“Largest voters’ forum in district” draws over 100 people on Island

Even though some in the crowd admitted that they already mailed in their ballots, the annual voters’ forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Reporter last Tuesday at the middle school attracted about 100 Islanders with an interest in this year’s local races. One candidate remarked that the crowd was by far the largest of all four voter forums that had taken place in the district thus far.

Candidates for the state’s 41st Legislative District, which includes Mercer Island and parts of Renton and Bellevue, faced a variety of questions from those in attendance and the moderator, Islander Dave Ross of KIRO talk radio. The questions ranged from reducing global warming to the candidates’ thoughts on workers’ unions and immigration reform, to name a few.

This year, all three positions of the 41st District are up for election. Both House seats are two-year terms, and the Senate position lasts for four years. The Senate and one of the House seats lack an incumbent seeking re-election, while Rep. Judy Clibborn does not have a challenger for her fourth term. Three out of four candidates are Islanders, with Renton resident and School Board member Marcie Maxwell up against current Island City Councilmember Steve Litzow. Former Rep. Fred Jarrett, who is vacating the House seat in his bid for the Senate, is opposed by Islander Bob Baker. Former Senator Brian Weinstein, who was elected in 2004, is not seeking re-election.

The Maxwell-Litzow contest was the final presentation of the event, and the crowd stuck around to hear from the two candidates. Both have raised significant amounts of money, and the primary indicated that it could be a close race (Maxwell finished ahead, 53-47 percent). Ross asked one question prepared by the League of Women Voters about the candidates’ approach to helping the state’s small businesses. Litzow, a marketing executive with experience in local start-ups, said he wanted to remove government-imposed burdens on small businesses.

“Let businesses get out there and start competing without government mandates,” Litzow said.

Both candidates shared their dislike of the B&O tax on small businesses. Litzow said he would work to remove it, while Maxwell favored a reduction.

“I would like to reduce the B&O tax for new businesses,” Maxwell said.

Maxwell, who has owned and operated her own real estate business for nearly two decades, also said she understands how small businesses are impacted by state taxes. The state education system needs to produce skilled employees and clients to help attract such businesses to the state, she said.

While other audience members asked about the environment and replacing the 520 bridge, one woman who identified herself as a Metro bus driver asked the candidates for their views on unionized government employees. Maxwell responded that she has worked with seven different unions during her experience on the Renton School Board and worked hard to develop a good solid relationship with them.

“They are very important to our economy,” Maxwell said. “I have found out as a real estate agent that union members are our businesses clients and our neighbors.”

Litzow said his five years on the City Council have given him experience with how government employees, such as the Island’s police and firefighters, bargain for better wages, benefits or conditions.

“I am a fan of collective bargaining,” he said. “That seems like a reasonable way to make a point of view. The Bellevue teachers’ strike wasn’t good for anybody, not the students, not the parents.”

Fred Jarrett and Bob Baker were the first candidates to debate in the forum. They answered questions about immigration reform, high school graduation rates and the need for more nurses in local hospitals. Baker, who has twice solicited signatures for an immigration reform initiative on the ballot, said he wanted a plan set up by the legislature to collaborate with federal immigration laws.

“This state certainly needs workers,” Baker said of migrant farmers who may or may not be legal residents. “Workers need to be documented, and they need to follow the laws of the state.”

On the same topic, Jarrett said immigration was an issue for the federal government to regulate. He also said that it was in the state’s best interest to educate migrant children and provide the transportation needed for them to get to work.

In response to another question about improving the state’s high school and college graduation rates, Jarrett told the audience of his previous work in establishing university performance agreements. Jarrett said such legislation has and would continue producing more much-needed technical degrees, such as in engineering or nursing.

“We have a region with the most engineers per capita, but as a state we produce few engineering degrees,” the former state representative said. “We have students with the abilities to get into our universities, but they are getting turned away.”

Baker, too, acknowledged that there were problems with the state’s education system, and he suggested that the government take a look at where the private sector could help. He said he liked the sound of a program that enables schools to compete for students, perhaps with funding that follows a student from school to school if one fails to meet a parent’s standards.

“It works in business and it can work in schools,” Baker said of the benefits from competition.

Even though she is running unopposed, Rep. Judy Clibborn was given a chance to answer both prepared and audience questions. She said her top two priorities as head of the legislature’s Transportation Committee was to have a good budget and begin building a new 520 bridge. The six-year House veteran also said she was worried that Sound Transit’s renewed Proposition 1 is still too large and too ambitious, since the engineering to go across the lake is not yet solid science.

“Just the design to bring light rail across the lake is about half a billion dollars,” Clibborn said. “Prop. 1 is huge, and I’m concerned it’s too far out in the future. There might be a lot of people who feel they bought something and they didn’t get it.”

In her closing statement, she said she was humbled to run unopposed and encouraged those in the audience to “have at her” in two years if she is unsuccessful in achieving those two accomplishments this upcoming term.

The forum began with a debate between supporters and opponents of the Island’s park improvements bond and operations levy. The Reporter covered a separate forum on this election item in the Oct. 22 issue.

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