The race for lieutenant governor in Washington features a Democratic congressman who’s at the end of an eight-year legislative stint against a Democratic state senator who’s in the middle of an eight-year legislative stint.
Both candidates have previously served in lower legislative bodies — both were first elected at age 24 — and both have worked in the private sector in between stints of government service.
While there are certainly differences between U.S. Rep. Denny Heck and state Sen. Marko Liias, they’re not huge. And they’re a little bit like the duties of lieutenant governor, the office they both seek: kind of esoteric and not well understood.
Heck, currently a congressman representing the Olympia area, won the August primary with 25% of the vote in an 11-candidate field. He is pitching his candidacy on his long experience in state politics. In a recent interview, he resolutely declined to draw contrasts between himself and Liias.
“I’m pretty resistant to talking about this race, the comparison, in any way that could be interpreted as diminishing the public service of my opponent,” he said. “I’m not interested in dwelling on the differences.”
Liias, a state senator from Lynnwood who came in second in August with about 19% of the vote, is much more willing. He said he’s the candidate of “bold, transformational changes” — he supports a “Medicare for All”-type single-payer health care plan and “something like a Green New Deal” to stem the effects of climate change — while Heck is more incrementalist.
“Whatever issue we’re looking at he takes more that moderate, sort of business Democrat approach,” Liias said. “I’m trying to push the envelope and find really progressive, bold solutions that address a broader swath of the issue.”
Past Washington lieutenant governors have rarely if ever implemented radical policy changes.
The current lieutenant governor, Cyrus Habib, announced last spring that he would not seek reelection and would instead become a Jesuit priest. In early September he went on unpaid leave and moved to a California seminary to begin his training. He didn’t announce the move publicly and no one noticed until last week.
The position has an eclectic set of duties, some in the executive branch and some in the legislative branch. The lieutenant governor acts as governor when the governor is out of state and assumes the office if the governor dies or leaves office. The lieutenant governor also presides over the Senate, settling procedural disputes and breaking ties, and chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which can kill any piece of legislation. The lieutenant governor serves on nine other boards or committees, covering topics ranging from state investment strategies to higher education to the preservation of historic furniture in the Capitol.
Liias says the office has been “underutilized” in the past and says he would use its “statewide platform to really articulate a vision on these issues.”
Heck says he would focus, specifically, on one of those 10 committees that the lieutenant governor sits on: a joint House-Senate committee on Economic Development and International Relations that typically meets two or three times a year to study policy and offer advice on legislation.
“I’d like to use that as a vehicle for really making a constructive contribution to a conversation about how do we rebuild our economy,” Heck said.
Both say recovering from the coronavirus pandemic and the economic devastation it has wrought would be their first priority. Both say new taxes may be necessary next year to deal with the state’s pandemic-induced budget shortfall, currently estimated at more than $4 billion. Both candidates support a state income tax on the wealthy and/or a capital gains tax.
Republican Joshua Freed, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor earlier this year, is also mounting a write-in campaign for lieutenant governor.
There is also a small chance that whoever wins could end up as governor as soon as next year. It would require a cascade of events, all of which individually seem possible, but, when taken together, are still probably a longshot.
If Joe Biden wins the presidency (polls show him with a healthy lead), he could consider Gov. Jay Inslee for a position in his administration. Inslee has been rumored as a possible EPA administrator, Interior secretary, Energy secretary or “climate czar.” If Inslee accepted such an offer (he has repeatedly said he would not) after winning a third term as governor (he also leads in polls), the lieutenant governor would step in as governor, until a special election could be held in November 2021.
Heck says “categorically and unequivocally” that he would not run in a special election for governor. (He also wrote in his 2015 memoir that “I am not running for another office as long as I live. Period.” That turned out to be untrue.)
Heck said the COVID, economic and budget challenges Washington currently faces would be too severe for anyone to address as a brand new governor while also simultaneously running a campaign for governor.
Liias leaves that door slightly ajar.
“I don’t have any plans to run next year,” he said. “I don’t think there will be a governor’s election. If I were the governor, by some fluke, I would rather be the lieutenant governor.”
Heck, 68, has spent a lifetime in Washington state Democratic politics. He was elected to the state House in 1976, at age 24, and served five terms, including four years as House majority leader. He made an unsuccessful run for state schools superintendent in 1988, before serving as chief of staff for Gov. Booth Gardner in the early 1990s. In 1993 he co-founded TVW, Washington’s version of C-SPAN, and led the network as CEO for 10 years.
TVW connections led to a relationship with the founder of RealNetworks. Heck invested in the early online streaming company, making millions. He co-founded a corporate project management company, wrote three books and ran a losing campaign for Congress in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District before he was elected to the newly created 10th Congressional District in 2012.
When, in December 2019, he announced he was retiring from Congress, he bemoaned the demise of civility and civic discourse. He says he sees that creeping into Olympia politics as well and is running, in part, to “in some way constructively contribute to it not becoming as bad as Washington, D.C.”
He has raised about $1 million, and has self-funded his campaign with $124,000 of his own money. He is endorsed by former Governors Chris Gregoire and Gary Locke and former Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen.
Liias, 39, is in the middle of his second four-year term in the state Senate, where he serves as Democratic floor leader.
He was elected to the Mukilteo City Council in 2005, at age 24, where he served until he was appointed to fill an open seat in the state House in 2008. He was reelected three times before being appointed to an open state Senate seat in 2014. He was elected to a full Senate term that year and was reelected in 2018.
In the Senate he led the push to send Sound Transit 3 — the multibillion-dollar expansion of bus and rail service in the Puget Sound region — to voters for approval.
He ran for state treasurer in 2016, failing to advance past the primary.
He’s also worked in his family’s construction business and teaches classes in American government at Everett Community College.
He has raised about $290,000 and has the endorsement of Habib and the vast majority of his Democratic colleagues in the state Senate. He says he would be the first openly LGBTQ person elected to statewide executive office in Washington.
“I want to transform this from a figurehead and a hood ornament into an active contributing role where we’re helping advance the big, bold change we need,” Liias said.