For candidates hoping to represent the 4th Legislative District in the state House, this race isn't exactly what they signed up for.
The district, covering Spokane Valley, has been controlled by Rep. Matt Shea since 2008, when he first won the seat. He has continually made headlines for trying to make Eastern Washington into a 51st state and for his ongoing feud with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who considers Shea and his rhetoric to be dangerous. So this election cycle, both Democrats and Republicans decided to run against Shea on the heels of a report released by the state House of Representatives that concluded Shea engaged in domestic terrorism.
Then, surprising many, Shea decided not to run for reelection.
Thus began a game of musical chairs among the two seats within the 4th District. Rep. Bob McCaslin, a Shea ally currently holding the position 2 seat, filed to run for position 1, Shea's soon-to-be vacated seat. Republican candidate Mike Conrad followed McCaslin, switching from running in position 2 to 1. Another Republican candidate, Leonard Christian, had planned to run against Shea, but did the opposite as Conrad upon finding out Shea was leaving.
In the end, there are eight candidates for two 4th District seats — three Republicans and one Democrat in each.
But make no mistake: Even though Shea's name isn't on the ballot, he still is a major factor in this race. McCaslin and former Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, who is running for position 2, are aligned with Shea on some of what their opponents say are fringe ideas.
"As long as we have a representative in this district who votes like Matt Shea, who still thinks we need a 51st state, who consults with Shea with every vote we make, basically you're going to get Matt Shea in somebody else's sweater," says Lori Feagan, a Democratic candidate running for the position 1 seat.
Before you cast your ballots, here's what you should know about the candidates in both races.
A former elementary school teacher, he's been a frequent ally of Shea as a member of the state House. He's a supporter of Shea's idea to make Eastern Washington its own state, and has co-sponsored bills to do so. When chat messages leaked in which Shea offered to do background checks on political enemies, McCaslin told the Seattle Times in April 2019 that the allegations were not true and said Shea is "an honest man who really works hard for his constituents." In his 2018 campaign run, McCaslin told the Spokesman-Review that Shea "has been treated pretty badly in the press."
Shea typically does not speak to the news media. When reached by phone, McCaslin declined to comment for this story, saying he'd "rather not" give an interview to the Inlander, "but I appreciate you calling. Thanks."
Democrat Lori Feagan, who filed for candidacy thinking Shea would be her opponent, says her message hasn't changed since she realized McCaslin was running in his place. The district remains at risk of having a "single-issue" representative with extreme ideology, she says. She adds, however, that her campaign is not just about getting a Shea-aligned representative out of office, but electing someone with an inclusive philosophy.
"It's just as important to get somebody like me in office," she says. "That was my message and it's still my message."
Feagan is a nurse practitioner with three decades of experience working in health care. The COVID-19 pandemic, she says, has put more of a spotlight on the priorities of the 4th District: health care, education, infrastructure, job growth and small businesses. She says health care shouldn't be connected to employment. If elected, she says she'd work with other legislators and experts to "rectify our upside-down tax structure," so it relies less on consumer taxes and the business and occupation tax. She says she'd look at making sure corporate loopholes are closed and "folks are paying a fair share."
She says she would consider a "strategic" capital gains tax, and adds she'd consider any way to rectify the tax structure besides a state income tax. She's earned the endorsement of the state teachers union and SEIU healthcare 1199, representing nurses and caregivers in the Northwest.
"I'm proud to be a Democrat. I share their values. I would say I'm more on the moderate side of the Democratic Party," she says.
Mike Conrad is the CEO and founder of Savory Butcher and formerly founder of Zaycon Foods, which shipped meat from farms to consumers before abruptly ending operations in 2018. His campaign slogan, "trim the fat," is a nod to his business. Conrad, a Republican, says he's running for small business owners. He says he's "tired" of the state destroying businesses.
"Especially with COVID-19, a lot of people are decimated because of this," he says. "I think small businesses are going to need a white horse to come help them."
He says he wants to "eradicate the God-complex people out of state agencies" and create laws that benefit small businesses. He calls the business and occupation tax "BS."
Conrad says he wants to take another look at the money going toward education, a huge chunk of the state budget. He floats the idea of giving teachers a $20,000 bonus to "incentivize them to make sure all students pass" tests. (Feagan, meanwhile, says she does not support merit-based pay and says early childhood and K-12 education is the "greatest return on investment in our society.")
"There's a small minority, the union, that controls the outcome of education for our children," Conrad says. "I want to incentivize teachers to be great teachers with money."
Conrad says he "likes the idea" of turning Eastern Washington into its own state, in theory, but says it's a waste of time.
"I care about the people. I care about small businesses. Jobs. Accountability," he says.
He accuses McCaslin of having "no energy" and being a puppet of Shea.
"I think Matt was the lead dog of that pack, and now that Matt's gone I think Bob is going to be a lost puppy, not knowing what to do," Conrad says.
Another Republican running for this seat, Dave Whitehead, says he decided to run initially because Shea was "making headlines about himself." Whitehead is a business teacher in the Mead School District and previously has coached baseball and volleyball.
As an educator, he's grown frustrated with the "unfunded mandates" districts have had to deal with from the state. He's a proponent of in-person instruction in schools, saying online education hasn't worked for many kids. He adds that the Legislature should be more involved in state decisions relating to COVID-19.
"I think I can lend a different ear, give them a different perspective on what [schools] really went through last spring, and we need to get back," he says. "I dread not being able to see the kids."
Chase filed for the position 2 seat, but Shea didn't follow through. Still, Chase says it worked out for the best. His views align with Shea's on many issues. Chase has supported making Eastern Washington its own state, saying it's difficult for the region to gain traction in Olympia. He defends Shea to this day for a Shea-authored document outlining a "Biblical Basis for War" that says "kill all males" if they don't yield to biblical law, while it condems abortion and same-sex marriage. Chase says people "don't understand Bible study" and that the document merely describes warfare in the Old Testament and just war theory. Theologians have disputed this characterization.
Chase calls the shutdown and various measures to combat the pandemic an "overaction." Despite the death toll currently hovering around 150,000 in the U.S., Chase is against mask mandates and shutdown orders, saying "we've had pandemics every few years" and have never taken such measures. He's dismissive of statistics and says people aren't getting the truth about COVID-19.
His view is libertarian.
"If you're going to make a mistake, make it on the side of freedom," he says.
Yet on certain issues he's willing to reach across the aisle. He supports the creation of a state bank, an idea touted by some Democrats in the state Legislature. He's been known to endorse some Democrats in previous local elections, and he's often more antagonistic toward moderate Republicans than Democrats. Chase says he can trust Democrats because he knows where they stand, but moderate Republicans are like Tories — "you can't trust them," Chase says.
Republican Leonard Christian, meanwhile, is a founder of Republicans of Spokane County, a more moderate group. He was appointed a seat in the state Legislature in 2014, but lost the primary to McCaslin. He says the most important conversation moving forward is "who is going to get hurt the most" in the state budget, and he argues he has a good understanding of budget issues.
"I would start looking at what departments are really needed," he says. "It's going to take some unique thinking, and not people working on divisive issues, not trying to divide our state in half."
He says the state is spending money on homelessness that should go toward mental health, and that police departments need to be funded with money for training.
Chase, he argues, has the same beliefs as Shea, only isn't as good of a public speaker. Christian criticizes Chase for pushing for a state bank. He says he's going to focus on the budget instead of "fringe issues" that don't help the people in his district.
"My whole goal is to represent the people in the 4th and do everything I can to make sure the people in the 4th are taken care of," he says.
Democrat Lance Gurel agrees that Chase represents the same "extreme views" as McCaslin and Shea.
"The fact that my district is represented by two extremists definitely played into my decision to run for office," Gurel says.
Gurel, who owns an accounting business, admits it will be a challenge for a Democrat to win in this district, but he believes his values match those of the 4th District better than his opponents.
"I believe families and workers come first," he says. "Strong families and workers make strong communities and that makes a strong place for businesses."
He says the pandemic has exposed the need to pay for essential services, like child care. While he says the state isn't in the emergency budget situation people think it is, he says he supports changes to the tax code that will stop putting the burden on lower-income people. That means a tax on high-earners using a capital gains or income tax — though he says his plan would only apply to people or corporations making more than $5 million per year.
As a nurse and Republican, Nathan Sybrandy says the 4th District needs a medical professional during the pandemic who can bridge the gap between conservatives and public health officials. He says public health officials, including in Spokane, have taken an "overly partisan" approach that makes conservatives distrust them.
Sybrandy appreciates Gov. Jay Inslee's use of epidemiologists who advise him on slowing the pandemic, but he argues Inslee should tap experts who have more concern for the economy as well. Sybrandy adds that he's against mandating the use of masks.
"The level of sacrifice we're going to have to make to keep the pandemic under control should be significant," he says. "But it has its limit."
He says voters are sick of the divisiveness in the Republican Party.
"They're ready for a candidate to be a unique voice of unity who's uniquely qualified to address the issue of our time, COVID-19," Sybrandy says. ♦
SENATOR — 4th LEGISLATIVE DISTRICT
There's plenty of shuffling going on in the 4th District, but incumbent Sen. Mike Padden is still running for the 4th District Senate seat. Padden faces two challengers in the primary: famed mountaineer and former county commissioner John Roskelley, a Democrat, and business owner and independent Ann Marie Danimus. (WILSON CRISCIONE)
5th DISTRICT U.S. REPRESENTATIVE
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