by Cara Gardner

Washington State Senate -- Two years ago, Spokane was home to the most expensive legislative race in Washington state history: Republican Jim West and Democrat Laurie Dolan ran against each other for the 6th District state Senate seat. Both Democrats and Republicans parties viewed the race as crucial; the Senate is almost evenly split, and whoever won would teeter the tables toward Democratic or Republican control. West prevailed, but didn't serve out his full term because he was elected Mayor of Spokane in 2003. West appointed Republican Brian Murray to take his place until this year's election. Murray ran in the primaries, but House member Brad Benson beat him out for the right to face off against Dolan, whose trying again for that same seat. Now Benson and Dolan are vying for the remaining two years of what was originally West's job.

This time around, the election is no less important. The Senate is still split; Dems regard Dolan as their opportunity to wrest away a traditionally Republican position, while Republicans need to hang on to the slight majority they have. The 6th District's senator will represent citizens living from the upper South Hill (above 17th Avenue) and parts of Moran Prairie all the way to the Indian Trail and Whitworth areas of Spokane.

Brad Benson -- Dolan can connect with locals through her local roots; her kids are fifth-generation Spokanites, and both her parents and grandparents were civic-minded community members. But Benson is betting that even though he's from California, locals will be able to see familiarity in his hard-luck story.

"Laurie talks about growing up here and that's neat and everything, but I grew up poor in California, and my dad was a deadbeat," Benson says. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and was able to go to college because tuition was cheap: "Here, we have the HEC [Higher Education Coordinating Board], which is to eliminate duplication, but it's boiled down to if [colleges] want to offer a program, the HEC won't let them do it because they'll say other schools are doing it."

Bureaucracy in education is big on Benson's list of what to take care of as he moves from a state representative to a senator. "I don't know the best way to get from here to where we should be, but if you're a kid with the capacity and the desire to go to college, we should be able to find a way to get you there."

Benson counters Dolan's claim that he isn't strong on issues surrounding public education. "What I care about when it comes to public education is the kid who's down in the urban center school that has no advantages whatsoever, in terms of a home life or economic background," he says. "Those are the kids public education has to somehow give opportunities. That's why we pay for education -- for the poor kids in downtown neighborhoods."

Benson is focused on making schools more accountable; he suggests taking another look at the schools' funding formulas. "The only argument you hear is: more money, more money, more money. I'd like to see public schools talking and thinking about caring and making every classroom is a good learning environment."

Benson's background is varied. He was a captain in the Air Force, and since 1999 has been a major in the Air National Guard. He's was the assistant vice president of Seafirst National Bank for eight years and owned an ice cream shop with his wife in the 1990s before closing it down and heading into politics. He's spent four terms in the House, representing the 6th District.

The economy and jobs are Benson's top priorities. "That's what we have to be doing right now -- figuring out how to get jobs in Washington state, because when you turn the economy around, you don't need a new or different tactic." Benson cites high unemployment rates and unemployment costs at three times the national average, a high minimum wage, the costs of Labor and Industries and no private insurance options as just a few of Washington's business barriers. "We're working against business," he says, "and until we can turn it around, we've got serious problems."

Benson says he learned about Washington's business climate the hard way: by being a small business owner. "We need to have an attitude in Washington state that anyone who comes in and creates jobs, that we respect what they're doing."

Laurie Dolan -- A fourth-generation Spokanite, Dolan says the 6th District needs someone who not only grasps the local perspective, but who also embodies it. "I know our community well. It's such a great place, a beautiful city, rich in natural resources, families who care about each other," says Dolan. "The piece we're missing is economic opportunity. There's a lot of key groups working on it and a lot of strides are being made, and I see trying to enhance the efforts of the EDC [Economic Development Council], the Chamber, the DSP [Downtown Spokane Partnership]."

Jobs and the economy are always at the top of the list for candidates, and Dolan is no exception. "We have all this research coming into Riverpoint," she says, referring to the University District. Dolan says not only will Riverpoint help educate and re-train people, it will bring broad-based, research-related jobs to the region: "It's really strategic, trading out minimum-wage jobs for better jobs. Then Spokane would really have it all."

Dolan's expertise is in education; she worked in the public school system for more than 30 years, starting out as a first grade teacher in 1973 and retiring just last June as Spokane Public Schools executive director for special services, after serving 20 years in that position.

"Education really is the cornerstone of economic development, it's the cornerstone of life. All of us want our children to have a future as good as it can be. The schools we have in Spokane, in the 6th District especially, are really good. But $21 million in funding has been cut in the past three years in Spokane public schools," Dolan says, adding that her opponent, Brad Benson, has been in the House during the cuts and hasn't exactly been a champion for public education. "His voting record in education is not good," Dolan says. In fact, based on Benson's conservative stance on public education, a group of Republicans, headed by former state senator Jerry Saling, have come out in favor of Dolan.

Health care is another big issue, one that Dolan says she plans to tackle in three ways: more parity in reimbursement rates between the western and eastern sides of the state; affordable health care for small businesses and individuals; and working to lower malpractice insurance for doctors -- not necessarily through capping jury awards, but through other stipulations on claims and lawsuits. "I hope to be the vice chair of the Senate Health Care Committee, so that would give me the ability to make some of these changes," Dolan says. Her understanding of health care extends beyond the political issues. Dolan was diagnosed with cancer the same year she lost the 6th District Senate race to Jim West. Last summer, she underwent a stem cell transplant and is currently in remission.

"It's not a deck of cards anyone of us would have asked to be dealt -- but having been dealt it, it has enriched my life. It's an abrupt realization that none of us know the future, and as you're looking at your husband, your children, your good friends, [you see] that what's scarier than death is not living well."

State House of Representatives -- Because of the new primary system in Washington, which requires voters to choose to vote by party rather than candidate, both the Libertarians running for the 6th District's House seats were ousted because they did not get at least one percent of the vote. In past years, third-party candidates would make it on the November ballot. That's not the case now, and Libertarians, including Bodhi Densmore, who ran for the 6th District, Position 2, are suing. The court hadn't made a decision regarding whether Densmore would make it on the ballot when we went to print.

But those on the ballot include current Rep. John Ahern (R), who is being challenged by Doug Dobbins (D). And Don Barlow (D), who has run before, is facing John Serben (R) for the Position 1 seat.

Don Barlow -- At 66, Barlow says he's ready for a trip to the State House. He'd like to add "State Representative" to a resume that includes being a counselor at the Community Colleges of Spokane, a GED teacher, a life skills instructor and a board president for Spokane Public Schools. In the past, Barlow has worked as a coordinator of special programs and the Indian Education Program at Spokane Public Schools, as well as serving on a number of boards, including the Chase Youth Commission, United Way, KSPS and Police Advisory Committee. Barlow says he's learned a thing or two about the community's needs. Education, a strong economy and health care are the main issues he promises to take on if elected.

"[The state economy] is looking fairly well, but we need to continue to build," Barlow says. "We need to bring in new businesses and train our workers. What it's all about is jobs. And that's where education comes in. Employers move where good education is."

Health care is crucial for Barlow, who says he knows firsthand how complicated the system is. "As a senior myself, prescription drugs are a huge problem area." On behalf of senior citizens, the government needs to capitalize on its purchasing power, he says: "What we need is to buy in bulk." As a mental health counselor, Barlow says the extent of the mental health crisis and how it affects communities has been under-acknowledged.

"We need to invest in our mental health system," he says. "The community mental health systems are having a difficult time keeping up. The people released from state hospitals are not able to get quality of service they need."

As for education, Barlow says the state should take more responsibility when it comes to higher education. "The legislature needs to fund education at a higher level; by law, they're required [to do so] and they're not doing it."

John Serben -- At 36, Serben is the youngest candidate running for a seat in the 6th District, but he's not lacking for experience. Serben's background includes both military (he served as a specialist in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas) and business (as an insurance agent at Fidelity Associates).

"I've got 11 years in the insurance field, and we've got lots of insurance issues -- health care, Labor and Industries. We need someone supported by the business community."

His top priority: streamlining state departments like Labor and Industries and DSHS in order to make government more efficient. "They've become a giant," Serben says of L & amp;I. "Now we have the same agency providing the policy that is supposed to regulate it. We need to bring private industry to the market."

Serben says he'd take the same approach with state health care mandates. "The state requires us to have mandates on our insurance policy; right now there are 52. A 64-year old woman who is not yet on Medicare is required to carry maternity coverage on her insurance plan."

As for jobs, Serben says if the government would step aside, family-wage jobs would flow. "I think we need to streamline regulations. It takes six weeks to get a permit and do anything in this city. The EDC [Economic Development Council] has done a good job of recruiting, but when [companies] sit down and look at the bottom-line numbers, it's more affordable to move somewhere else. We've got a beautiful region, but we still can't outweigh the negative tax structures in this state."

Serben says his work as the co-chair of the finance committee for Mead School District's 2003 levy, which passed, shows his commitment toward public education, and that his involvement as a Mason and a Shriner demonstrate his community-service values.

"I've got lots of energy, lots of good ideas," says Serben.

John Ahern -- Ahern has served as the 6th District's Rep since 2000, and he serves on the finance, local government and justice and corrections committees. The owner for more than 20 years of Janco Office Supplies, Ahern says he supports pro-business legislation that will keep Washington businesses in the state.

"High on my agenda is a better business climate, particularly for Spokane," Ahern says. "The one thing we need to focus on is tort reform, not just with doctors but in the business community, too." Ahern wants to see a cap on what attorneys can collect in fees, a cap on damages and the elimination of unnecessary lawsuits.

"Remember the old lady who sued McDonalds for $8 million for spilling hot coffee on her lap? Guess who got half of that," Ahern says. Ahern advocates for stricter sentences for sex offenders and multiple DUI offenders, as well as a firm three strikes law for meth manufacturers.

For Ahern, the biggest lesson he's learned in the legislature is how important it is to work on bipartisanship. He actually used to be a Democrat, and his father was once a Democrat in the Montana state legislature.

"When you're in there, the biggest thing is that you don't get everything you want -- nobody does. It's a work in progress, and it's the art of the possible. What I've tried to do is network with the other side of the aisle, the Democrats, and I've made some really good friends. It's a matter of salesmanship more than anything."

Douglas Dobbins -- A former manager for Microsoft, Dobbins is now working for a seat in the House. He says it takes more than just knowing the issues in order to be a successful politician. "[It takes] not being an ideologue -- to listen to people and to forget about party lines and status, [working] in a way to avoid special sessions, get business done and move the whole state forward."

Dobbins decided to run for office after working as the Democratic Party's vice president for the 6th District. "Being born and growing up here, I know the importance of affordable health care, lifetime access to education, small-business prosperity and preserving the quality of our environment where we can raise our families," says Dobbins. He promises to fight for lower health care costs and improved health care access.

Last Tuesday, Dobbins released a small-business prosperity plan, which he says will help Washington business owners deal with a series of difficult laws. The plan suggests adjusting the business and occupation tax to net profit, rather than gross receipts. In addition, it asks that each business receive a $200 tax credit for every net employee hired by the end of the tax year (not counting replacements). In order to qualify, Dobbins says, the businesses should provide full medical benefits equivalent to Washington's Basic Health Plan.

"I'm very motivated about getting the economy going," Dobbins says. "Spokane has been on the verge my whole life, and I'm tired of seeing it on the verge. We do the work and get the talent, and then people leave to get jobs elsewhere. Others will eclipse us if we don't stop that cycle."

Publication date: 10/07/04

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