Challengers prepare for a fight

Fed up with the results they're getting out of big Democratic majorities in Olympia, labor unions and other traditional Democratic allies are targeting some incumbents this primary season.

The most noticeable example is in Snohomish County’s 38th District, which includes Everett and Marysville. Incumbent Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett, has faced about $275,000 in spending by independent committees opposing her and supporting Democratic rival Nick Harper.

Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature for several years, tallying majorities of 61-37 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate in 2010. Berkey is a member of the self-described “Roadkill Caucus,” a group of centrist and conservative Democrats who say they often feel run over by the political right and left.

She supported state worker furloughs and opposed a tax increase on banks during this year’s session, among other positions. But Berkey also has an 87 percent lifetime record of voting for the State Labor Council’s agenda – proof, she says, that the left is just trying to make an example of her.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. Never,” Berkey said.


Her Democratic opponent is Nick Harper, county conservation director for the Cascade Land Conservancy. Harper is young and has no elective experience, but boasts endorsements from several traditional Democratic allies, including major labor entities and groups that support the environment, and abortion rights.

He wants to help the recession-hobbled budget by focusing on tax reforms, including the proposed state income tax on wealthier residents and a repeal of the bank preference that Berkey supported.

“I thought it was the perfect time to try and challenge the status quo and see if we can come out of this recession stronger than we went into it,” Harper said.

He’s got plenty of help. The roughly $275,000 being spent by outside groups to either oppose Berkey or support Harper is an unusually large figure for a state legislative primary.

Much of those donations are coming from labor unions, including the Washington Federation of State Employees and locals of the Service Employees International Union. Trial lawyers also have donated money.

Also in the race is Rod Rieger, who filed as preferring the Conservative Party.

Labor’s discontent with Democrats who don’t vote with their agenda on key issues is no secret. After the 2009 Legislature cut deeply into state spending and refused to pass a key organizing bill, labor leaders founded a political action committee meant to target unfriendly Democrats.

In his summary of the 2010 legislative session, outgoing Labor Council President Rick Bender wrote that moderate Democrats had “abandoned the traditional Democratic value that government can play a positive role in improving the lives of working families.”

“Instead, with their fingers to the political winds, they suddenly embrace conservative positions, especially on labor issues,” Bender said.


Another notable race featuring a moderate Democrat is in the 44th District, also in Snohomish County. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is facing the Republican he beat in 2006, Dave Schmidt. Democrat Lillian Kaufer, who lost to Hobbs in the 2006 primary, is mounting a second challenge.

Unions, real estate agents, trial lawyers and others have poured money into committees opposing Hobbs, and labor has helped support Kaufer. The total is more than $60,000.

Another feature of Washington’s legislative primaries under the “top two” system is the advance of single-party general election contests.

Since the top two primary pools all candidates together regardless of their preferred political party, districts that are solidly Democratic or Republican now can see two candidates from the dominant party advance to November.

One example is the Seattle-area 34th District, where voters will choose between three Democrats and one Independent. Two of the Democrats are expected to advance for a November runoff to replace Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Vashon, who is aiming for a seat in the state Senate.