Is a few weeks in Congress worth the run?
Eight candidates battling for a two-year term as the next representative of the 1st Congressional District must soon decide whether they want to try to get the job for a couple weeks in December, as well.
Right now, the seat is vacant. They all expected it would remain empty until one of them was sworn in to Congress in January.
That changed this week when Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered a special election to find someone to complete the unfinished term of U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, who resigned to run for governor. The election will cost taxpayers about $1 million and put the winner in office for less than a month.
Suddenly, all the candidates are wondering whether they should run, need to run and even can afford to run a second parallel campaign for the special election that will appear on the same ballots as the regular top-two primary in August and general election in November.
"We're still scratching our heads," said Larry Stickney, campaign manager for Republican hopeful John Koster of Arlington. "There are so many intangibles. There's a lot of opportunity for confusion. We'd love to focus on one campaign, but we're undecided at this point."
The six Democratic candidates are in the same boat of indecision. Representatives of Darcy Burner of Carnation, Suzan DelBene of Medina, Roger Goodman of Kirkland, Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, Darshan Rauniyar of Bothell and Laura Ruderman of Kirkland all said they are evaluating the situation.
Only Larry Ishmael, an independent, decided this week he's steering clear. He preferred a winner-take-all election in August but Gregoire decided not to pursue that option as it required a new law.
"I would have run if it was for a four- or five-month stint," he said.
What makes the decision difficult is the two elections won't be taking place in the same areas. So they'll be trying to win votes in essentially two different districts.
The special election will be decided by voters living in the old boundaries of the 1st District, an area stretching from south Snohomish County west through King County into Kitsap County. The regular election will be held in the much reconfigured 1st District; it stretches from Medina to the Canadian border and passes through rural areas east Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Thousands of voters in Snohomish, Kitsap and King counties will receive ballots with two congressional races on them. In those communities in both the old and new 1st District, it'll be for the same 1st District seat with different terms. State election officials will spend as much as $225,000 explaining what's going on to voters.
With a clear threat of confusion, Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz and Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur say they want it to be clear to a voter who is running for what seat.
Pelz wants Democrats vying for the two-year term to skip the special election, but he knows they are watching each other closely, and, if one jumps into the race, the others may follow.
"I will communicate to each of them that if you're running in the new 1st, we don't want you to run in the old 1st," he said.
Wilbur doesn't face that problem as Koster, a Snohomish County Councilman, is the only Republican in the field.
"We're deferring to John Koster on what he wants to do," he said. "We'll meet with his people early next week to look at the options. I actually have no opinion on whether he should or should not."
There's been talk of Pelz and Wilbur collaborating to find neutral or consensus candidates to head their respective tickets. Both said Friday they've not discussed it directly with one another yet.
"Once I determine what all the moving parts are and what all the ramifications are, we will certainly be trying to narrow the field and narrow the confusion and maybe talking to Republicans about putting forward a well-known Democrat and a well-known Republican," Pelz said. "But we can't stop someone from filing."
Already, a few Democrats contacted him to volunteer.
And friends of former Edmonds Mayor Mike Cooper launched an effort online to draw him into the race. A Facebook page to draft him went live Tuesday.
"I'm flattered. This never crossed my mind," said Cooper whose political career includes stints as a state lawmaker and Snohomish County councilman.
He said he'd seriously think about it if none of the top Democratic candidates intend to file and he doesn't land a permanent job by May 14, when the period for candidate filing begins.
As the Democratic candidates await the outcome of talks between party leaders, they're assessing the risks and rewards of running in the special election.
For example, they wonder if Koster gains any advantage on them if he runs in both races and they only compete against him in the new 1st District.
Hobbs, a state senator, needs to figure out if winning the special election would cost him his seat in the Legislature. State law allows him to hold both elected positions but federal law isn't as clear.
Candidates quietly grumbled this week at the mess caused by Gregoire's decision. Most of them wished she hadn't acted.
The governor didn't feel she could legally leave the seat open, nor did she want to, because the lame-duck Congress may deal with issues important to the state, said Cory Curtis, her communications director.
A bill allowing residents to deduct sales tax from their federal returns could come up, he said. So, too, may be legislation improving collection of taxes from online sales, which could net the state $170 million in new revenues.
"She's not going to change her mind," he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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