Taking the 6th

by Joel Smith & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ashington's 6th legislative district wraps around Spokane in a C shape, stretching from the traditionally conservative area of northern Spokane County, around the inner city through Riverside State Park and the West Plains, then slicing a swath through the South Hill below 17th Avenue. With the exception of the typically left-leaning residents in the latter area, the district is a Republican stronghold; it hasn't been taken by a Democrat since 1940.

But that might all change this November, when voters choose between sitting Republican State Senator Brad Benson and Democrat Chris Marr, one of the most interesting candidates the district's seen in years.

For starters, there's the sheer fact that Marr has been both a Democrat and a business leader in Spokane for the last 20 years -- as president of Foothills Auto Group and a former member and ultimate chair of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce. But he's also a car dealer with a green conscience. As we reported in March 2005, Marr was instrumental in lobbying for tougher emissions standards for Washington cars -- a not-entirely-popular notion among state and local business people and car dealers. His activism won him the 2005 Backyard Hero award from the Washington Environmental Council in November, six months after the emissions standards were signed into law.

Marr is also, as far as anyone can tell, the first Asian-American -- and maybe even the first ethnic minority -- to run for the seat in the 6th.

And if none of this resonates with district voters -- during an election in which analysts suggest a green-minded, anti-Republican, anti-incumbent sentiment could play a decisive role -- there's also Marr's rags-to-riches biography. A native of California, he was raised by his single mother who waited tables for a living. "I learned more about business from helping her count tips," he says, than from the degrees he eventually earned in business administration at San Francisco State University.

Since moving to Spokane in 1986, Marr has served in some capacity with every organization from Washington State University (regent) to Deaconess and Valley hospitals (chair) to Allegro Baroque and Beyond (board member). He also served as a member and sometime chair of the Washington State Transportation Commission between 1998 and 2003.

So far, Marr has run a powerful double-barrel campaign, building up a war chest that dwarfs that of his opponent (see story, p. 13) and knocking on (by his estimation) some 10,000 doors throughout the district, pitching himself as a strong leader who can "get our fair share for Spokane."

"In transportation, we're missing out," he says. "In economic development funding -- where, for instance, Tri-Cities gets $3 million a year and we get $50,000 -- in Medicaid reimbursement, in a lot of areas, we're losing ground."

Marr professes a disdain for the messaging and maneuvering of politics that is undermined by his absurdly long record of leadership and his almost Clinton-esque manner of speaking. He prefers to couch himself as a kind of policy wonk.

And he can talk the game. Speaking with The Inlander last week, he said he thought the government could score a $16 million inflow by lifting restrictions on the way public universities invest their money. He wants to make health care more cost-transparent, building in administrative efficiencies by demanding pay-for-performance, evidence-based medicine. The chairman of the board at Empire Health Services, he wants to allow importation of drugs from Canada and explore what he calls "the future of medicine" -- human genome research.

"I'm not going to change the world," he admits. But he thinks he can change the way people in Olympia talk about Spokane.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course, the way people in Olympia talk about the Lilac City now has more than a little to do with the work of Brad Benson, who has worked there for 10 years, first in the House of Representatives and, for the last two years, in the state Senate.

Like Marr, Benson grew up with a poor single mother in California. ("I found out from talking to the Homeless Coalition that I was actually homeless as a kid," he says. "I didn't realize that. I just thought we didn't have any money.") Also like Marr, his background is in business. In 1988, he became vice-president of Seafirst National Bank. Four years later, he opened an ice cream parlor, Hansen's Creamery, on Spokane's north side. Then, in 1994, he was elected to the state House.

The two are also similar in that they're both political scrappers. Marr has been extraordinarily involved in civic matters in the last 20 years, rising to the top of many public and private organizations. Benson rose similarly through the House and then fought his way into the Senate in 2004 after being snubbed by local Republicans when then-senator Jim West vacated his Senate seat mid-term to take over Spokane's City Hall and the party voted to fill it with young, relatively inexperienced Brian Murray instead of Benson.

That was "disappointing," Benson says. But he's made a name for himself in the Senate since barely edging out Democratic hopeful Laurie Dolan in 2004 and landing seats on a number of Senate committees. He's since become the ranking Republican member of the Transportation Commission.

He's also introduced 13 bills into the Senate, touching everything from economic development to sales tax exemptions for personal medical equipment to prohibiting interference with search-and-rescue dogs. There's even a resolution to honor the "long and wonderful career" of Spokane baseball legend Ryne Sandberg. Five of these bills have passed the Senate.

Benson regards himself as a "worker bee" in Olympia (as opposed to a "grand-stander") -- the kind of elected officials whom others consider trustworthy, un-flashy and willing to work across the aisle. He says being "House-trained" for 10 years made him a shrewd political negotiator in the Senate, and he points to his ranking position on Transportation as proof that he's getting things done for Spokane.

But these are exactly the points that Marr criticizes when speaking about his opponent. He says that in 10 years in Olympia, Benson has lost touch with the people of the 6th District, and he paints Benson as a religious conservative and an ideologue whose philosophy precludes effective negotiation and compromise.

"Take the transportation budget," Marr says, claiming that Benson's refusal to vote for a budget that would've been used largely to fund projects on Washington's west side lost him political capital and negotiating room.

"We've passed the point where western Washington and the Democrats are willing to give us a free pass to reelect an ideologue [who espouses] so many social issues that are kind of way out there in left field, but yet [who wants] the largesse of the Democrats."

In the end, Marr says, Benson's refusal to negotiate actually hurt Spokane more than it helped it. "Had he been at the table and said, 'Look, I'm willing to take a tough vote if Spokane comes out ahead,'" says Marr, "We would've picked up another $100 million for the north-south freeway."

Questioned about the budget negotiations, Benson perks up, saying he hoped we would open this story talking about the issue. (Sorry, Senator.) He agrees with Marr that he was unwilling to negotiate but says it wasn't out of obstinate partisanship, but rather because it was a bad deal for Spokane. House figures showed that for each dollar Spokane taxpayers shelled out for the project, they'd only get back 14 cents worth of work. Democrats in the Senate predicted something more like 29 cents -- most some estimated that King County residents would net $2 in projects for every buck they spent.

That's an "amazingly bad deal for Spokane," Benson says, discrediting the notion that playing along might've gained the Spokane bloc more capital. "If the winning team's doing the wrong thing, why would you want that? Why would I want to suck more money out of Spokane's economy?"

He says Spokane could've benefited more if the three "downtown Democrats" who supported the bill against the wishes of 12 other local legislators would've fallen in line and fought harder for a better deal. He says the bill would've died and it would have "reshuffled the deck," potentially creating a situation in which Spokane would have netted 40 cents for each dollar spent.

"Democrats have to be willing to vote against things if it's a bad deal for Spokane," he says.

But, Marr notes, sometimes you need to go with the flow in order to increase Spokane's bargaining leverage. "We're an urban area unto ourselves that has been ineffective in prosecuting its own local agenda in a way that people on the other side of the state can buy into," he says.

What both men agree on is that Spokane's getting more than its fair share of bad deals from Olympia. It will be up to voters to decide who can better turn that situation around. n

Brad Benson and Chris Marr will debate three times on Wednesday, Oct. 18. First, as part of the Spokane City Forum at First Presbyterian Church at 12:15 pm. The debate will last 30 minutes, with a 15-minute Q & amp;A. Then they move to the Spokane Chamber Forum, beginning at 4:30 pm. Lastly, they'll face off at the downtown library in Spokane for a League of Women Voters forum, running from 7-8:30 pm.