Ted Cummings admits he didn’t pay much attention to state Rep. Matt Shea until early this year, when he noticed the Spokane Valley legislator had introduced a bill that aimed to cripple labor unions.
The so-called “right to work” proposal, which never passed out of committee, was anathema to Cummings, a longtime Kaiser Aluminum employee and member of the Steelworkers union. The phrase “right to work,” he said, is “a misnomer” that’s “designed to steal from working men and women.” He recalled thinking, “Why would I elect a representative for my state to actively work against my interests?”
It was the start of a habit of researching Shea that eventually motivated Cummings, 57, to run against the five-term GOP representative as a Democrat. In short order, Cummings learned about Shea’s absolutist view of the Second Amendment, his petition to split Washington into two states and his embrace of far-right conspiracy theories and anti-government causes – not to mention the time in 2011 when the lawmaker pulled a gun during a road rage incident in downtown Spokane.
Cummings said he initially planned to campaign on a primarily economic platform: jobs, health care, education and infrastructure. “But the more I’ve become aware of Mr. Shea and the things around him, my focus has really shifted,” Cummings said. “I think this man is just unhinged. I think he’s dangerous. I think he’s transitioned from a state representative, or any kind of leader, into more of a cult figure.”
Shea, an attorney and Army veteran, did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story, in keeping with his usual practice of ignoring media inquiries.
He has represented the 4th Legislative District since 2008, when he beat two Democrats and two other Republicans to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Schindler. The deeply conservative district covers Spokane Valley and the northeast corner of Spokane County. At the time of his first election in 2008, the recently divorced Shea was the director of the Washington Family Foundation, which he said promoted “family-value, religious-liberty and sanctity-of-life issues.”
Shea ran unopposed in 2010, and since then no challenger has come close to unseating him. He topped Democrat Amy Biviano by 13 percentage points in 2012, Republican Josh Arritola by 15 percentage points in 2014 and Democrat Scott Stucker by 29 percentage points in 2016.
Cummings has run for office once before, mounting a long-shot challenge to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in 2016. He ran as an independent with a focus on money in politics, criticizing both Murray and her main GOP rival at the time, Chris Vance.
According to Public Disclosure Commission filings, Shea’s campaign had raised about $101,000 as of early October, with 14 corporate groups and political action committees contributing the maximum amount allowed under state law: $2,000 for both the primary and general elections. Cummings, meanwhile, had raised about $23,000. The only outside group that had contributed $2,000 to his campaign was his union, United Steelworkers. He’s also received support from other unions, the Washington State Democrats and the political arm of the Washington Education Association.
As a Catholic gun owner who raises cattle on a small ranch in Chattaroy between shifts at Kaiser’s Trentwood plant in Spokane Valley, Cummings can distinguish himself from the previous Democrats who challenged Shea. But he fared only slightly better than they did in the August primary, taking less than 43 percent of the vote. While knocking on doors with campaign volunteers, Cummings acknowledged, many residents have been resolute in their support of Shea.
“I would love to debate Mr. Shea, and I think we should. I think we’re 180 degrees apart,” he said. “If the voters want him, they want him, and that’s fine. I just want everyone to know what they’re getting when they get this person.”
Shea has alienated some fellow Republicans, notably Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, whom he once accused of being complicit in a triple homicide. But he remains popular among many Spokane Valley leaders, including Mayor Rod Higgins and current and former City Council members.
As chairman of the House GOP caucus with posts on the Judiciary and Transportation committees, Shea champions a “Freedom Agenda” that aims to lower taxes, rein in government and protect property rights and gun ownership.
Shea is also adept at spreading his message on social media and in his “Patriot Radio” podcast. On Facebook recently, he urged people to watch a film called “Revelation: Dawn of Global Government,” featuring Infowars’ Alex Jones and musicians Ted Nugent and Charlie Daniels, among other stars in the far-right “patriot” movement.
“Liberal policies are destroying America,” Shea says in a video on his campaign website.
A link at the top of that site directs to another website touting plans to turn Eastern Washington into a 51st state called Liberty. There, Shea appears in another video, speaking to a crowd in Colville in January about the merits of secession, the importance of “Judeo-Christian values,” the dream of the American Redoubt and the looming threats of communism and “Soviet Islamic terror.”
At one point during his hourlong presentation in Colville, Shea pointed to a homemade diagram with the names of 20 local organizations pasted onto an image of an octopus. The nonprofit Center for Justice law firm was the head of the octopus, while the names of other groups, like the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and the radio station KYRS, were scattered around the tentacles.
“This is the network of socialist organizations in downtown Spokane, in our own backyard. Wow. Who knew? Who knew?” Shea told his audience. “Some of these people actually advocate violence,” he added, providing no evidence.
Cummings called Shea’s rhetoric “fear-mongering,” and he specifically took issue with the lawmaker’s characterizations of Islam. “Our community is not an area where we should welcome or tolerate hate,” Cummings said, “and I believe that’s what this man is espousing.”
Online, Shea routinely shares articles by John Guandolo, a disgraced former FBI agent who runs an anti-Muslim organization called Understanding the Threat. In an episode of Shea’s podcast in July, Guandolo, speaking with former Spokane Valley Councilman Caleb Collier, painted Islam as uniformly violent.
“The fact that 17 years after 9/11 we still have people saying Islam is peace and Islam doesn’t tolerate ISIS – it’s just, it’s utter junk,” Guandolo said. “I mean, it’s just simply not true, and there’s no basis in fact for it.”
Cummings also criticized Shea for taking part in a “Liberty or Death” rally in August, where the lawmaker joined armed militia members and other activists to protest Washington Initiative 1639, which would raise the minimum purchase age for semi-automatic rifles from 18 to 21 and establish new training requirements and safe-storage rules. (That’s the same demonstration where Shea called journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people.”)
“Don’t get me wrong,” Cummings said. “I own guns. I hunt. I fully respect the Second Amendment. I have no desire to infringe on anyone’s right to bear arms.”
But there was no reason, Cummings said, to carry so much weaponry in a city park.
“I think that you can have a gun rally without actually making people uncomfortable, without being next to kids playing soccer, and you have a semi-automatic rifle? I think that’s irresponsible, at best,” he said.
Asked if he would support raising the minimum purchase age for semi-automatic rifles, Cummings replied: “That’s problematic. You can be drafted in the military at 18. It’s something that I would look at. It’s not initially something that I think I would support. I would much prefer maybe a requirement that you get gun training, you know, like hunter safety.”
He said he’s somewhat more amenable to a proposal to raise Washington’s smoking age to 21, which is likely to resurface in the Legislature next session. “I have no problem with it,” he said. “No one is being harmed by not being able to smoke a cigarette. But I much prefer the sin tax.”
Cummings has complicated feelings about abortion – which Shea often describes as murder. Although he is a devout Catholic, Cummings said he would not impose his personal beliefs on constituents, and he has secured an endorsement from Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii.
“The choices that (women) make, as long as they’re lawful, are between them and their conscience and their god, if they have one, and my job is to see that they’re treated equally under the law,” Cummings said. “And it really disturbs me that this person (Shea) is going out there and basically attacking women based on his personal beliefs.”
On education, Cummings said he supports the increased teacher salaries and other spending mandated by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. “I don’t think there’s a better use of tax dollars than education,” he said.
He added that kids from poor families should have better access to nutrition programs in schools, and that the state should invest in more training and apprenticeship programs. Not all high school graduates, he said, should go straight to four-year universities. “We need to get people back working with their hands,” he said. “They need to have skilled trades, so we can string wire and plumb and weld and get our industry back.”
On health care, Cummings said working-class people should organize and demand better insurance from their employers. “I would love to see an expansion of Medicare or Medicaid where everybody has some sort of health insurance,” he added. “And I’m not saying we have to eliminate private insurance. We have a post office and we have UPS that work side-by-side. I don’t know why we can’t do the same thing in health care.”
Cummings also disclosed that he generally likes the idea of a state income tax, though he acknowledged it would be “political suicide” to push that idea in Washington, where some lawmakers pushed last year to enshrine an income tax prohibition in the state constitution. Cummings said an income tax could be part of a fairer tax system, and a more reliable source of revenue for the state government when the economy slumps.
“An income tax, I think, helps lower-income people, and I think it’s a more equitable system,” he said. “But if the people don’t want it, the people don’t want it, and I got to live within what the voters support.”
Ballots in Spokane County will be mailed Oct. 17 for the Nov. 6 general election.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018 to correct the name of the Planned Parenthood organization that endorsed Cummings.