Once conservative district tips to Dems

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Steve Litzow is running for state representative in the Eastside’s 41st Legislative District.

He’s endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, an abortion-rights group.

He’s also a Republican.

Litzow’s moderate stance is a sign of the times in this once reliably Republican district, which has seen its state House and Senate seats gradually realign to Democratic control.

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The district includes Newcastle, Mercer Island, South Bellevue and Renton.

Litzow, 46, a Mercer Island city councilman, faces Democrat Marcie Maxwell, 53, in a tight race. The House seat became open when Democratic Rep. Fred Jarrett decided to run for state Senate.

In that state Senate contest, Jarrett, 59, faces former Navy pilot Bob Baker, 55, a Republican, for the seat vacated by departing Democratic Sen. Brian Weinstein.

Changing political winds

“People used to say, ‘I’m the only Democrat on Mercer Island,’ ” said Dick Gidner, former chairman of the 41st District Democrats.

That changed in 2002, when Democratic Rep. Judy Clibborn beat Republican incumbent Mike Wensman. Clibborn is running unopposed this year.

In 2004, Weinstein beat Republican state Sen. Jim Horn, leaving Jarrett as the sole Republican. Jarrett jumped political ship last December, joining the state Democrats in a move that singled the end of a GOP presence in the 41st.

“We were always, in years past, a very conservative district, but little by little the Democrats have started infiltrating, so that things are in the mix right now,” said Donald Ege, the GOP district chairman.

Weinstein is a little more blunt: “The GOP is dying in the suburbs, because of their social conservatism.”

State House fight

Steve Litzow has raised $186,000 to Marcie Maxwell’s $174,000. Maxwell, though, did better than Litzow in the Aug. 19 primary, taking 53 percent of the vote.

In addition to NARAL’s backing, Litzow’s been endorsed by some local Democrats.

“He’s not doctrinaire” when it comes to social issues, said fellow Councilman Dan Grausz.

The big issue on people’s minds is the economy, despite the area’s comparative wealth, and voters will not be marching in lock-step, Litzow argues.

The district’s average yearly household income is about $110,000, and about 64 percent of the population has a college degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Mercer Island residents depend on I-90, and most of the district’s voters live on or near I-405. As a result, transportation joins education as the most important issues on voters’ minds.

“It is a hugely independent district,” Litzow said. “They vote all over the place.”

Litzow opposes Proposition 1, the proposed sales-tax increase that would extend light rail north, south and east. Instead, he wants bus-rapid transit combined with light rail running north-south along the former BNSF Railway line on the Eastside.

His opponent, Maxwell, is a Renton Realtor and member of the Renton School Board. She’s more on the fence regarding Prop. 1, but is concerned about the emphasis on light rail.

“On the Eastside, we need to have the convenience and the routes” to make mass transit more of an option for commuters, she said.

If elected, Maxwell said she would focus on improving education funding. Many school districts fund basic programs with a hodgepodge of levies.

“At this point, it’s a Band-Aid,” she said. “When you look around the state, not every district can raise money” that way.

“We’re saying we want our students to have more math and science … [but] we’ve got to have the classes to get them there,” she said.

State Senate switcheroo

In the Senate race, Fred Jarrett is running as a Democrat for the first time.

But the six-year veteran of the state House, and former Mercer Island mayor, believes he hasn’t changed.

“It’s not so much that I left the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me,” he said.

Jarrett said he switched parties — and decided to run for the Senate — to work more effectively. Effectiveness is a theme for the policy wonk, known for his comfort with numbers.

A project manager at Boeing, he’s spent a career automating and streamlining production and computer systems.

“When I am hired to do a job, they must not be happy with the way it’s being done,” he said. “The people on top are usually very smart, but may not know what’s going on … on the factory floor.”

The same principle applies to government. Jarrett sees the projected state budget deficit as an opportunity to make changes in how the budget is used.

“It’s a necessary thing to make government work better,” he said.

Jarrett is in favor of Prop. 1. While not perfect, “it doesn’t matter to me whether the transit has rubber wheels or tracks,” he said.

His opponent, Bob Baker, recognizes that closing the race will be a challenge.

Baker has raised $79,000 to Jarrett’s $148,000. The Aug. 19 primary also showed a gap, with Jarrett getting 59 percent of the vote.

Still, Baker, who lives on Mercer Island, is determined to compete for independent voters.

“Right now, I don’t think people are thinking ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat,’ ” they’re more worried about issues, he said.

The 21-year Navy veteran, “Top Gun” graduate and Alaska Airlines pilot spent a career on the F-14 Tomcat as a test pilot. He also worked at the Pentagon, a job that included testifying before congressional committees and convincing admirals and generals to fund appropriation projects.

“I really got to see how government works,” he said. “It was very intense.”

Like Jarrett, he said he shares a disdain for waste, and backs State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s use of performance audits to look for savings in state agencies.

An opponent of Prop. 1, Baker favors bus-rapid transit instead of an east-west rail line.

“By Sound Transit’s own analysis, it won’t relieve traffic congestion,” he said.

As far as his district in concerned, he said it’s “not so much that it’s moved Democratic, but we have a lot of independents, as people weigh their options.”

Will Mari: 206-464-2745 or wmari@seattletimes.com

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