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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In 9th District race, campaign trail and John Wayne Trail intersect

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 13, 2015

This year’s campaign trail in Washington’s 9th Legislative District may intersect with an actual trail, and the controversy surrounding it.

A botched legislative proposal to close a stretch of the John Wayne Heritage Trail through parts of the district angered some townspeople along the trail. It also prompted a crowded town hall meeting in Tekoa and led to the creation of a task force of farmers and townspeople to re-examine the whole plan. To folks outside this mostly rural district in the southeast corner of the state, it may seem like a minor skirmish that can be worked out, smoothed over and easily forgotten.

But it gave challenger Richard Lathim a chance to criticize appointed Rep. Mary Dye for not being upfront with residents about things the Legislature does.

“It’s about the willingness to be open and representative of all the people in the 9th,” he said. “I don’t think you should ever take action like that without telling people about it.”

The plan to close part of the John Wayne Trail is pushed primarily by Dye’s seatmate Joe Schmick, who cited weeds, illegal dumping and other criminal activity on some portions of the trail. Dye called a proposal to let some landowners take over maintenance of underused stretches of the trail “a fair compromise” and argues the public had as much notice about that proposal as most things in the Legislature. But she learned from the meeting in Tekoa and thinks the new task force will give both sides a chance to improve relations for different views on the trail.

“Everybody has a seat at the table,” Dye said. “That’s the kind of the thing everybody said they wanted.”

Both Dye and Lathim are Republicans. The 9th is a solidly Republican district that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the House since 1937, and while its boundaries have changed somewhat over those eight decades, it has stayed mostly rural. With the redistricting of 2011 it stretches into the suburbs south of Spokane and includes Pasco and parts of Franklin County, but even after that Republican incumbents faced token opposition, if at all. Voters lean toward candidates who promise to limit taxes and the government they support, while promising special attention to agriculture and other aspects of rural life. This special election is no exception.

Rep. Susan Fagan, first elected in 2010, ran unopposed in 2014 but faced what House ethics investigators considered serious problems with her expense account reports at the beginning of this year. She resigned at the end of the regular session, and GOP officials moved quickly through the process of selecting three nominees from which the county commissioners of the district’s five counties chose Dye.

Active in GOP campaigns and efforts to keep the Snake River dams in place, Dye is running for office for the first time. She operates a wheat farm near Pomeroy with her husband. She has endorsements from some high-profile Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and her predecessor, George Nethercutt, and the legislative district’s other incumbents Schmick and Sen. Mark Schoesler.

Her incumbency through the special sessions also helped attract significant campaign contributions from some heavy hitters in Olympia, including Avista and lobby associations for builders, beer and wine distributors, chiropractors and restaurant owners. She’s raised almost $47,000, and has another $17,000 worth of help from independent committees, including the Freedom and Liberty Council, a group put together by several business groups, and Community Progress, an arm of the Reagan Fund, another business-backed committee that backs House Republicans.

Lathim, who also sought the appointment, has far more election experience, having won seven elections for Franklin County sheriff. He lost the 2014 campaign and retired after 37 years in law enforcement, although some of his campaign photos show him in his uniform. He’s also stressing he grew up on a farm and continues to operate the one he had in addition to his law enforcement duties. He’s raised about a fourth of what Dye has, at just over $12,000, with support from one political action committee, the Law Enforcement Administrators of Washington, but otherwise mostly local donors.

Whoever wins will face questions in the 2016 session about the Legislature’s ongoing struggle with public school funding, which includes a contempt order from the state Supreme Court assessing a $100,000-per-day fine for failing to come up with a plan to replace local school district money with state money for some expenses like teacher salaries.

Lathim thinks the Legislature has made a good effort so far on improving school funding, and proposals to revise the property tax levy system are “a little bit complicated.” He’s not sold on any of the current plans to swap lower local levies for higher state levies, adding “I’m open to looking at all different kinds of alternatives.”

Dye wants the Legislature to evaluate unfunded mandates and the heavy level of required testing, and wants high school students to graduate with a better grasp of basic math and language skills. She thinks rural school districts are leery of strings that might be attached to a major overhaul of the levy system that would increase state funding. Any plan the Legislature comes up with to get itself out of the contempt order will have to be fairly general because it can’t bind future Legislatures, she added.

Both are concerned about the legalization of marijuana. Lathim is glad medical marijuana is being moved into state stores, which should cut down on some crime at growing operations and dispensaries. But he fears a downside of increased use by students in junior high and high school as drug awareness programs have been cut back because schools spend so much time preparing for and administering tests.

Dye said cities or counties that want to ban marijuana should be allowed to do so without using the carrot-or-stick approach of giving a share of tax money only to communities that allow pot businesses.

“I want to allow Eastern Washington to have its own, unique culture,” she said.

Whoever wins the election will probably want to hang on to their campaign signs. They’ll have to run again in 2016 to keep the seat.

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