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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Democrats Heck, Liias vie for lieutenant governor

Heck, left, and Liias  (handout photos)

Washington voters shouldn’t assume the printer made a mistake when they notice their ballot has two candidates listed as Democrats in the lieutenant governor’s slot.

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck and state Sen. Marko Liias are both Democrats and have held elective office as such for years. Because Washington’s primary election system isn’t a partisan process but a winnowing down to the top two vote-getters, every so often it gives voters in the general election a choice between two members of the same party.

Each represents a different wing of the Democratic Party – Liias has more support from the upstart progressive wing while Heck tends more toward the established moderates – and a different route to the ballot.

Liias served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2016. He serves as Democratic floor leader, managing the flow of legislation for the majority party. He describes himself as the first millennial to be elected to the Legislature, and would be the first openly gay person in statewide office if he wins in November.

Heck served in the House for 10 years, rising to majority leader in that chamber. He was Booth Gardner’s chief of staff in that governor’s second term, and helped create TVW, the state’s cable public affairs station. He was in private business before running for a new congressional seat the state was awarded in 2011because of its growing population.

Both Democrats are trying to assure voters they can be bipartisan when it comes to one of the lieutenant governor’s key jobs, presiding over the state Senate.

They would be doing it in a time when the state is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, wrestling with the economy that pandemic has battered and revising a budget that faces a shortfall because of lower revenue and lost jobs.

“I work with colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Liias said, listing work on issues like paid family and medical leave and the transportation budget. “Our potholes don’t have party labels.”

He knows the ropes from serving in the Senate, which Heck hasn’t, he said. The occupant of the office, Cyrus Habib, supports Liias, as do 22 of his Democratic Senate colleagues.

Heck said he has the longer history of working with Republicans as well as Democrats, first in the Legislature, later as chief of staff for then-Gov. Gardner and later in his eight years in Congress: “I have done it.”

Habib’s predecessor, Brad Owen, who held the job for 20 years, supports him, as do former Govs. Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke, he said.

Another challenge for the two Western Washington residents could be collecting votes in Eastern Washington, where a Republican finished first in all but one county, and second in most others.

Heck said he understands East Side issues like agriculture, having grown up on a farm, and the importance of low cost hydropower. His wife, Paula Frucci Heck, is a Spokane native and much of the extended family lives in Eastern Washington.

While he knows many Eastern Washington voters don’t feel elected officials from the other side of the state listen to them, he assures them he will – or would have to skip Thanksgiving dinner with family.

Liias points to legislative issues he’s worked on that benefit both sides of the state, including increased college aid, expanded health care options, transportation projects like the North Spokane Corridor and protections for pollinators key to agriculture.

The lieutenant governor would move up should the governor die or resign. While that’s a possibility for anyone in that office, there is speculation that the winner this year would have a greater chance of becoming governor at least temporarily, should Jay Inslee and Joe Biden also win the November election, and Biden tap Inslee for a federal post.

A replacement for the rest of Inslee’s term would have to run in November 2021. While there are several hypotheticals at play – Inslee has said he wouldn’t take an appointment, but a request from your party’s president can be hard to refuse – each was asked if he would run for the full term should the situation arise.

Heck said no. He’d be facing the pandemic, a recession and the budget problems they’ve created, he said. “No individual possesses the bandwidth” to lead a state under those conditions and run a campaign.

Liias called this an “interesting parlor game” because he believes Inslee when the governor said he wouldn’t take an appointment.

“I’m running to be lieutenant governor. That’s the job I want,” Liias said.

That’s not really a no, Heck countered.

The lieutenant governor sits on a series of boards and commissions, including chairman of the Legislative Committee on Economic Development and International Relations. Both want to use that position to boost the economy, and in particular exports.

“Washington has more jobs linked to trade than any other state,” Liias said, but he wants to do more to help small- and medium-sized companies get into international markets.

Through his work on the House Intelligence Committee, Heck said he has “significant experience” on international relations because of many trips to other countries to talk with diplomats and security officials.

“Each of (the trips) involved economic discussions and economic briefings about the trade relations between America and those nations,” he said.

Although there is no Republican on the ballot, former Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed has filed as a write-in candidate for the office.

Freed finished third in the Aug. 4 primary for governor, and stepped up when the state GOP was looking for someone to run as a counter to the two Democrats.

His campaign includes some education for voters on how to cast a write-in ballot. It’s a tough challenge, as no write-in candidate has won a statewide race. Although some people point to Republican Linda Smith winning the 1994 3rd District congressional race, her write-in victory was in the primary. She was on the ballot for the general election.

Freed expects some voters will remember him from the gubernatorial primary, and said his hope is that Liias and Heck split the vote so that neither gets more than 33%, and he gets at least 34% with strong support from Republicans and some independents.

He’ll have to do that without a listing in the Voter Guide being mailed to Washington households and posted on the Secretary of State’s website, or the video voter’s guide on TVW. He also hasn’t been invited to debates between Liias and Heck.

Freed is running on a platform of cutting state spending, which has grown rapidly in recent years, rather than raising taxes. In an interview, he said he wouldn’t let a bill that calls for a tax increase come up for debate while presiding over the Senate. But while the lieutenant governor serves as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee that controls the calendar, he doesn’t have the ability to block a bill that a majority of committee members want to bring to the floor.

Northwest Passages Virtual Forum / The Spokesman-Review

He also wants to increase state programs to fight drug addiction, and would favor turning state facilities he considers underused into long-term drug treatment centers. On that list he would put The Evergreen State College, which has seen sharp drops in enrollment in the past two years, and the Special Corrections Center for civilly committed sexual predators at McNeil Island, which he thought had no more than 15 residents. The Department of Social and Health Services said, however, there are 196 residents there.

Although he’s not familiar with the rules of the Senate, which are based partly on precedent rulings, Freed said he is familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order from being mayor of Bothell and presiding over its city council, and would get help from staff and some GOP senators who have promised assistance.

The initial election totals will show how many absentee ballots were cast for the office, but won’t show for whom. Only if there are enough absentees cast to make a difference in the outcome will election officials count them to determine how many were marked for Freed.