A would-be newcomer to the Washington State Senate faces a former police officer and current state representative in what appears to be a close race for Washington’s 6th Legislative District seat.
The seat has been held by a Republican since sitting Sen. Michael Baumgartner defeated Democratic incumbent Chris Marr in 2010. Republican Rep. Jeff Holy said his six years of experience representing the district in the House, as well as his work on the Higher Education and Public Safety Committee, has prepared him for the “cowboy atmosphere” of the Senate.
“I’m on my third term in the House and I think I’ve just achieved journeyman status,” he said.
His opponent, Jessa Lewis, said she already knows how to navigate issues in Olympia due to her work in energy security at Joint Base Lewis McCord, her leadership experience at the Washington location for the nonprofit Healthcare for All, and environmental advocacy. She said she believes her governmental and nonprofit work will help her understand how the Senate operates, but her other work experience as a park ranger, cannabis store general manager and food service worker will help her understand the practical needs of the people in her district.
“I’m able to draw on direct experience to actually inform my policy and where I see things need to go,” she said.
The 6th Legislative District encompasses Cheney, Airway Heights, Medical Lake and western portions of Spokane. Holy, a former Spokane Police detective and lawyer, earned 62.9 percent of the district’s vote in the last election, defeating Democrat Shar Lichty, an organizer at the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.
But he appears to be in a much tighter race this year. In the August primary, Holy won by 4.5 percentage points over Lewis, taking 52 percent of the district’s vote.
Holy said that, if elected, he likely would end up on the Public Safety Committee because of his years working in law enforcement, but he would like to continue his work to make higher education more affordable for students from different backgrounds.
While in the House, Holy was the primary sponsor of a bipartisan opportunity scholarship bill that was introduced in 2017 and signed into law near the end of the 2018 session. Holy also has sponsored or co-sponsored several unsuccessful higher education bills, including a bill designed to strengthen privacy protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses and the Academic Bill of Rights, which would have codified more free-speech protections on campuses.
Both candidates said the Legislature’s solution to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, which found that the state was not properly funding K-12 education, may not be sustainable in the long term.
Lewis said the body should have explored other funding solutions, such as a capital gains tax, to adequately fund education.
Holy said the state’s four-year budgeting requirement for school districts may not have been the type of oversight school districts need while negotiating salaries for staff, which the state will eventually have to pay for.
“They had the authority, we had the responsibility,” he said. “I don’t see that long-lived.”
Holy had an excused absence when the Legislature voted for the 2017 budget that significantly boosted education funding and revamped the calculations for how property taxes pay for schools.
Lewis said she grew up in the area and understands Republicans because she once identified as one. After an unplanned pregnancy she ended up homeless for a time, but through government assistance programs, access to higher education and help from friends, was able to give her daughter a better life.
“It was actually the social safety net that enabled my daughter and I to get back on our feet,” she said.
She said she still has an independent spirit and holds many of the same values, but now supports more progressive issues, such as access to abortion and social programs.
Holy said he couldn’t support abortion due to his Catholic faith and has co-sponsored several unsuccessful bills restricting it. He also co-sponsored Washington’s version of the “Bathroom Bill,” which would have allowed businesses to restrict access to their facilities based on sex and gender. Holy said the bill wasn’t designed to disadvantage people who identify differently from the sex they are assigned at birth, but rather for the comfort and safety of others using those facilities.
Of the initiatives on Washington’s ballot, Lewis said she supported the carbon fee, 1-1631, and a new gun initiative, I-1639, which would require enhanced background checks for semi-automatic rifles, a one-day waiting period and firearms training course. It also would raise the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles to 21 and require gun owners to keep their weapons secured at home. Lewis said she is a gun owner, but wants to see more legislation to ensure firearms don’t make it into the wrong hands.
Both Holy and Lewis said they would not vote for the grocery tax initiative, which would bar local governments from taxing basic food and toiletry items, saying the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what taxes they are allowed to collect.
Holy said he would not vote for the carbon tax or I-1639, saying the safe-storage component could criminalize people whose fire arms were taken from their homes and used illegally and it may not stop gun violence.
Both said they would like to see more state investment in their district. Holy said he hoped his work would create an environment where young graduates from Spokane’s colleges could feel like they would easily find employment in their industry if they stayed in the area. Lewis said she hoped to see more investment in policing and infrastructure in Medical Lake to support local governments where large state facilities like Eastern State Hospital are located.
Editor’s note: This story was altered on Sunday, Sept. 30 to correct a misstatement about Jessa Lewis’ work in the cannabis industry. She was the general manager of one cannabis store and director of marketing at another.