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Five-way primary in 9th District

Four Republicans, one Democrat vie for seat

How Republican is Washington’s 9th Legislative District?

It’s so Republican that a five-way primary for a rare midterm election features four Republicans and one Democrat who ran three years ago as a Republican. Not a huge surprise, considering the southeastern Washington district hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House in 70 years and legislative races often go begging for a Democratic challenger.

This year’s election is a result of last year’s winner, incumbent Steve Hailey, being forced into retirement in January by colon cancer, which quickly killed him. Former state Rep. Don Cox, who held the seat before Hailey, was appointed for the impending session but announced a few months later he wouldn’t run this fall. The field grew to five, each from a different city or town in a district that stretches from the southern quarter of Spokane County to the Oregon border, and from Idaho to the western edge of Franklin County.

In the race are:

• Darin Watkins, 49, of Palouse, a former television journalist who is the marketing and communications director for the WSU Veterinary College.

• Art Swannack, 44, of Lamont, a farmer and sheep rancher who serves as president of the Washington State Sheep Producers.

• Glen Stockwell, 59, of Ritzville, a former city councilman who operates a trucking and freight brokerage company and a business consulting firm.

• Pat Hailey, 61, of Mesa, Steve Hailey’s widow and the operator of the family farm, some 3,500 acres with wheat, irrigated corn, hay and cattle.

• Susan Fagan, 61, of Pullman, until recently the director of public affairs for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and former aide to three U.S. senators in Idaho.

All but Stockwell list their party preference as Republican or GOP; he listed a Democratic preference this year, although he ran as a Republican for the seat in 2006.

It’s a district where legislative races often concentrate on two key issues, agriculture and education. That’s also not a huge surprise, considering most of the district is Palouse farmland and farm towns, and the 9th is the only district with two state universities, Washington State in Pullman and Eastern Washington in Cheney.

This year, there’s a third issue, the faltering economy and its impact on the state’s budget. During the session, a series of increasingly bad revenue forecasts resulted in a $4 billion reduction in the state budget. It would have been greater without money sent to the states by the federal stimulus package.

Fagan argues that using the stimulus money was a mistake. The Legislature had a chance “to get our financial house in order,” but instead used the stimulus money, an option that might not be available in future years. She would have called for a “priorities of government” study, similar to the process used in 2003, where priorities are set and money is allocated to fit them.

Hailey said the state should cut back and not spend what it doesn’t have. She said she’s familiar with the budgetary process, but not its detail, and is sure it could be cut: “I think you can always find waste in any budget.”

Swannack suggested looking at the two previous biennial budgets to see what was added to the much larger 2007-09 budget, and target those programs for the first possible cuts. He opposes any plan to save money by consolidating small school districts in rural Eastern Washington, an idea that Cox helped squelch during the session.

Watkins agrees that the school consolidation plan was a bad one and promised to continue that fight. He’d also open up the budget process to more voices, give more authority to the people like the university presidents who direct large portions of state money, outsource more work and find cheaper ways to purchase items.

Stockwell said the state doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem, which he concedes is more Republican doctrine than Democratic. He also has the most sweeping plan for the economy, getting the federal government to finish the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, which he contends would pump billions into the state for construction and increase irrigated farmland.

He’s so passionate about the idea that he’s seeking a debate, although not with any of his election opponents. He issued the challenge to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has yet to respond.

The position is partisan but the primary is not. The top two vote-getters advance to the general, regardless of stated party preference.

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