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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Political Tornado Swirls In District That Could Determine Control Of Washington House

A political tornado is swirling toward western Washington's 30th Legislative District. It’s swallowing up money from political action committees and pummeling voters and the candidates with attack ads.

And the path the twister takes could determine control of the Washington state House.

Things could not have been more cheerful at a recent Federal Way Chamber of Commerce luncheon. It was as if the civic and business boosters mingling at the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club were oblivious to the political storm clouds gathering over them. And yet, politics is exactly what had brought them there.

It was a forum for the four candidates vying for the two House seats in the 30th. What followed was an exceedingly polite half hour Q-and-A with the candidates. They talked about education funding, transportation and economic development. There was no mention of the political storm bearing down on the 30th in these final weeks before the election.

High stakes in Olympia

The suburban district between Seattle and Tacoma represents the bull's-eye in the battle for control of Washington’s House of Representatives. If Republicans can hold these seats, they might be able to claim the majority. If Democrats can’t pick up these seats, they could lose their nearly 20-year grip on the Washington House.

While it might not have come up during the forum, the candidates there knew the stakes are high.

“Oh yeah. I mean it’s absolutely insane.” Republican Teri Hickel said. She currently holds one of the House seats in this district after winning a bruising special election last year. Now Democrats are determined to win her seat back.

Hickel said the leading edge of the political twister has already flung a few shingles into her path.

“To have people say that me, a 20-year education supporter, would ever support a four-day school week, I don’t know where they get this stuff,” she said.

Hickel expects the intensity of political attacks to increase in the coming weeks.

Her Democratic opponent, Kristine Reeves, said the lashing from Republicans is well underway.

“A lot of it has hit already,” Reeves said.

She pointed to mailers being sent to voters in the 30th District that say she supports an income tax. The tag line on one mailer is: “Ignore the smile. Protect your wallet.”

“I don’t think anybody likes to be told that they can’t be trusted by people who don’t know them,” Reeves said. “I don’t think anybody likes to have implications that they’re a thief and that’s what my opponent is saying about me, right?”

‘It’s out of our control’

It’s actually the House Republican’s Reagan Fund, a political action committee, that’s behind the mailers. The Reagan Fund is also hammering the Democrat in the race for the other House seat in the 30th District, Mike Pellicciotti.

Pellicciotti said he moved to the district a year-and-a-half ago and dismisses the attack as “silliness.”

“It’s what happens when an incumbent loses an election in the primary and they get desperate,” Pellicciotti said. “They get desperate and they start talking about things that aren’t important to the district.”

Pellicciotti was referring to the fact that in the August primary he won 52 percent of the vote over Republican incumbent Linda Kochmar.

For her part, Kochmar said the negative attacks -- often paid for by outside groups -- threaten to overshadow the candidates and their campaigns.

“It’s out of our control,” Kochmar said. “It’s going to get very nasty between here and the election. It’s unbelievable the amount of money being spent. It’s not necessary. Especially not here.”

In the coming weeks, this political twister will deposit more negative mailers and TV ads into the mailboxes and living rooms of 30th district voters. But at the Chamber of Commerce event, the political flyers stacked on the welcome table forecast only sunshine: photos of smiling candidates promising voters a champion, a problem-solver, a hard worker and a change agent.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."