OLYMPIA, Aug. 3—All the attention in this year’s primary seems to be going to the hotly contested race for U.S. House in the 1st Congressional district, but as far as political insiders are concerned, the hottest race of all is taking place in Washington’s “other 1st” – a state Senate race north of Lake Washington that just might determine control of the Legislature’s upper chamber.
State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, a 20-year ally of the Washington Education Association, faces challenges from two candidates, Democrat and Republican, who embrace the education-reform agenda – charter schools, stronger teacher evaluations, more accountability for student results. Not only could the outcome place the Senate in Republican hands, the race also demonstrates that education reform has a higher-than-usual profile in this year’s election.
Challenging McAuliffe are Republican Dawn McCravey, a North Shore School Board member, and Democrat Guy Palumbo, who is mounting a particularly strong campaign for a political newcomer who has no party support. It’s easy to see just how much attention is being trained on this one. Since mid-July some $90,000 has been dumped into the race by outside interests to protect McAuliffe, half of it in the last week – from the Washington Education Association, the state Labor Council and the Senate Democratic Caucus. The Senate Republican Caucus’ soft-money PAC also has funded a hit piece against McAuliffe. Residents of the 1st Legislative District say you can’t turn on cable TV without seeing ads for McAuliffe that have been paid for by the state teachers union. The mailboxes daily are stuffed with reminders of her accomplishments in the Legislature. Palumbo and the Republicans have stepped up their mailings as well, and by election day next week every voter in the district, safe to say, will have received enough fliers to paper a bathroom.
It’s a sign the teachers union and its allies are worried, says Republican consultant Chris Vance. “The race is sort of ground zero for the WEA, or one of the ground zeroes,” he says. “They’re going to spend a ton of money against [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Rob McKenna, and they have got to decide if they want to spend a ton of money trying to beat charter schools. But if the Democrats lose the Senate, it becomes even more painful if the race that made that happen was losing their ally, Rosemary McAuliffe.”
A Pivotal Race
When the legislative session ended in April, there were many who thought McAuliffe, 72, might retire this year. It had been a bruising session – as chairwoman of the Education Committee, she triggered a near revolt in the Democratic ranks when she refused to allow a vote on a charter-school bill and a business-supported teacher-evaluation measure, both of which were strongly opposed by the teachers’ union. Fellow Democrats took the unheard-of step of refusing to vote on any bill in the education committee, and it took Gov. Christine Gregoire to avert a complete meltdown, by brokering a compromise on evaluations. More telling to political insiders, McAuliffe’s campaign war-chest was empty.
But as the strategic map of this year’s races began shaping up, it became clear that the 1st District was going to be a key battleground. Republicans need to pick up three seats to gain control of the Senate; they rate their chances good in the 10th and 25th districts, and perhaps in Spokane’s 3rd District as well. Republicans sensed vulnerability in the 1st and began lining up a candidate. Democrats couldn’t afford to lose a single seat. Not until April 24, a couple of weeks before filing, did McAuliffe hold a fund-raiser and confirm that she was running.
So now McAuliffe is back out in the field every day, knocking on doors, making public appearances, and campaigning like it is her first time. “I’m doing all the things that are important for a campaign,” she says. “I’m not a career politician. In fact, I never entered the pension plan because I thought I was going to be only in for four years, and here I still am. I’ve got this experience, knowledge and passion for continuing the work that I’m doing. I’m doorbelling, I’ve got signs going up, I’m going to all the public meetings. I’m the candidate who has won four times, so I’m pretty sure I should be able to win another time.”
Education a Key Issue
The central issue, as far as Olympia is concerned, is McAuliffe’s longtime support for the WEA. Though McAuliffe quibbles with the idea that she’s with WEA on everything, she has shaped the education-reform efforts of the last 20 years in ways acceptable to the 83,000-member union. “I try to listen to them; I mean, they are the teachers in our classrooms, so they have an important voice,” she says. And for its part, the union says she has been a voice for reform: “She knows that for real education reform to work, legislations need to step up and get it done, which she has,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood. “Sen. McAuliffe respects teachers and values their perspective on policy issues.”
But in a time when many see the union as a roadblock to reform, McAuliffe, as chairwoman of the education committee, seems to have become the human face of its power at the statehouse as she quashes bills inimical to WEA’s interests. It has reached the point that it has triggered something of a civil war in the Democratic party’s base. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, a deep-pocketed supporter of progressive causes and founder of the League of Education Voters, triggered a furor earlier this year with an open letter that suggested party leaders had become “stooges for the teachers union.” The split became evident with the filing of this year’s charter-schools initiative, I-1240, backed by Hanauer and wealthy tech moguls with an interest in education reform.
Palumbo Cites Independence
That’s where Guy Palumbo fits in. A former Amazon.com executive who embraces the reform agenda, Palumbo, 38, had been interested in the race months before the filing date. Early in the process he began courting support in the reform community, well before McAuliffe committed. Nevertheless his entry outraged the local party establishment – in one widely noted outburst, 1st District Democratic Chairman Nicholas Carlson threatened in an email to squash Palumbo with “a coordinated and very damaging response using all the tools at our disposal.” No true Democrat can support charter schools, Carlson said – a statement that might come as a surprise to President Barack Obama.
“I think they realize that Rosemary is vulnerable,” Palumbo says. “And obviously in a three-way race, in a top two primary, the vested interests who support her need to make sure that she makes it through and I don’t, being an independent thinker and an independent thinking Democrat. They would much prefer to have somebody who has a track record of 100% voting with Washington State Labor Council. She used her gavel to block meaningful reform implementation that had bipartisan support on her committee and on the Senate floor. So yeah, I think they’ve been worried — and they’ve been working non-stop on her campaign.”
Palumbo has been doing so much doorbelling he says he hasn’t seen his wife and kids in the last two months. He says it has confirmed his gut feeling – that McAuliffe’s support doesn’t run very deep. But the funny thing, he says, is that for all the talk about education reform in political circles, the real concerns of the district are a bit closer to home – jobs, the economy, transportation, gas taxes and tolling. “The public face of the campaign is all about education and Rosemary. But that’s not what I’m hearing at the doorstep. It is just not.”
McCravey Speaks Education
Whether or not Palumbo can win in the primary, odds are that McCravey will make the general election ballot, simply because she is the only Republican in the race. What makes the 1st district Senate race so hot isn’t just the politics of it all – the “white-hot center” of the battle for control, as McCravey consultant Brett Bader puts it – but also that Republicans have found a candidate who can challenge McAuliffe on her own ground. McCravey, 56, is a former schoolteacher in Texas and Colorado who now serves on the North Shore School Board, as McAuliffe herself once did. McCravey knows well the power of the union. Last year she was among the school directors WEA targeted statewide, and the only one to survive, she says proudly.
McAuliffe is the personification of a system that needs to change, McCravey says. “Rosemary is doing a good job of representing the WEA, which mainly holds the line that we need more money. I think the system is broken in a lot of ways and needs a revamping. Sen. McAuliffe has served admirably for a number of years, but she is holding on to an old system that needs to change.”
McCravey takes education policy down to the wonk level; she talks about charter-school laws that work and those that don’t, and she says one of the biggest disappointments of the legislative impasse that McAuliffe provoked is that it prevented lawmakers from crafting a finely tuned bill. Last year, she testified in favor of a teacher-layoff bill that would have allowed school districts to consider performance when deciding which teachers must go. But she notes that her testimony took place in the House. McAuliffe didn’t allow a hearing.
“We have a chair of the education committee who is a 20-year incumbent and who has become a bit of a roadblock to education reform, so I think it is kind of a pivotal race for education,” she said. “Education is really a different animal than any other business, and there are a lot of good-minded people who are interested in reforming it, but if you don’t understand the impacts on our classrooms and our children, you could do a lot of irreparable damage. We need someone mindful who understands what is going to happen when you make those changes.”