- FROM LEFT: Ian Field, Mike Volz, Lynnette Vehrs, Samuel Canty and Barry Pfundt are hoping to be the next representative from the 6th Legislative District.
It looks like a claw reaching out to grab the city of Spokane, and it could tip the balance of power in Washington state politics.
The 6th Legislative District wraps around Spokane from the west, encompassing parts of the South Hill and North Indian Trail. It sprawls out into the West Plains, includes Cheney and Fairchild Air Force Base, and even extends into the Palouse.
This spring, Kevin Parker, one of the district's Republican representatives who has sailed to re-election since first being elected in 2008, announced his retirement. Although the district has been dominated by Republicans since 2010, Jim CastroLang, chair of the Spokane County Democrats, now sees an opening in the geographically diverse district.
"I don't think that some of the [Republicans'] best people decided to run this time around; I'm not sure why that is," says CastroLang. "We can definitely win in this district."
The race has drawn relatively unknown candidates, with the Democrats running retired nurse Lynnette Vehrs against Republicans Ian Field, former press secretary for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and Mike Volz, Spokane County chief deputy treasurer, both of whom have drawn support from different camps in the party. Also in the race is Samuel Canty, a Republican focused on improving the business climate, and Barry Pfundt, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Justice who is running as an independent.
With Democrats controlling the state House of Representatives by just two seats, Dave Moore, chair of the Spokane County Republican Party, says that depending on how other races statewide turn out, the outcome of this race could put the chamber under GOP control. His candidates, he says, "are winners" with strong financial and legislative experience. But this election cycle is different, with Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul whose caustic campaign has divided the GOP, at the top of the Republican ticket, and it's unclear how his presence will affect races down the ballot.
THE ESTABLISHMENT CANDIDATE?
When Field found out that Parker wasn't running for re-election, he started making phone calls to local Republican Party leaders about running for the seat. He also called Parker, who told him "Go for it." Parker endorsed Field and co-chairs his campaign.
Less than three weeks out from the Aug. 2 primary, Field has the backing of much of Spokane's Republican establishment, including his old boss McMorris Rodgers and former City Councilman Steve Salvatori. Mayor David Condon even held a fundraiser in his home for the candidate. So far, Field leads the pack in fundraising with a $48,700 war chest.
"We need young people to come in with new energy," says Field of why he ran. "I bring that energy and commitment."
The clean-cut Field speaks with an earnest and eager cadence and wears Birkenstocks while door-belling. Growing up in Walla Walla, Field says he was imbued with a sense of community service, and remembers helping clean up the local park with his mom. He attended Walla Walla University, where he served as editor of the school paper.
After graduating, he went to work for McMorris Rodgers, eventually becoming her press secretary. Working for the congresswoman, he says, gave him a sense of issues facing Eastern Washington and how to work in a legislative environment.
If elected, he says he wants to increase funding for schools and infrastructure, while putting property crime offenders under better monitoring. He also opposes efforts to increase minimum wage or mandate sick leave for employees.
THE OTHER ESTABLISHMENT CANDIDATE?
Mike Volz has raised $13,000 and been endorsed by other Spokane County Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Matt Shea, who has been criticized for his extreme positions and for visiting armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon earlier this year.
Despite repeated requests, Volz didn't grant the Inlander an interview, but in a recent League of Women Voters forum, he touted his experience working in private business and the county while raising a family. Volz also said he was interested in job creation and reducing the tax burden on businesses. Doing so, he said, will create more revenue and prevent businesses from choosing Idaho over Washington.
"We are losing those jobs," he said. "We are losing that opportunity for our citizens and we are losing that tax base for government."
Despite Shea's endorsement, Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O'Quinn, who ran as a Republican for state representative in the district in 2010, says that Volz is not a fringe candidate; Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, a persistent critic of Shea, has also endorsed Volz.
"They're both reasonable fiscal conservatives," says O'Quinn, who has donated to both Volz and Field. "I wouldn't describe either as extreme... they've just walked different paths in the party."
A SWING TO THE LEFT?
The most recent Democrat to represent the 6th District was Rep. John Driscoll, who lost in 2010 to Republican John Ahern.
Now, Lynnette Vehrs, a retired nurse, wants the district to swing back. She's been active in politics since nursing school, when she canvassed for the Equal Rights Amendment and Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign.
"Nurses need to be involved in politics because a really strong part of what we do in our profession is for patients; people who are sick often don't have a voice," she says.
Vehrs, who has long been active in the Washington State Nurses Association and describes herself as a "moderate," is focused on health care. She wants Spokane's new medical school to launch smoothly, and says she'll support a bill seeking to expand health coverage in the state. Vehrs also wants more sustainable energy and full funding for education.
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat from the neighboring 3rd District, says that for Vehrs to win, she'll have to get out the vote in the South Hill and North Indian Trail. He says there's an opportunity to pick up votes in the college town of Cheney, as well as Medical Lake, which is home to many state employees who work at Eastern State Hospital and might be receptive to her.
Moore, of the Spokane County Republicans, says that for a Democrat to win in the 6th, they'd also need a large sweep in outlying rural areas. While Riccelli and others say that knocking on doors and showing up at community events is critical, large swaths of the district are rural, making face-to-face interaction less likely. Reaching these voters will require advertising, which requires money. Statewide labor unions believe that Vehrs is viable enough to contribute to her campaign. So far she's raised $24,266, about half the amount raised by Field.
"The unfortunate thing is, money is an issue," says Vehrs.
THE BUSINESS CANDIDATE
Samuel Canty, a former commercial aviation pilot and owner of the South Hill cake shop Nothing Bundt Cakes, is running as a pro-business Republican, calling for the state to scrap the business and occupation tax and replace it with a corporate income tax. He also wants to do away with many permits and licenses, particularly those regarding hiring.
"Employers shouldn't have to pay for the right to employ the state's populace," he says.
He also wants to boost state funding to help police combat property crime and wants to find ways to improve infrastructure.
The McCleary decision, a state Supreme Court ruling requiring lawmakers to fully fund basic education, should be resolved by lawmakers "sooner rather than later," Canty says, but he is reluctant to raise taxes to pay for it.
Asked how he differs from his Republican opponents, Canty says that having never worked in politics and owning a business gives him a unique perspective.
"I know from personal experience the difficulties that people in the district face," he says. "I hear it all the time."
Although Canty has raised just $1,465, he says it's proof that he's not beholden to anyone.
Barry Pfundt, a lawyer who splits his time between the nonprofit Center for Justice and directing a law clinic at Gonzaga University for low-income clients, says both parties' established candidates are "a culmination of how bad it has gotten."
"The parties have gotten us where we are today, and they are not turning this aircraft around," he says.
Pfundt, who is running as an independent, criticizes Volz and Field for being employed by government while wanting to cut it. Pfundt says that Vehrs is too focused on health care and too entrenched in Democratic politics for the fairly conservative 6th District.
Before becoming a lawyer, Pfundt worked as a commercial fisherman, served in the Navy and worked for Democratic politicians in the state, including former 3rd District Congressman Brian Baird and governors Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke.
If elected, Pfundt says he wants an overhaul of the state's mental health system, which he says spends too much and leaves too many people falling through the cracks. He would question subsidies given to large corporations over small businesses, and do away with the business and occupation tax.
Although he's raised no money, Pfundt says he'll launch a website soon and increase his social media presence.
"I'm going to win just by how anyone won their job," he says. "I'm going to put qualifications out there and hope that people see them."
TOP OF THE TICKET
In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the 6th District with 51 percent of the vote. Four years later, there will likely be a very different Republican leading the party.
"The extremist views of Donald Trump and his on-again, off-again war on women will be rejected [by voters in the district] and will benefit Lynnette, who is a strong candidate who happens to be a woman," says Riccelli.
Vehrs says the idea of a Trump presidency is "quite scary," and says she'll let her Republican opponents speak for themselves on their party's standard-bearer.
"To be honest, Donald Trump hasn't asked me for this endorsement yet," jokes Field, who says that he attended the Trump rally held in Spokane in May and will vote him. But he says his first choice for president was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Canty says that Trump wasn't his first choice, and he was a "big fan" of Ben Carson, a famed neurosurgeon who ran for president.
"That said, I understand [Trump] is a very business-minded individual, and he is smart when he comes to business, and he would bring a unique perspective," says Canty.
Moore says that Trump will boost Republican turnout in Spokane County.
"I think he's going be extremely strong," he says. "I get constant requests for Trump signs and people wanting to work on the campaign." ♦