Mark James (left) and April Berg.

Mark James (left) and April Berg.

Moderates may decide a million-dollar battle for state House

Democrat April Berg and Republican Mark James are dueling in the 44th, a political swing district.

Democrat April Berg and Republican Mark James are battling for an open House seat in a Snohomish County district where politically moderate voters may decide the outcome.

Berg and James are dueling in the 44th Legislative District, considered a swing district because historically its seats switch between Democratic and Republican control more often than most.

This year’s winner will succeed Jared Mead, a Democrat now serving on the Snohomish County Council who won the legislative post in 2018 by beating an incumbent Republican.

At stake is a two-year term in Position 2 for the district, which encompasses the cities of Mill Creek, Snohomish, Marysville and Lake Stevens.

James, 58, of Marysville, is in his third year on the Marysville City Council. He also serves on the Snohomish County Planning Commission and runs the coupon magazine Hometown Value Savings.

Berg, 46, of Mill Creek, won a six-year term on the Everett School Board in 2019 and is a member of the Mill Creek Planning Commission. She said she plans to keep serving on the school board if elected to the Legislature.

James won the August primary, but there were two Democrats on the ballot — Berg and the more moderate Anne Anderson of Lake Stevens. The women combined to get roughly 52% of the vote.

In this match-up, Berg and James are trying to accent the contrasts in their views and style.

Berg, in interviews and forums, says with the pandemic continuing to weigh heavy on everyone’s mind, it will be as important for lawmakers to be a source of optimism next year as it will be to pass policies and enact budgets.

“The overarching message in 2021 is giving people hope that we will come out of it better than we went in,” she said at a forum hosted by the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce.

Whether it’s education, health care, transportation, economic development, public safety or social justice, they must “inspire confidence” that there is a path to a better tomorrow, Berg said.

On some issues, Berg has fine-tuned her message since August.

In the primary, she voiced strong support for a capital gains tax, saying it would be a progressive tax on wealth and not hurt working families and main street businesses.

But in the virtual forum, she said she would not support any new taxes and was not an advocate of higher taxes.

Asked to clarify, she said in an interview that an excise tax on capital gains would not be a new or higher tax. It would close a loophole by eliminating tax breaks and exemptions on financial assets. She said she opposes an income tax.

Berg, who has a younger brother working in law enforcement, has also rebuffed claims that she would slash police funding. She, like many Democratic candidates, did publicly pledge to support five reforms for police accountability pushed by a statewide coalition of progressives known as Fuse. One is to “redirect police department funding to community-based alternatives.”

She said it’s appropriate to look at changing how funds are distributed, how training is conducted and how police departments can be demilitarized.

“I’ve never said I would defund police,” she said. “I am talking about re-imagining law enforcement.”

James opposes new or higher taxes. And he strongly backs repeal of a new law mandating that every public school have a comprehensive sex education curriculum — a law that Berg supports.

He has honed his message, too, talking less about social issues and more about ways to address homelessness, housing shortages, transportation and education. He has eased off talk about deep cuts in agency budgets and focused on the need for deregulation and tax incentives to spur economic development.

James veered away from questions about President Donald Trump, whose unpopularity with some voting blocs could hurt GOP candidates in close races. James declined to say if he would vote for the Republican president.

“I am running for a state office,” he said.

On the handling of the pandemic, he said lawmakers should have gone into special session to start tackling the challenges of a projected budget shortfall.

Though he didn’t criticize Gov. Jay Inslee for using his authority to issue proclamations in the public health emergency, he said lawmakers do need to act to limit the scope and duration of those emergency powers.

Similarly, James didn’t oppose the governor’s mask mandate but made clear he believes it’s a personal choice whether to comply.

“I care about protecting other people. When I go out I wear a mask out of courtesy to those around me in public,” he said. “I am not going to put my beliefs on anyone else.”

Similarly, on the subject of reopening schools, he said it should occur as soon as school officials think it is safe to do so. While there are risks to reopening, people take risks every day, he said.

“We forget the risks we take every day that are greater than the risk from COVID,” he said. “We have to find a balance.”

One sign the political parties view this as a winnable seat are the sums of money each have poured into the race.

As of Thursday, nearly a million dollars had been collectively raised and spent by the candidates and independent political committees operating on each side of the partisan divide.

Berg has out-raised James $316,302 to $287,116. A little under half of Berg’s total comes from the political arm of the House Democratic Caucus and other party organizations. For James, close to 75 percent of his total is from the House Republican Caucus political operation and statewide GOP forces.

Meanwhile, four political action committees have spent $165,117 so far on mailers and commercials backing Berg, while one group expended $12,000 on materials supporting James.

Both candidates have been the target of hit pieces and negative ads funded by PACs operating independent of the their campaigns.

The state Republican Party has funneled $125,000 into the Quality Communities Committee to take on Berg, while a super PAC known as New Direction shelled out just under $100,000 on mailers hitting James. New Direction has raised $6.1 million this cycle from House and Senate Democrats and several statewide labor unions.

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

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