Odd 1st District race is one of a kind

It’s an election for a congressional seat no one expected with a field of hopefuls the state’s Democratic Party boss never wanted.

And so far, the candidates in the race are spending literally no time or money campaigning to win.

Welcome to the special election in the 1st Congressional District, an oddball contest in which the victor will be a member of the U.S. House for less than a month and leave with the title of congressman — or woman — for life.

“It is unique. I doubt that it’s occurred anywhere else in the country,” Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said.

David Ammons, a former reporter and now spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said it is “a very unusual situation to have so much attention for a term that is remarkably short.”

At stake is a chance to occupy the House seat Democrat Jay Inslee gave up in March to campaign full time for governor against Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna.

The term runs through January so the 11 candidates — eight Democrats, two Republicans and one independent — are vying to serve the final month. Voters will winnow the list to the top two in the Aug. 7 primary and send them onto a November run-off.

Those seeking the short term are Republicans John Koster of Arlington and Steven Gerdes of Lynnwood, and Democrats Darcy Burner of Carnation, Suzan DelBene of Medina, Laura Ruderman of Kirkland, Darshan Rauniyar of Bothell, Brian Sullivan of Mukilteo, Byron Holcomb of Bainbridge Island, Brian Berry of Kenmore, and Ruth Morrison of Lynnwood. The lone independent is Bob Champion of Mukilteo.

This election will be decided by voters living in the district’s present boundaries, which run from south Snohomish County west through King County into Kitsap County. Mukilteo, Edmonds, Lynnwood and part of Monroe are included in the district.

There’s also an election going on within the new boundaries of the 1st District boundaries that were drawn in redistricting. The winner of that contest will get a full two-year term serving an area from Medina in King County to the Canadian border including farmland and small towns of east Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.

Those Snohomish County voters whose home is in the overlapping portions of the old and new districts will find both races on the ballot they’ll receive in the mail this week. They’ll also notice something else: several candidates are in both contests.

This may confuse voters. To help them understand what’s going on, county election officials are including information with the ballots and in the voters pamphlet.

Also, Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap counties are joining forces in a media campaign focused on getting voters to mark, sign and return ballots. The state is putting up $100,000 so a portion of the planned radio, television and online ads will include information on the special election.

The commotion comes from Inslee’s resignation.

“I never would have expected this,” Weikel said. “I don’t think when Congressman Inslee resigned any of us thought we’d be sitting here today talking about the election in this way.”

Initially, most in the world of Washington elections figured the state could leave the seat vacant.

But the U.S. Constitution pretty much requires it be filled and Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire wanted someone in it should Congress act on issues important to the state like tax cuts and defense spending.

Redistricting complicated matters. Under rules of the U.S. House, the person completing Inslee’s term must be chosen by voters in the same district that he served. That meant an election in the old district at the same time as one takes place in the new.

Gregoire did consider a winner-take-all primary this August — something the state Republican Party preferred. But to do this required a change in the law and she couldn’t get the Democrat-controlled Legislature interested.

Add up the mandates and the politics and you wind up with an election “that nobody particularly wanted,” Ammons said.

It is providing novice candidates a platform.

“I’m running because like a lot of Americans I am very frustrated by the lack of working together on the part of Republicans and Democrats,” said Champion, the independent candidate. “I think it’s time both sides listened to the people who are saying, ‘Hey, let’s cut the crap and get things done.’ “

This is Gerdes’ first bid for political office. He said he’s not tied to a political party but is running as a Republican because the GOP is in the majority and if he wins he’d have a better chance of getting his voice heard in the short time frame.

“If we seat a Democrat for a few days, it’s not worth it. They might as well not go,” he said.

Holcomb, an attorney, is running because he didn’t feel the others could do the job. His license as an attorney is currently suspended, according to the Washington State Bar Association website.

“I looked at the list of candidates and shook my head,” he said. “Frankly, I am the best qualified candidate in terms of education, experience and federal government knowledge. Not one can hold a candle to me in terms of those three areas.”

For the Democratic and Republican parties, the battle for a few days in December is the undercard and the fight for the full term the main event.

In the latter race, Koster, Burner, DelBene, Ruderman, and Rauniyar plus Democrat Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and independent Larry Ishmael of Kirkland have been engaged for months.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz wasn’t pleased when four Democrats decided to be in both races.

He worked to keep all of them out of the special election. He recruited Sullivan, a Snohomish County councilman, as a consensus candidate and the party even provided the money to pay his filing fee.

Sullivan contemplated withdrawing when the quartet jumped into the race but felt obliged to stay even though he’s not raising money or actively campaigning.

“I can’t necessarily blame the others for doing what they did,” Sullivan said. “Many times in history, veteran elected officials are asked to stand up and serve. That’s what happened to me.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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