A Federal Way School Board member and a local business leader are squaring off in the biggest state legislative race on the ballot this fall.
Both parties see the contest between Democrat Carol Gregory and Republican Teri Hickel as one that could put Democrats a step away from losing control of the state House – or, alternatively, help Democrats hang on to their slim majority in the Legislature’s lower chamber.
Gregory, a member of the Federal Way School Board, was appointed to represent the 30th Legislative District in January, following the death of incumbent state Rep. Roger Freeman, D-Federal Way.
Hickel, a newcomer to politics, is seeking to oust Gregory from her seat in the Nov. 3 election.
Whoever wins will serve the remaining year of Freeman’s unexpired term.
The 30th District, which straddles the King-Pierce county line, includes Federal Way, Algona, Pacific, Milton, Auburn and Des Moines.
WHY THE RACE MATTERS
Significantly, a Republican win in the 30th District would reduce the Democratic majority in the state House to 50-48. That would mean it would take only one conservative or tax-averse Democrat to cross over and vote with Republicans to block Democratic legislation.
Democrats already had difficulty shepherding their tax proposals through the House this year, even with a 51-47 majority. Proposals to tax capital gains tax as well as carbon emissions didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote in 2015.
A Democratic loss in the 30th District would put Republicans within reach of taking control of the House next fall, when all 98 House seats are up for election. If Gregory loses in November, Republicans could dominate the chamber in 2016 by picking up just two additional seats, or force Democrats to share power by winning one seat and creating a tie.
Republicans already control the state Senate and have strengthened their hold on that chamber the past two years.
OK, SO WHO’S RUNNING AGAIN?
Hickel, 55, most recently spent 15 years as the executive director of Advancing Leadership, a nonprofit born out of the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce. She also spent more than a year serving as the chamber’s interim CEO.
Additionally, Hickel spent 20 years as a member of Citizens for Federal Way Schools, a volunteer group that helps promote local school district levies.
“I’m not a politician,” Hickel said Wednesday at a candidate forum in Federal Way. “I’m looking at this with fresh eyes.”
Gregory, meanwhile, says her experience in government — which includes working as both an elected school board member and in Olympia for former Washington Gov. Booth Garner — gives her a distinct edge when it comes to navigating the politics of the Legislature.
Gregory, 71, also served as president of the Washington Education Association from 1976 to 1981, and was a public school teacher before that. More recently, she spent several years working as the education liaison for the King County executive’s office.
“I have the knowledge and experience that she just does not have,” Gregory said of Hickel. “I know how the system works, and that’s an advantage.”
At the same time, Hickel’s supporters paint Gregory as a longtime political insider who won’t have new ideas to bring to the table.
An independently funded TV ad running against Gregory accuses her of pushing for new taxes for the past 40 years, and tells her to “get with the times.” The ad compares Gregory to outdated technology, such as cars that operate with a crank.
Gregory in turn accuses her opponents of conducting a campaign of age discrimination against her.
“Hillary Clinton is two years younger than I am, and if she can run for president, then I think I can run for the state Legislature,” Gregory said Thursday.
BIG MONEY IN RACE
Since the only other legislative race this November is in a safe Republican district, all eyes — and pocketbooks — are focused on the 30th District race.
That means voters in the district are getting hit with a lot of campaign mail, as well as cable TV ads.
Democratic independent expenditure groups have spent about $250,000 on mailers, TV spots and online ads supporting Gregory and another $160,000 opposing Hickel.
For their part, right-leaning groups such as Enterprise Washington have spent more than $215,000 on ads and mailers opposing Gregory, and $75,000 more to boost Hickel’s campaign.
The candidates’ campaign committees have also stayed busy; each had raised more than $250,000 in donations as of last week and spent more than $200,000, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Besides Democratic party and caucus committees, Gregory’s top donors include labor groups such as the Washington Education Association, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and local firefighter unions.
Outside of the Republican party, Hickel’s top campaign contributors include business groups such as the Aerospace Futures Alliance of Washington, the Association of Washington Business and the Washington Food Industry Association PAC.
KEY ISSUES: EDUCATION, TAXES
Gregory and Hickel have different takes on how to solve the most complicated problem the Legislature faces: Complying with a court-order to fully fund basic education by 2018.
The state Supreme Court has said in the McCleary case that the state needs to stop relying on local school district levies to pay basic education costs, such as teacher salaries. Those costs must be picked up by the state, according to the court.
Hickel favors a property tax swap — in which the state’s common schools levy is increased and local levy rates reduced by a proportionate amount — to help the state take on some the costs being borne unconstitutionally by local districts.
Combined with increased sales tax revenues from a rebounding economy, Hickel said she thinks the so-called levy swap would raise enough money for the state to meet its constitutional obligations.
She said she thinks such a plan would also restore fairness to the local levy system by evening out property tax rates throughout the state, helping ensure that homeowners in one school district aren’t paying a much higher rate than others.
“It’s been a dysfunctional system for a long time,” said Hickel, who called the levy system “unfair” and “outdated.”
But Gregory says she thinks the levy swap would probably be only part of the solution. She questioned whether it would raise enough money to solve a problem that some lawmakers estimate could cost the state an additional $3.5 billion every two years.
Gregory accused Hickel of oversimplifying the issue by saying a levy swap could be the entire answer.
“She talks about it like it’s a quick fix, and it isn’t a quick fix,” Gregory said. “It’s a very complicated issue that is going to take a lot of study by all of us.”
Gregory said the Legislature should develop a compromise plan that includes some property tax adjustments, but also considers other sources of revenue, such as ending tax breaks or taxing capital gains.
She said such a compromise would also be more likely to garner political support from lawmakers who live in areas such as Seattle and Mercer Island, where homeowners would most likely see higher property taxes under a levy swap.
Hickel, meanwhile, said she thinks new taxes such as a capital gains tax could hurt businesses and dissuade companies from locating in Washington.
“We’ve come out of this really tough recession, and we have more revenue that’s coming in that’s forecasted,” Hickel said. “Let’s take a look at that new revenue and not keep adding taxes.”