible for us to allow the public to lose control of our major productive asset,” Wilcox said.


Hartman, a Democrat, says the 2nd District needs more progressive representation in Olympia as the district changes and becomes less conservative.

“People are moving to the country and they’re wanting amenities, they’re wanting services, they’re wanting representation that says, ‘I believe in women’s rights. ... I believe in supporting social networks that make us all better,’ ” Hartman said.

Hartman said that to help raise money for education, the Legislature needs to look at ending some tax incentives for certain industries. The Legislature should also be careful about creating new tax incentives for businesses, he said.

“Every time you do that, you’re increasing the taxes on the regular people and allowing businesses to not have to pay their fair share,” Hartman said.

Hunt would take a different approach to meeting the state Supreme Court’s school funding mandate. He shares Wilcox’s view that the Legislature needs to put all available resources toward education, an idea many Republicans have described as “fund education first.”

After that, the Legislature can have “a real down-to-earth conversation” about whether to cut remaining programs or raise taxes to support them, Hunt said.

“We’re starting from a position of, ‘We don’t need to raise more – we need to be more efficient with what we have,’ ” Hunt said.

Hartman said putting all the state’s money into education without looking at ways to raise revenue amounts to “a backdoor way of reducing the state’s network of social programs.”

The candidates also disagree about what elements must be present in a transportation tax package.

Hunt said before supporting a gasoline tax increase to pay for highway projects, he wants to see more accountability in the state Department of Transportation. He cited the stalled state Route 99 tunneling machine in Seattle and a misplaced state Route 16 off-ramp in Tacoma as indicators of poor management.

“I want the (Department of Transportation) to be held responsible to answer to the public and say, this isn’t going to happen again, and how it’s not going to happen again,” Hunt said.

Hartman, meanwhile, said he thinks that the region’s transportation needs are so great that the Legislature can’t afford to wait to for an agreement on administrative reforms.

“I’m not holding up the transportation bill because of that,” Hartman said.

Raising the minimum wage has been another central piece of Hartman’s campaign. The longtime firefighter and former union leader said people who work 40 hours a week should be able to make enough money to support their families.

Hunt said that the minimum wage was never intended to be a liveable one.

“When I think of a minimum-wage worker, I think of a worker that doesn’t have a solid history of employment, that doesn’t have reliability of employment — they’re not the all-star employee,” Hunt said. “Their employer is typically making an investment in them.”

Hunt said he thinks minimum wage jobs are training grounds for workers who need to gain more skills.