Separating truth from fiction in intraparty race for Tacoma-area House seat

Branden Durst and David Sawyer have both been subject to advertisements questioning their records in the campaign for a 29th Legislative District House seat.
Branden Durst and David Sawyer have both been subject to advertisements questioning their records in the campaign for a 29th Legislative District House seat. Courtesy photos

Campaign fliers are, well, flying in a heated 29th District legislative race between Branden Durst and incumbent Rep. David Sawyer.

The mailers are coming from candidates and independent political action committees and attack Durst’s stances on abortion and Sawyer’s campaign ethics.

Both candidates are Democrats, and are battling a third person to appear on the general election ballot. The top-two vote-getters in the primary, ending Tuesday, move on to the November election.

The 29th District includes parts of Tacoma, Lakewood, Parkland, Spanaway and Frederickson.

The Claim: A mailer sent out by Small Businesses United PAC, made up of Washington Realtors and the Washington State Dental Association PACs, says Sawyer had a “lobbyist funded travel junket to Philadelphia” that cost $4,000.

It’s part of a section claiming voters “can’t afford David Sawyer anymore.” The groups also have combined to send out positive ads in support of Durst.

The Facts: The “junket” on the recent ad refers to Sawyer’s aim to attend the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. He was selected as a delegate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at Washington’s convention.

Sawyer started a GoFundMe page asking for money for the trip. Most delegates have estimated entry fees, airfare and lodging during the convention cost at least $3,000.

Though the GoFundMe page was a federally approved way of asking for money to attend the convention, Sawyer said, using an “abundance of caution,” he decided not to risk any perceived ethical concerns about taking money under the federal exemption for a trip that might benefit his campaign at times.

He closed the page, asked the money raised be returned and didn’t attend this week’s convention, he said.

“It’s disappointing but the reality is I have an obligation to run my campaign effectively and compete,” he said. “I’m staying here to win.”

The Conclusion: False. Sawyer initially asked for the money but never received it. He also never went to Philadelphia.

The Claim: The flier also says Sawyer paid himself $10,000 with campaign money.

The Facts: According to the Public Disclosure Commission, candidates can reimburse themselves for wages they could have earned at a job had they not been on the campaign trail.

“When I first ran, I was 29; I knocked on doors for eight hours a day,” Sawyer said. He took time off from working as a law clerk for a Tacoma firm to campaign, something he otherwise couldn’t afford to do without reimbursing himself, he said.

The law is there “so people who can’t afford to run for office have the ability to do so,” Sawyer added.

Sawyer said he took the equivalent of minimum wage for the time he was campaigning.

PDC records show Sawyer reimbursed himself about $10,000 over two election campaigns for the House.

The PDC has reached out to lawmakers in the past for improper use of the rule, but spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the agency doesn’t check all reimbursements. Sawyer said he never heard anything from the PDC about the way he reimbursed himself.

The Conclusion: True, but misleading. Sawyer is entitled to money for lost wages and other lawmakers can take money for the same reason, too.

“If he was truly in a position of financial constraint I could understand why he would have done that,” said Durst, who is independent from the PACs. “I know having served as a legislator before it can be very financially constraining.”

The Claim: Sawyer’s campaign has sent out an advertisement accusing Durst of being “anti-choice” by not supporting abortion rights. Most Democrats in Washington say they’re pro-choice, including Sawyer, who’s ad says he is endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest.

The Facts: Sawyer’s ads cite a 2013 interview in the newspaper Boise Weekly in which Durst says he’s pro-life but opposed an Idaho measure that would require women in the state seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound.

Durst was a lawmaker in Idaho from 2006 to 2013 before moving to Washington and resigning from the Legislature in Boise.

“I do consider myself to be pro-life,” Durst said, adding: “I don’t take a traditional pro-life approach, and I said this the first time I ever ran in 2006.”

Durst said abortion shouldn’t be illegal but supports efforts to make choosing life easier, so parents “don’t feel like having a child is a death sentence on their career and dreams.”

“To suggest I’m anti-choice is to suggest I think abortion should be illegal and I don’t,” Durst said.

He supports requiring parental consent for women under 18 seeking an abortion, except in cases of rape or incest. He also supports “much more in the way of prenatal care that should be subsidized for moms and babies,” and “significant investments in postnatal care,” such as family leave and early childhood education, he said.

“It’s about investing in life,” he said.

Erica Barnett, spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, said Durst didn’t fill out a questionnaire detailing his positions on abortion so he hasn’t been endorsed. Sawyer did, and the organization considers him “100 percent pro-choice.”

She said parent-consent laws can make it extremely difficult for young women to get abortions, and the organization is opposed “to anything that puts up more barriers to abortion.”

She added that support for the policy and other policies suggesting women shouldn’t have abortions is “code language that is used in the anti-choice movement.”

Conclusion: Mostly true. Durst identifies himself as pro-life, and differentiating between anti-choice and pro-life essentially is opinion and semantics. Durst doesn’t advocate for a ban on abortions. He also said he doesn’t believe in requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortion as others in the pro-life sector have done.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, Twitter: @walkerorenstein