Spokane County’s 4th Legislative District is a reliably Republican stronghold that typically does not draw a crowd of aspiring candidates. But as with so many other things, 2020 has proved atypical.
A total of 11 candidates are running for the three seats, though the crowded ballot is due in part to a person who is not on it. A closely held decision by controversial Rep. Matt Shea not to run for a seventh term set off a series of late entries and last-minute switches in the House races.
Both House seats have three Republican candidates and a single Democrat.
With another late filing, one of the area’s best-known Democrats, for County Commissioner John Roskelley, joined the race against incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Padden, the area’s longest serving legislator, who had already drawn an independent challenge from Anna Maria Danimus.
Spokane Valley voters, which make up the majority of the 4th District, haven’t had this many legislative candidates on a primary ballot since 1988, when seven candidates were running for a single House seat in the old open primary system. In most election years this century, at least one 4th District incumbent faced no opposition.
The legislative primary ballot is a combination of familiar names and novice candidates. Bob McCaslin – who enjoys perhaps the best name recognition among House candidates from a combination of three terms in the House and sharing a name with his late father who served 30 years in the Senate – is running again. But not for the seat he currently occupies.
For the last four years, McCaslin has been in the Position 2 seat. With 15 minutes to go before the filing deadline, he submitted his paperwork for Position 1, which previously had been held by Shea. Another familiar name, former Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, filed for Position 2.
That prompted Republican Leonard Christian, who had planned to run against Shea, to withdraw his candidacy for Position 1 and file a new one for Position 2. Republican Mike Conrad, who had filed for Position 2 expecting to run against McCaslin, withdrew his original candidacy and switched to Position 1.
Christian was appointed to the House in 2014 after Rep. Larry Crouse retired. He finished third in the primary that year, and McCaslin won the seat in the general election.
Rather than seek a rematch with McCaslin, Christian said he always planned to run against Shea.
“Matt was no longer effective for the 4th,” he said, believing the more conservative Republican built “stone walls over the years.”
After House GOP leadership removed Shea from their caucus last year when an independent investigation raised questions about Shea’s involvement in different anti-government demonstrations, Christian said he concluded it would take another Republican to beat the incumbent. He decided to run and filed early in the week for Position 1, the seat occupied by Shea.
Christian said he had heard rumors they were going to switch seats, or that Shea might run for the state Senate, even though incumbent Mike Padden had already filed for reelection, or Congress. He didn’t put a position number on his campaign signs.
As the week went on with neither Shea nor McCaslin filing, Christian prepared for a possible switch by filling out a new candidate petition for Position 2 and talked to Mike Conrad, a Valley businessman who had filed early in the week for Position 2 to run against McCaslin. Conrad agreed to switch to Position 1 if McCaslin filed for that seat.
To do that, both would have to withdraw their original positions, forfeit the filing fee of $527.66, refile for the new position and pay a second filing fee.
Christian arrived at the Spokane County elections office shortly before the deadline. When McCaslin filed for Position 1, Christian turned in the paperwork for himself and Conrad to withdraw from one seat and enter the other contest.
“I didn’t know it would be Chase,” he said.
Shea didn’t file for the state House, the state Senate or Congress. Chase, who previously announced a campaign for Congress, has said he had talked with Shea, whom he said was also considering a congressional run, and agreed to file for the Legislature if Shea ran against U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. He said he filed for Position 2 so McCaslin could run for Position 1 as the more senior House member and was surprised Shea didn’t run for Congress.
Shea, an attorney in private practice, typically does not talk to The Spokesman-Review and did not return a phone call or emails on filing week to discuss his decision. He recently was announced as the new pastor of Covenant Christian Church.
McCaslin declined to talk to the paper.
“I have no comment. Thank you though,” he said when reached by phone before hanging up.
The last-minute jockeying surprised Padden, who filed early on the first day of the week, as is his usual practice. Some Republicans had speculated Padden would have withdrawn from the Senate race if Shea got in, but the long-time legislator said that wouldn’t have happened. He would have had to forfeit his filing fee and “I’m definitely too frugal to do that.”
But he said he didn’t know what Shea would do and was surprised by the flurry of late filings. The suggestion that the switch was based on the Position 1 seat belonging to the more senior House member seemed odd, Padden added. He occupied the Position 2 seat for many years, when he was both the junior and senior representative for the district.
Christian and Chase have campaigned for different offices in the same election before, but never run against each other. Christian is a member of the Republicans of Spokane Party, a slightly less conservative faction than those who support Shea. Chase has run as a Libertarian before switching to the GOP, and describes the race as between those who supported Ron Paul and those who supported John McCain in 2008.
The fact that neither House incumbent had filed by the final day of the week prompted others to jump into the races. Republican Nathan Sybrandy, a surgical nurse at Deaconess Hospital, filed at the last minute for Position 2. He said he wasn’t planning on running this year, but decided to enter the race as an effort to “unify the party” with a new, younger voice.
“It’s just so clear that the issue of our time has been COVID-19,” Sybrandy, 24, said. The anticipated spike in hospitalizations didn’t occur in Spokane and the governor’s restrictions on businesses have been too strict, he said.
“Economic health is part of health,” he said.
Dave Whitehead, a teacher and former coach at Mount Spokane High School, said he was frustrated that Shea’s representation seemed to be more about the incumbent himself than the district’s constituents. As a teacher for 37 years, he’s worried about the budget and the tough choices that are coming. He debated whether to join the race or stay on the sidelines and eventually decided, “Why not?’ “
With less than an hour left in filing week, he filed for Position 1 and discovered later he’d be running against McCaslin. “I thought I filed for the wrong one. Did I screw up?’ “
The two Democrats in the races both filed earlier in the week and were surprised by the last-minute jockeying among Republicans.
Lori Feagan, a nurse practitioner who announced a campaign against Shea late last year and filed early in the week for Position 1, said she was at home that Friday when “my phone started blowing up around 3:30” with friends texting about the filings. She said she’s surprised, but not bothered, by the prospects of facing a different opponent.
“McCaslin and Shea tend to walk in lockstep,” Feagan said, adding she’s not intimidated by running against someone who has nearly two generations of name recognition.
Lance Gurel, an accountant who filed for Position 2, said he expected to run against McCaslin, in part because Feagan had already decided to take on Shea. But he realized they could “expect almost anything” until filing week ended. His three Republican opponents seem to represent different factions of the district’s GOP. He’ll try to convince voters that Democrats sometimes “represent family values a lot better than the other party does.”
Under the state election law, the two candidates with the most votes in the primary advance to the general, regardless of party.
The Senate race also gained a late entry, in part because of Shea. Roskelley, the former two-term county commissioner, said he wanted to challenge Shea and expected him to enter that race based on rumors he’d heard. He was monitoring the filings that Friday afternoon and as the deadline approached decided he still felt strongly about campaigning for the Senate based on several controversial issues, including his opposition to a 2018 law that will expand the board of commissioners to five members in 2020. Shea supported that bill, while Padden voted against it.
Roskelley thinks Valley voters as a whole might be getting less conservative based on the results of last year’s Spokane Valley City Council elections, when more moderate candidates won two of three races, shifting the balance of the council. He also describes himself as a conservative Democrat who faults the Legislature his party controls for not putting away enough of the rising tax revenues before COVID-19 brought down the economy.
“I am not going to support or approve anything they say until I see a fiscal note,” he said.
Before Roskelley entered the race, Padden had no Democratic opponent. But Ann Marie Danimus, a marketing manager, had filed for the Senate as an independent after initially considering a run against Shea for his House seat.
“I have ideological differences” with both parties, Danimus, 50, said. “I tend to identify as an independent, anyway.”
The large field is a mix of veteran campaigners and novice candidates, but 2020 may be a year where experience in past campaigns doesn’t count for much, many agreed.
“I don’t see anything close to being able to get out and meet people face-to-face,” Roskelley said.
There will still be yard signs, phone calls and digital ads, Padden said, but one mainstay of Valley campaigning – going door-to-door to meet voters and handout literature – will be difficult. Doorbelling, as it’s called, is important even for incumbents, he said.
“You’re always introducing yourself to the new people who have moved in since the last election,” he said.
Feagan agreed direct contact with voters will be difficult but said she’s not “locked in” to how campaigns are supposed to be run.
“I respect the fact that not everybody wants me to knock on their door,” she said.
Chase, who has run for several offices and managed campaigns over the years , said he’ll try doorbelling and “see what the reaction is.” It was key to Shea’s first win in 2008, he said.
Whitehead said he’ll just have to do his best to get his name out, hoping his years in teaching and coaching in the Mead School District can give him a boost in contacts and voter recognition.
Gurel ran for Spokane Valley City Council last year. Even though he didn’t win, he said he did well for a first-time candidate, in part by knocking on some 7,000 doors.
“It’s a new world,” he said. “Getting my message in front of voters – that I’m not whatever kind of Democrat they think they have something against – is a big challenge.”
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