The race for state representative in Seattle's 36th District pits Port of Seattle Commissioner Gael Tarleton against political activist Noel Frame.

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The two candidates in one of the hardest-fought state House races have a lot in common.

Gael Tarleton and Noel Frame are both Democrats, attended similar Washington, D.C.-area universities, and have essentially the same political platforms.

Both even lead progressive groups, Tarleton as the board president of Northwest Progressive Institute and Frame as the state director of Progressive Majority.

But those similarities aren’t making the 36th Legislative District race any less contentious.

Labor groups have poured nearly $100,000 into an independent campaign to defeat Tarleton over her record as a Port of Seattle commissioner. Among other things, they say she didn’t support Port truck drivers when they went on strike earlier this year.

Tarleton says the labor groups are attacking her only because they work closely with Frame’s Progressive Majority group, which recruits and supports progressive candidates for political office — including, ironically, Tarleton when she first ran for Port commissioner in 2007.

Tarleton calls the labor groups’ involvement in the race an example of special interests polluting the political process. She views herself as the more progressive candidate, touting her leadership of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a think tank focused on progressive issues.

The 36th District includes Magnolia, Queen Anne, Phinney Ridge and parts of Ballard, Fremont and Loyal Heights. The candidates are battling over who will replace retiring state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, who has represented the district since 1994.

“In districts like ours, legislators have the opportunity to stay a really long time,” said Reuven Carlyle, the district’s other state representative, who has not endorsed Tarleton or Frame. “I think you’ll find people are very engaged in the nuance of what the various candidates are going to work on.”

It was the nuances that spurred the labor groups’ pro-Frame independent effort, said Sage Wilson, a spokesman for Working Washington, the group’s largest contributor. Wilson said Tarleton “has not been leading the way in the right direction” as Port commissioner.

“When Port truck drivers went on a couple-week strike, she wasn’t there,” he said. “It was a clear moment when an elected official who was going to be a leader would have been standing there.”

The drivers, who said they were being forced to carry overweight loads and to pay out of pocket to maintain their vehicles, returned to work when the Port agreed to a task force focused on safety and expense issues.

Tarleton does, however, have the support of some maritime and other unions. She points out that as Port commissioner she has pushed for increased employee safety standards and for airport workers to get paid sick leave in their new contract.

The labor groups and Frame have also criticized Tarleton’s environmental record, citing her 2010 vote on the Clean Ports Act, which aimed to improve air quality by replacing older diesel trucks with cleaner vehicles.

Tarleton says she abstained on the union’s version of the proposal because it would have cost taxpayers $50 million and violated federal law. She noted that she worked to approve an amended version.

On other issues, Frame says she wants to be a leader in the fight to institute a state income tax, while Tarleton advocates building a case for the tax over several years of running government more efficiently.

Voters last rejected an income tax on wealthy residents in 2010.

“Voters want to know that somebody’s going to go down to Olympia and fight as hard as they can for middle-class families, and I don’t think that’s Gael, and I think it’s me,” Frame said.

If passion is Frame’s advantage, Tarleton’s is experience.

At 53, she’s 15 years older than Frame and often touts her “more than 20 years” managing budgets, including at the Port. Tarleton’s work history also includes a stint as a senior defense intelligence analyst for the Pentagon.

“I know how money works and I know how government works and I know how government doesn’t work,” she said.

Tarleton also proudly notes she won election to the Port commission as part of a slate of reform candidates who were angry at reports that Port officials had misused public money.

She said the commission has since increased transparency and improved spending oversight.

Tarleton has Dickerson’s endorsement. Frame is supported by Gov. Chris Gregoire, among others.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.