Virtual Conversation | 2020 Re-Wire Virtual Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2020 Learn More

Democratic legislative races highlight institutional divisions

Three Democratic legislative races this cycle are highlighting institutional divisions. These divisions are playing out between candidates and the incumbents they’re challenging, as well as between candidates and the Washington State Democratic Party.

In South King County’s 11th Legislative District, a Democratic general election contest is shaping up between longtime incumbent, Rep. Zack Hudgins, and attorney and community advocate, David Hackney.

Hudgins has represented the district — comprising Renton, Tukwila, Kent, and South Seattle — since 2002. While he’s often sailed to re-election, sometimes running unopposed, Hackney believes the 11th LD’s shifting demographics and community needs have catalyzed a desire for change.

In the 18 years my opponent has been in office, the demographics of the 11th District have changed dramatically. It is now a majority minority district. I think what we have seen in the frustration of the public protests is that voices in my community have not been heard and issues have not been prioritized,” said Hackney.

Hackney, who holds dual degrees from Harvard Law School and the JFK School of Government, is a former Department of Justice Assistant United States Attorney and UN war crimes prosecutor. More recently, he was appointed Commissioner on the Washington Human Rights Commission by Gov. Inslee, and has worked on labor law for Amazon and a start-up non-profit.

Hudgins currently serves as chair of the House Innovation, Technology, and Economic Development committee and serves on the Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on State Government & Tribal Relations as well. Before entering the Legislature, Hudgins’ professional history included stints at Amazon as a project manager and Microsoft as a program manager. 

In an email to the Wire, Hudgins said his re-election effort is driven by his deep ties to the 11th District.

I am running for re-election because we will need proven progressives with experience to tackle the problems in our state. I am focused on the communities I represent, and centered on voices at home because I have lived in the 11th district for almost 25 years, where I was married, and where my son goes to public school.”  

Hudgins has won praise for his legislation in the past. He was the prime sponsor of “Breakfast After the Bell” – a 2016 bill to increase participation in breakfast programs for low income children. Some of his recent votes, however, have attracted the ire of progressives and now serve as a point of attack for Hackney.  

My opponent has not been an advocate, an organizer, or a leader on issues that are critical to this district. The 11th District is South King County. South King County has a lower median income than the rest of the county, more students are on free and reduced meals, and experience 77% of all the gun violence in the County,” said Hackney. “How aren’t those your priorities? We are a majority renters district. How is renter protection not something you are a leader on as opposed to something you voted against? We are not forbidden from participating, organizing the district, raising money and solving problems. This is a part time legislature but it’s a full time responsibility to your district.” 

In the 2019 Legislative Session, Hudgins was one of three House Democrats to vote against a bill which made reforms to Washington’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (RLTA). The bill was designed to give tenants more time to respond to eviction notices and to widen the scope of factors for judges to consider in eviction cases.

According to a 2018 report, small landlord eviction cases were predominantly concentrated in South Seattle.

In further comments to the Wire, Hudgins said that his record is one that reflects advocacy for housing reform and other progressive policies.

I have been a champion for housing reform, for creating opportunity for immigrants, for funding education, and for breaking down structural barriers in our democracy.  I was the prime sponsor of the WA Dream Act, the Breakfast After the Bell Act, and our Access to Democracy package,” said Hudgins.   

Hackney has not lived in the 11th District for as long as Hudgins and has never held elected office. Whatever he lacks in direct legislative experience, Hackney said he more than makes up for in advocacy for solutions to longstanding, unresolved community issues. 

As for what those issues are, he said the protests of late in response to police brutality and racism speak volumes: “The issues that people were most upset about, along with police brutality and the militarization of our police force, it’s also been income inequality. People are working harder and harder and falling behind.”

In the 11th LD race as well as others this cycle, some believe that a tension has emerged between institutional memory and progressive insurgency. In their recent co-endorsement of two Democratic candidates – incumbent Rep. Steve Kirby and Sharlett Mena – in the 29th District House race, the Tacoma News Tribune (TNT) Editorial Board wrote that the race “illustrates a dynamic sweeping America right now, a collision between Baby Boom and Boomlet.”   

While TNT Editorial Board cut the intraparty divide along generational lines, Hackney believes the contrast exists in the Legislature’s characteristics as an institution, and the ways in which the institution might inculcate a sense of rigidity.  

I think these intraparty challenges are happening because people are not satisfied with the effort made to address critical issues in these districts. I think over a period of time in the Legislature, some, not all, can get institutionalized into the power of the impossible. ‘It’s impossible to give people a decent living; it’s impossible to reduce gun violence; it’s impossible to change our upside down tax system.’ So I think what you have is not just younger folks, but optimists who believe government can change and can solve people’s problems.”

Hudgins cited his experience as a critical virtue, especially given the dual crises with which the Legislature must contend. 

I have fought for consumer privacy, and issues of equity – I940, the HEAL Act, Cesar Chavez day, and the office of equity. As we deal with the pandemic and the economic recession induced by the pandemic we will need experience to protect our values and the most vulnerable,” said Hudgins.

Legislative ambition is not the only institutional question that Hackney believes the Legislature must face; he also alleges that a technological chasm between the two campaigns has been exacerbated by State Democratic Party rules regarding access to voter data.

Hackney told the Wire that the State Party’s standards for gaining access to Data in VoteBuilder, an online database often referred to as “NPG VAN,” make it vastly more challenging for candidates challenging incumbents to conduct voter outreach.

They put a special rule in this term that challengers to incumbents had to receive their Local Party Organization’s (LPOs) endorsement in order to get access to VoteBuilder. However, if you are running for an open seat, all you have to do is get approval from your LPO. If you are an incumbent you automatically get access to VoteBuilder,” said Hackney.

According to a PCO handbook, VoteBuilder contains information about every registered voter in the state and allows political parties and candidate campaigns to track and manage their volunteers. VoteBuilder is exclusive to Democratic organizations and is used by every state Democratic Party and Democratic candidates ranging from presidential campaigns to local races. 

That is probably one of the most valuable assets when running a campaign. Rather than having to blanket an entire district with doorbelling or mailers, you want to target the data that shows people that have voted recently and who are likely to vote for Democrats because of their past voting records. Sharlett Mena, Jessi Murray, and I have all been denied,” continued Hackney.

Mena is challenging Rep. Steve Kirby in the 29th LD and Jessi Murray is challenging former House Speaker Frank Chopp in the 43rd LD.

The Democratic database belongs to all of us who worked to build it, making calls and knocking doors to elect the leaders we believe in. To deny Democrats access to it, is to tip the scales in an election and deny the voters a fair choice,” said Mena in a statement.

Each Democratic LPO has the leeway to set out their own endorsement requirements. Some LPOs require 50 percent plus one, while others require a higher percentage of votes in order to earn the organization’s official endorsement. 

Hackney said he earned 65 percent of the vote in the 11th District LPO endorsement meeting, 1 percent short of the 66 percent required to secure the LPO endorsement and by extension, access to VoteBuilder: “I did get considerably more votes than my opponent, Zack Hudgins. But I’m denied VoteBuilder and he already has it because he’s an incumbent.”

Of particular frustration to Hackney, Mena, and Murray is that under the current policy, even if a challenger receives more votes than the incumbent at an LPO endorsement meeting, the challenger does not get access to VoteBuilder unless they cross the vote threshold required for an official endorsement. At the same time, incumbents are still permitted to retain access to VoteBuilder.

Tina Podlodowski, Chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, told the Wire that a change to this policy would need to be done at the local party level, which she recommended in 2018, but LPOs were not receptive to standardizing their endorsement process.

Podlodowski also clarified that incumbents are not automatically given access to VoteBuilder. Sen. Tim Sheldon identifies as a Democrat but caucuses with Republicans. As a result, Sheldon does not have access to VoteBuilder.

When Rep. Melanie Morgan unseated incumbent David Sawyer last year, Morgan had access to VoteBuilder while Sawyer, who was accused behaving inappropriately toward women, was not given access.

The number of votes doesn’t matter, it’s what the rule is around getting the endorsement…It’s the consistency in terms of knowing what you have to do to be able to win. You have to be able to win,” said Podlodowski. “If a challenger comes along that LPOs think will better represent them and better do the work for Democrats than the incumbent, they need to be convinced of that. The question for challengers of any sort is, can you convince people in a much smaller section to vote for you in the same way you’re going to have to convince people in the electorate to vote you. So it is a test of viability or your ability to organize a campaign, and it doesn’t cost anything to do it.”

In an interview, Murray said the endorsement process is arduous and there isn’t always clarity around what organizations count as official LPOs.

We filed for VoteBuilder access pretty early on. It was either February or March. The email response we got back was that challengers to incumbent Democrats need to win the endorsement of 50 percent plus one local party organizations. In my case, that would be the 43rd District Democrats and the King County Democrats. The way the King County Democrats bylaws are written for candidates that are in single LD races, they can only endorse candidates who are from the pool that the LD endorses. Practically, this means I would have to get the endorsement of both the 43rd District Democrats and King County Democrats,” said Murray.

Due to logistical delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 43rd District Democrats endorsement meeting was pushed back from May to June. In the meantime, Murray obtained the endorsement of the King County Young Democrats, which she hoped would prove Democratic “bonafides” to the State Party.

After informing the State Party of the King County Young Democrats endorsement, Murray said she was told that the organization did not count as an official LPO and she would still need the endorsement of the 43rd District Democrats to gain access to VoteBuilder.

At the 43rd District Democrats endorsement meeting, neither Murray or Chopp hit the 60 percent threshold necessary for obtaining the endorsement of the 43rd District Democrats. As a result, Murray still could not gain access to VoteBuilder.

Will Casey, Communications Director for the Washington State Democratic Party, told the Wire that the “50 percent plus one” endorsement policy was developed in consultation with the Executive Committee and State Central Committee.

In a copy of internal emails following the 2018 election given to the Wire, Podlodowski wrote that voter data is also part of a National Voter Co-op with 49 other states. On top of that, she said there needs to be policy consistency across states due contractual obligations with the DNC – which invests tens of millions into state voter files through cell phone buys and data swaps.

While State Democratic Parties control voter data, in presidential and federal midterm cycles – when the State Parties run a coordinated campaign with the National Party – the State Parties are subject to contractual obligations regarding voter data.

Based on these considerations, doing away with rules that set standards for accessing VoteBuilder would involving unwinding policies structured in consultation with both the DNC and state LPOs.

The bottom line is that you are asking us to change a policy that has been carefully crafted to consider and deal with thousands of races statewide equitably, as well as multiple contractual agreements nationally – and it’s not something that can be done for this cycle. In subsequent cycles, to even consider it would require a standardized endorsement policy and process across every single one of the 88 LPOs at a minimum, plus a contractual negotiations with the Voter Co-op and the DNC (who may subsequently reject what we come up with anyway.)….

I cannot state strongly enough that we are extremely serious about the fiscal and security responsibilities we have with this file. In addition, it is our most valuable political asset – it is what candidates from school boards to fire commissions to the state legislature to congress, and all of our statewide campaigns, rely on to be as accurate and functional as it can be for Democrats,” wrote Podlodowski in an email to following the 2018 election.

“We also know that local party organizations work for months, and sometimes years, investing dollars and time, to get incumbents elected – and it’s not unreasonable to require a challengers to gain 50%+1 endorsements as a means to gain access to VoteBuilder to make certain that the broad will of the district is being carried out, not just the request of a few.”

Murray was a Membership Chair for the 43rd District Democrats and said she has canvassed for a number of Democratic candidates, helping to build out the party. Nevertheless, without the endorsement of her LPO, these factors were rendered irrelevant in her bid to gain access to VoteBuilder.

Given these dynamics, Murray questioned the message these policies might send to nontraditional candidates

Looking at all three of us – Sharlett, David, and I – all three of us are running against older, incumbent white males. I am a Queer woman. Sharlett is a Latino woman who is the daughter of immigrants. David is a Black man. We’re all people that the Democratic Party says the want to raise up. The fact that they’re essentially putting their thumb on the scale for incumbents is not living up to the values they’re espousing to the world,” said Murray.

While VoteBuilder is the preferred voter file for Democratic candidates, there are alternatives. Expenditures from Hackney’s campaign show that he is using an alternative called NGP while Murray is using Ecanvasser. Only VoteBuilder, however, has been collected, managed, and updated by the State Party for decades.

Aside from data access, Hackney alleges that the institutional impediments he’s faced extend beyond the pedantry of LPO rulemaking.

I have been told by potential endorsers that they have been told that if they endorse me, their bills will not move through the house. Candidates have been told that if they endorse me, their bills run through and financing from the Democratic Caucus will be impacted.” 

Election year restrictions prohibit the House Democratic Caucus from commenting on campaigns.

As far as individual legislative Democrats, Hackney has been endorsed by Sen. Joe Nguyen and outgoing Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib. Hudgins has been endorsed by a long list of Democratic incumbents.

According to the most recent PDC filings, Hudgins has raised $55K and Hackney has raised $46K. The third candidate in the race, Jay Stark, trails significantly having raised just over $3k.

Voting in the top two blanket primary is underway and will conclude on August 4th. 

Your support matters.

Public service journalism is important today as ever. If you get something from our coverage, please consider making a donation to support our work. Thanks for reading our stuff.