In November, voters in Washington's sprawling 7th Legislative District will elect their next state senator: Will they choose the independent-minded, small-government, anti-tax, pro-business Republican? Or the other one?
Incumbent state Sen. John Smith, who was selected in January to succeed retiring GOP veteran Sen. Bob Morton, is up against Brian Dansel, a 30-year-old Ferry County commissioner and former professional golfer. Like Smith, Dansel is a small-town conservative who's fed up with the impasse in D.C. and politics as usual in Olympia. Unlike his opponent, Dansel hopes to convince 7th District voters the status quo is worth upending.
"It's a pretty clear choice," he says. "The choice is between somebody who isn't necessarily accepted by his own party — I'm not a 'yes man' for my party, or for lobbyists or special interests — compared to my opponent, who is."
The 7th District in Washington's deeply conservative northeastern corner covers Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties and parts of Spokane and Okanogan counties. Dansel, a relative political newcomer who first ran for public office when he was 26, faces an uphill battle in reaching out to voters. His opponent's pockets are lined with support from business and industry giants like Walmart and Avista Corp. So far, Dansel has been outraised by a 7-to-1 margin. In the August primary, Smith received nearly twice as many votes as Dansel, beating him in every county in the 7th by wide margins with exception of Ferry County, Dansel's home turf, which the commissioner easily won.
In the 7th, like other rural areas in Washington, unemployment and poverty rates are higher than the state average. Its natural resource-based economy is sluggish. Dansel thinks he's the guy who can create jobs and spur the region to life.
"The sum of the old guard in the Republican Party are not too keen on younger folk — that's probably gonna get me shot there," he says, chuckling.
Dansel is a proponent of vocational training and investing in hydroelectricity. He'd like to outfit every community college in the 7th with teleconference technology, so people can testify on bills before the Legislature without making the cross-state drive. He's also critical of the past Legislature's drawn-out budget negotiations. Should he be elected, he says his first order of business would be ending senators' per-diem pay if they can't get a budget passed in time.
"I feel like both sides of the aisle point fingers at one another," he says. "There's not many genuine folks out there running for office, and it needs to be brought back to the people."
That's a subtle jab at Smith, whom Dansel criticizes for having too many big-monied corporate backers. Smith doesn't see it that way; he's got the "job creators" on his side. Dansel also questions Smith's business acumen. At one time, Smith operated a small cafe near the Stevens County Courthouse until went it under in 2009. He owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid state fees and taxes until this year.
"We worked really hard for the next four years ... in order to get that money back," Smith explains, arguing that his ability to pay back his debts shows a "fair amount of skill."
Smith has also come under scrutiny after a Spokesman-Review story detailed his family's connections to Our Place Fellowship, a Colville church whose congregants subscribe to a radical theology called "Christian Identity," known for its anti-Semitic, white supremacist views. Smith says he doesn't agree with the church's racist ideology, unlike his grandfather, nor he was ever a member of its congregation. But his critics are quick to point out that his campaign has accepted at least $265 from the church's founders, Dan and LaDona Henry.
"The Henrys are longtime friends. They're neighbors. They live a mile away," says Smith. "There's a lot of people who have donated to my campaign that I don't particularly agree 100 percent on all sorts of things."
Smith, 40, a small farmer and Colville farmers market operator, makes a point not to attack his challenger. Instead, he touts his résumé as a global business consultant and the vice chair of two legislative committees. During his time in the Legislature, Smith spearheaded efforts to help ranchers recover from livestock losses after wolf attacks. He also sponsored a bill funding a Washington State University-run pilot program testing the feasibility and efficacy of heating rural schools with wood pellet stoves. To shore up the 7th District's economy, he supports reviving the timber, manufacturing and tourism industries.
"I can be effective as a voice and an advocate for the culture and values that are unique to the 7th District," he continues. "I have the strong belief the best days are ahead of the 7th District ... if we remember the principles of the American Dream." ♦
Home: Colville, Stevens County
Job: Washington state senator; small, organic farmer; farmers market owner
Education: Some college at Washington State University
Dollars raised: $95,158
Biggest donors: Altria Client Services, Avista Corp., CalPortland Company, CVS Caremark, Echo Bay Minerals, Farmers Employees and Agents PAC, Premera Blue Cross, Walmart, Washington Chiropractic Trust PAC, Washington Restaurant Association PAC, Weyerhaeuser
Home: Republic, Ferry County
Job: Ferry County Commissioner since 2011
Education: Associate degree from Walla Walla Community College
Dollars raised: $13,819.13
Biggest donors: Washington Education Association; Evans Auto Rebuild; Bill McIrvin, owner of Diamond M Ranch