6th District Showdown

Three Republicans go up against one Democrat in a newly shaped district on the outskirts of Spokane

The outskirts of Spokane may be the closest the Inland Northwest has to a political battleground when it comes to deciding the power balance in the Washington Legislature.

The 6th Legislative District forms a crescent encompassing part of Spokane’s western neighborhoods before heading west to Cheney, Airway Heights and Medical Lake. Republicans and Democrats say the district is the type of place where legislative majorities are decided and elections can be unpredictable.

“I’d call it a classic swing district,” says Tony Yuchasz, executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

The seat was opened up when Republican Rep. John Ahern announced he wouldn’t run again. In the race to replace him are one Democrat, Dennis Dellwo, and three Republicans, Jeff Holy, Larry Keller and Ben Oakley — all of whom are all trying to finish in the top two in August’s primary and advance to the General Election.

Yuchasz acknowledges that it can be a hard district for Democrats. A victory by former lawmaker Dellwo could widen the party’s majority in the House. But for the Republicans, the goal is to retain the seat as they try to close the gap in the House.

And then there’s the effect of redistricting. Will bringing towns like Medical Lake and Airway Heights swing the balance of power to the Republicans? Will Eastern Washington University give Democrats the votes they need to win the seat?

Matthew Pederson, chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party, says it will be a case of the former. “[Redistricting] should move it more into a solidly Republican district,” he says.

At least, three of the four candidates are hoping that’s true.


Jeff Holy wants to get young people into the city. Holy is bothered when he talks to his daughter and learns that none of her plans after college involve Spokane.

Her career in international business, he says, is going to take her elsewhere, maybe to Seattle or Vancouver, B.C.

The Four Lakes resident and Republican candidate sees this as a trend: an economic climate that doesn’t attract the type of businesses that retain young people in Spokane.

“I have a vision for Spokane,” Holy says. That vision is to make this town a place where young people move after getting their degrees. “We have so much to offer,” he says. “What can we do to make this hold the type of opportunity to make people come here?”

For much of his 56 years, Holy has spent his time between two buildings: the courthouse and the Public Safety Building. He’s worked for the Spokane Police Department as a patrol officer and detective and as an attorney, sometimes at the same time.

If he goes to Olympia, he says he will change the way the business and occupation tax is levied, and send all tax increases to the voters.

Thus far, Holy’s raised $22,588, with one of his largest donors being the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, a group he used to advocate for in Olympia. Ahern, meanwhile, says he’s backing Holy to take his old seat.


Though he’s the youngest of the candidates, Ben Oakley, a former legislative aid to state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, has lately been spending the most time in Olympia.

“I really enjoyed working in the Legislature the last three years,” the 29-year-old Spokane resident says. “When John [Ahern] decided to retire, obviously people called me and said, ‘Ben, I hope you’re going to run.’”

In many ways, Oakley sees himself as an heir to Parker. During his time working with the representative, Oakley worked on a bill that cut Medicaid fraud and was passed unanimously by both houses. He says he admires Parker for his ability to disagree with people, yet keep it cordial enough to get a beer together.

“The far right or the far left can’t come to an agreement because most of the time they are debating each other’s intention,” Oakley says. He’d like to change that. “I don’t think that’s right because most lawmakers come in with good intentions.”

In terms of specific policies, Oakley says he’d support a bill that would make the Legislature figure out how to pay for education first before it pays for anything else, and would look at ways to reform state food stamps. He also mentioned strengthening laws against human trafficking, all priorities shared with Parker.

It may be paying off. So far, he’s raised $38,924, the most out of any Republican.


Dennis Dellwo, who’s leading overall in fundraising, is also the man vying to reclaim a seat in the House he held decades ago. Dellwo, the lone Democrat in the race, sits on the largest cash pile with $47,638 raised.

Dellwo stepped down from the Legislature in the 1996, after representing Spokane’s 3rd District from 1983 onward. He left to go serve on the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, but now makes his living as an attorney.

One issue in particular brought Dellwo back to the Legislature, he says.

“Health-care reform is a vital issue before us now with the constitutionality being determined,” the 66-year-old Spokane resident says. “In adopting and implementing the federal program, we’ve got many, many things to do over the years.”

Though the state has voted to establish an insurance exchange and other aspects of the federal health-care overhaul, Dellwo says he wants to work to craft Washington’s approach to the law’s implementation.

To date, unions and the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, which gave him $2,000 in March, have made up a large amount of the money he’s raised.


Larry Keller has spent much of his career in two pillars of the 6th District’s economy: Fairchild Air Force base, and the Cheney School District.

“I had to get the mission done in the military career, balance the books and give an education [to] our kids,” Keller says. “I’ve learned having been a leader for all those years to find what’s important.”

Keller was a vice wing commander at Fairchild before becoming the superintendent of the school district. He retired from the school earlier this month.

In an interview, Keller emphasized his belief that progress in the Legislature will only come from lawmakers working across aisles.

“If you look at the last several sessions, both the Republicans and Democrats sat there and didn’t talk to each other for a week or so,” Keller says. “We need to remember we all work for our taxpayers.”

Getting there may be a challenge for Keller. With $12,949 raised, the 63-year-old Medical Lake resident has smallest war chest of any candidate.

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About The Author

Chris Stein

Chris Stein is a staff writer at The Inlander. He covers social services, downtown Spokane, Eastern Washington and Spokane city hall. His work has been published by the Associated Press, VeloNews and the Santa Barbara Independent. He was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area.