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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Appointed senator to face two challengers in 7th District

Most years, it’s considered an advantage to hold the office you are seeking in the upcoming election. Brian Dansel and Mike Brunson, who are challenging appointed Sen. John Smith for the seat in northeast Washington’s sprawling 7th District, are hoping 2013 isn’t like most years.

Being in the state Senate is not exactly a badge of honor after a prolonged session that needed nearly 50 extra days to accomplish the Legislature’s primary goal of passing the operating budget.

“People are not happy about the special sessions,” said Brunson, a retired Air Force officer who once headed Fairchild’s Office of Special Investigations and now lives in Springdale. “They’re pretty much dissatisfied with how long it took.”

“It’s a total embarrassment,” said Dansel, a Ferry County commissioner, contractor and a former golf pro.

Smith, a farmer who operates one of two farmers markets in Colville, where he once served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, blames the extended sessions on a Democratic House and governor whose budget goals included higher taxes. The predominantly Republican coalition controlling the Senate was willing to go into overtime to avoid most tax increases, he said, but acknowledged “my preference would have been to get it done sooner.”

The natural resource economy continues to be difficult in the district that stretches from the Canadian border to the north Spokane suburbs and from Idaho to the foothills of the Cascades. Jobs are the top issue on most voters’ minds, all three candidates agree. Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties consistently have some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, all currently above 10 percent.

It’s a deeply conservative district, where people bridle at what they see as overly restrictive government rules and unfunded mandates from Washington, D.C., or Olympia, and watch for any encroachment on Second Amendment rights. It’s among the state’s most Republican. A Democrat hasn’t held a legislative seat from the 7th District since 1990, and no Democrat running for the Legislature has collected more than 36 percent of the vote in this century.

So it’s not surprising all three candidates are Republicans. Under the state’s top-two primary system, the one with the fewest votes in the Aug. 6 primary election will drop out and the other two will advance to the Nov. 5 general election.

The off-year election is a result of former Sen. Bob Morton retiring late last year. Republican precinct committee officers from around the district narrowed the replacement choices to three, and county commissioners from the five counties that have some or all of their territory in the district selected Smith, the Stevens County GOP official. He arrived in Olympia in time for the start of what turned into a long and sometimes contentious session.

Dansel didn’t seek the appointment and abstained from the vote that selected Smith – not because he had decided to run for the seat in the fall election, he said, but because he was supporting a different nominee and the motion dealt solely with Smith.

Brunson wasn’t involved in the appointment. He isn’t a precinct committee officer and said he didn’t know about the process until it was well underway.

Beyond their political affiliation, the three have very different resumes.

Dansel, 30, has been a county commissioner for three years and hasn’t decided if he’d step down from that job if elected to the Senate in November. Under state law, it’s possible to hold both positions, and Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlach also serves as a Mason County commissioner. But it’s much farther from Olympia to the Ferry County seat in Republic than to the Mason County seat in Shelton, Dansel acknowledged, and he’d have to weigh that against his obligation to voters to serve out the last year of the county term. State law wouldn’t allow him to seek re-election to both positions next year.

He said he’s the best choice for the Senate seat because he understands the obligations the Legislature puts on local government without providing the money to pay for them, and how some budget cuts have hurt local programs, particularly law enforcement and prosecution of drug cases.

Brunson, 57, is a private investigator who ran unsuccessfully for Stevens County sheriff in 2010, serves on the Stevens County Board of Equalization and said with his master’s degree in international relations he has the most varied education and work experience. “I know the federal government better than my two opponents,” he said. He’d like to work on persuading the federal government to turn over to the state some of its timberlands in the region and open them up for greater harvests to boost jobs and revenues. He’d also like the state to give cash payments to small businesses that hire employees as a way to boost jobs.

Smith, 40, owns a 20-acre organic farm not far from the Canadian border in addition to operating one of two farmers markets in Colville about 40 miles away. He previously owned a café across from the Stevens County Courthouse. It failed in 2009, and only this year Smith finished paying back the state for the unpaid fees and taxes. He said he’s still working to pay off some private creditors.

Brunson questions how someone with a failed business can be effective negotiating the state’s budget. Smith counters that the failure makes him “more in tune” with the state’s many struggling and failing businesses, and rather than declaring bankruptcy to get out of some debts he’s working to pay them all back.

“There are those who cannot appreciate what a business owner goes through,” he said.

Although Smith describes the final $33.6 billion state budget as “probably the very best that could be achieved,” he was one of four senators who did not vote for it. He said he doesn’t support the expansion of Medicaid or a retroactive change in the estate tax, both of which are included in the overall budget.

Dansel notes, however, that Smith voted for two other budgets during the protracted sessions that had those items he now says he opposes – one of which passed by only one vote. Smith replies that it was a way of keeping budget negotiations going and keeping the majority coalition from losing its tenuous hold on the Senate. “I knew those weren’t the final versions,” he said.

As the incumbent, Smith was barred by state law from raising campaign money during the legislative session, but Dansel and Brunson weren’t. Despite that restriction, Smith has a significant lead in contributions, having raised more than $35,000 compared to about $7,700 for Dansel and about $2,500 for Brunson.

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