LAKE STEVENS — A Democrat state senator faces two opponents in a contest that could affect the balance of the power in the Senate next year.
The trio are competing for a four-year term in the 44th Legislative District encompassing Lake Stevens, Snohomish, Mill Creek and unincorporated areas around Everett. The top two finishers will meet in November.
What makes this an important seat is the partisan divide in the chamber. Majority Democrats outnumber those in the Republican caucus by a single vote, 25-24. To keep control, Democrats cannot afford to lose any Senate contests this fall.
Republicans consider this a seat they can win because the 44th is a swing district, meaning voters are electing Democrats and Republicans to represent them in each chamber of the Legislature.
Hobbs, 48, is a major in the Army National Guard. He won his first election in 2006 by unseating the Republican incumbent, Dave Schmidt. Hobbs has been re-elected twice and is seeking a fourth term. He’s also run unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012 and for lieutenant governor in 2016.
He is the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, which puts him in the center of legislative debates regarding tolling on I-405, calculating vehicle registration fees by Sound Transit and replacing the trestle on Highway 2.
In 2015, when Republicans controlled the chamber, Hobbs, from his minority position, helped draft the 16-year, $16 billion transportation improvement program known as Connecting Washington. He and Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, led efforts to boost the level of funding for Snohomish County projects.
The self-described “radical moderate” leans left on most social and civil rights issues and leans right on fiscal issues and tax policy. He helped found the Roadkill Caucus as a voice for moderates tired of having their ideas run over by those on the political left and right. It has since dissolved.
Hobbs led efforts to ensure health insurers provide coverage for abortion if it is doing so for maternity services. He voted for a bill banning bump stocks but legislation raising the legal age to own a semiautomatic rifle failed to get a vote partly because at the time he would not vote for it.
If re-elected, he said he’ll focus on sustaining ample funding for public schools, toeing the centrist line on fiscal policy, getting more transportation dollars to communities for use on local projects and combating the opioid epidemic.
Roulstone, 68, is a retired naval officer. He was a combat pilot in the first Gulf War and later served as captain of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier.
In the political arena, he lost to Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen in the 2006 election. In 2014, after Republican state Rep. Mike Hope resigned, Roulstone was appointed to the seat and served about four months. He left after the November 2014 election of Mark Harmsworth.
Roulstone said he’ll focus on getting property taxes and car tabs lower, increasing road capacity and preventing enactment of any form of income tax.
One reason he said he’s running is to help the GOP regain control of the Senate and be a counterweight to the Democrat majority in the House and the Democrat governor.
“I just think we need to have a balance in Olympia,” he said.
Fitch, 38, is owner of Northwest Home Automation, a company that specializes in smart home technology.
He is campaigning on a platform of increasing accountability of government spending, expanding involvement of nonprofit organizations in assisting those suffering from opioid abuse disorder and revisiting the need for tolling on Interstate 405 between Lynnwood and Bellevue.
He also opposed the decision to route Sound Transit Link light rail trains off I-5 and out to the Boeing plant in Everett. He said he would like to see the alignment changed to show trains following I-5 into the city, a switch that he said would save more than a billion dollars and get service into Everett sooner.
On the issues of firearm restrictions, Roulstone and Fitch said they oppose additional restrictions but said they needed to read the gun safety ballot measure, Initiative 1639, before taking a position on it. The measure would, among other changes, raise the legal age for buying a semiautomatic rifle.
Hobbs demurred on the initiative as well. And he declined to say how he would vote on legislation boosting the age to buy one of those rifles, should it be reintroduced next year.
“I’m sure that bill will come up next year. I’m not sure where I am at,” he said.
On the issue of disclosure of lawmakers’ public records, the challengers have a different view than the incumbent. Hobbs voted for a bill to release some but not all of the records generated by lawmakers. Gov. Jay Inslee later vetoed it.
“I don’t think all constituent email should be made public,” Hobbs said. “I believe there is a compromise out there.”
Roulstone and Fitch said anything produced in a legislative capacity should be made public and names can be redacted if necessary.
“One of the major problems with government is the lack of transparency,” Roulstone said. “Voters need to know how the sausage is made in Olympia.”
One indicator of the political stakes of this contest is the amount of money involved in the race.
As of Wednesday, Hobbs had raised $272,588 and spent about $108,000 while Roulstone had brought in $130,149 and spent almost $73,000. Fitch reported raising and spending less than $1,000, according to the Public Disclosure Commission website.
The candidates aren’t the only ones spending. Several independent political committees are buying ads and sending out mailers in hopes of influencing the outcome.
Senate Republicans had funneled $138,146 through Washington Forward to criticize Hobbs in mail pieces and cable television ads. On the other hand, the Washington Realtors and Stand For Children, an education reform group, each sent out mailers supporting Hobbs. Their combined spending totaled nearly $32,000.
Mainstream Republicans of Washington spent nearly $18,000 in ads backing Roulstone.