(EDITOR’S NOTE: With two weeks till ballots are mailed for the August 17th primary, we’re taking a closer look daily at the candidates in two contested local races. This week, we are bringing you stories about WSB conversations with the four contenders for 34th District State House, Position 2. We begin with Joe Fitzgibbon.)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Sound like a shoo-in? Nope. This year, for the first time in 18 years, the 34th District (map) has an open seat and a spirited race, with Fitzgibbon running against two other Democrats – one of whom has the official party nomination and district endorsement – plus an Independent.
So what’s Fitzgibbon, a 23-year-old Burien resident, doing to set himself apart in the race to succeed Rep. Nelson in State House Position 2?
First, as we sat down in a White Center coffee shop to talk for an hour (the same time we allotted each candidate conversation), we asked what he had been up to earlier that day.
Another media interview, a news release about endorsements, and the “daily grind of doorbelling and taking phone calls,” Fitzgibbon replied. As of this past weekend, when we talked with him at West Seattle Summer Fest (photo below), he estimated he had knocked on about 5,000 doors – more than half the 9,000 he hopes to hit before the August 17 primary.
He’s been campaigning actively for more than three months, and calls it “a marathon, though you have to run like it’s a sprint, every single day.” He acknowledges that the fact it’s a “really competitive race” forces the candidates’ hands in that respect, to “actually come out and sell (ourselves).” Doorbelling, he says, brings you to the voters who aren’t necessarily “engaged in the process” – in his work as a legislative assistant, he says, you tend to hear only from the ones who ARE engaged.
His doorbelling is focusing on West Seattle, so far – no doubt because this is the area where he could use more name recognition, as a Burien resident running against three candidates who live in West Seattle, which makes up the lion’s share of the 34th District.
Nonetheless, Fitzgibbon thinks a non-West Seattleite can win. “Sharon (Nelson) doesn’t live in West Seattle,” he points out, regarding his boss. “But she has been a tenacious advocate, whether it’s regarding the jail in Highland Park, or ensuring we had funds for (transportation), or dealing with stench problem in Fauntleroy (Cove). … I spent a lot of time working on West Seattle’s issues, in the time I’ve been working in the Legislature, and even though I don’t actually live here, our office has been (in The Junction) and will continue to be if I’m elected.”
Quizzed for a little more about his background, he’s been a Burien resident since age 12, when his parents moved there after his grandparents died; his mother, he points out, was born in West Seattle (her family lived in Arbor Heights).
So whether he’s doorbelling in West Seattle, White Center, Burien or elsewhere, what are people bringing up?
“Everybody is concerned about transportation in our district. We’re a unique district (geographically) … a lot of people are very concerned about what’s going to happen when the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct comes down, and the tunnel won’t necessarily provide the access (to downtown) – That’s a recurring theme.” As is transit: “A lot of folks ask about the (never-built) monorail, and when are we going to get high-capacity transit?”
Transit is a big worry overall. He worries that “Metro is about to go off a financial cliff” with service cuts unless the Legislature takes action. He foresees cuts on circulator routes and late-night runs, and insists that the Legislature needs to take action on transit funding next year: “The Legislature can’t let our transit network fall apart just in the time when transportation is about to get more difficult” – as in, Alaskan Way Viaduct construction.
And assuming the tunnel does go forward, Fitzgibbon is concerned about funding the “ancillary improvements” – I-5 and surface streets. “I don’t see the tunnel being successful unless we can get the improvements to the surface street grid, to enable people from West Seattle to continue to get downtown.”
Still on the topic of transportation – a committee on which he’d like to serve if he gets elected, in fact – we discuss the South Park Bridge replacement-funding search. “One of my concerns was, how ‘missing in action’ the state has been. (Not so many months ago) the state was saying ‘we’re not interested in supporting it’ – I’m thrilled to see a turnaround on that, to see the state turn around, especially for our district, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Next hot topic that Fitzgibbon says is coming up everywhere he goes: “Folks all across the age spectrum, whether they have kids in school or not, are asking about schools. … We’re not going to be able to get much progress unless we can adequately fund them.”
OK, so – how is that going to happen?
“The income tax for high earners is an appropriate way to correct imbalances … and (the Legislature) should continue revisiting the huge tax exemptions that riddle our tax code. … (It) shifts the tax burden onto everyone who can’t afford a lobbyist. I’d like to see tax exemptions on a cycle of renewal so that every few years, the Legislature has to re-evaluate them.”
Asked what he might say to a constituent suggesting there must be someplace left to cut, Fitzgibbon says, “I think we have cut core services to the bone. I think we still will be able to find examples of places we could do better (though) … my old position as legislative assistant, we’re leaving unfillled this year; (Reps. Eileen) Cody and Nelson are sharing a legislative assistant, so that one position can go vacant for the whole year.” But cuts “are not a longterm solution to the state’s financial problems,” he insists. “I don’t think we are able to solve the fiscal problem in the long term unless we look at the tax structure. … We haven’t really revisited (it) since 1935, and the Depression-era tax code is not working any more.”
Taxes aside, what about his other priorities?
“We need to ensure that the next transportation package includes bike and pedestrian infrastructure funding that’s more commensurate with the number of trips that people take. … We know there are huge needs in West Seattle and Burien … It’s a matter of safety, and people’s mobility.” (This will come up again later in our conversation.)
Second, he lists the Clean Water Act, which has components that Fitzgibbon considers “a tax-justice issue” – there are costs, he says, that currently are funded by utility ratepayers, while he “would rather see (those costs) paid by the businesses getting rich polluting our waterways … That’s the kind of thing that fits into tax reform, is the ordinary taxpayer on the hook for cleaning up after polluters? We are seeing it in the Gulf (of Mexico), we’re seeing it on a smaller scale here in Puget Sound.” He is hopeful that a coalition including not only environmental interests but also unions and local governments will keep the CWA high on their priority list: “I’ve been very impressed by how much can get done when a legislator goes not just to be one good vote, but to build a coalition of people with shared values who will fight for common priorities.”
Coalition-building, he says, is what made the difference for the payday-lending-reform act that Rep. Nelson championed to passage, after years of failed attempts. And after the Gulf of Mexico BP disaster, Fitzgibbon thinks the path may be clearer next year for the Clean Water Act – “I don’t think oil companies are going to have the same (clout) next year.”
So what legislation might he author, as a new legislator? Also in the environmental vein – he mentions something to remedy a problem observed while working with Rep. Nelson, who’s been in the thick of the fight over the Maury Island gravel-mine project: “Lots of different state agencies conduct separate permitting processes for different parts of projects … I’d like to see one agency take a comprehensive look at projects that affect Puget Sound. I think that would ensure that good projects are getting permits in a more timely way, and that bad projects are looked at in a more holistic way.”
Fitzgibbon says environmental concerns are the foundation of his interest in politics – “the realization that environmental progress is not being made at the rate (needed) to have an earth we can be proud of when my kids are old enough to enjoy it. I saw the political process as the best way to move toward a more-sustainable society.” He says he started an environmental club while in high school – “got kids to recycle litter (picked up) alongside the roads, that kind of thing … we had a lot of guest speakers about ways to be more environmentally conscious citizens …” He also experienced both the beauty and vulnerability of nature as a summer-camp counselor in Colorado.
But sustainability, Fitzgibbon contends, goes beyond environmental concern and activism. “Do we have a sustainable (state) budget? I see the Legislature making decisions for one, two years down the road – I’m concerned that we are not looking 10, 20 years down the road.”
And here is where he brings in the age issue – not in the slightest bit defensive about being in his early 20s, but rather framing it as an attribute: “I think having a broader diversity of people making decisions would lead to a more long-term view.”
Being more than twice his age, we wonder aloud, in not so many words, if he’s not being a bit ageist. He doesn’t even flinch. “We’ve had some great legislators in all stages of their lives accomplish a lot for our state. People my age are just not at the table … we should have a seat at the table. More diversity of experiences and outlooks tends to lead to better decisionmaking. I am excited to (potentially) serve alongside two women who have accomplished a whole lot for our community … I think having a diversity of experiences in our delegation will make us stronger.”
His most recent experience, besides working as a legislative assistant, has been on the Burien Planning Commission (appointed by the Burien City Council), which has been caught up in a hot-button issue: Updating the city’s Shoreline Master Program. “It tends to be very explosive, whenever you are dealing with land use,” Fitzgibbon notes. “I think what we (planning commissioners) put together strikes the right balance; obviously there are other viewpoints. … I am proud of the fact that despite the thorniness, we had a unanimous vote coming out of the Planning Commission.”
The proposal, which he says expands shoreline buffers to restrict some new construction but allows replacement of existing homes, is now in the hands of Burien councilmembers. “Between the shoreline buffers and vegetation
management, those are things that will ensure in the long run that we have better salmon habitat, food for orcas … local governments can play a big role in that.”
His Planning Commission stint is an example of something he says he’s proud of, “being very involved in my community … I think a successful legislator is someone very invested in the community they live in.” He’s also been an advocate for biking and walking, campaigning for an unsuccessful ballot measure last fall to raise money for more sidewalks and bike lanes in Burien. Though voters didn’t go for it, Fitzgibbon offers, “it started a conversation.” A first-ever bike fair was a feature of this summer’s Burien Strawberry Festival, for example. And he’s hoping Burien might adopt a “complete streets” ordinance. But he confesses he’s not bicycling as much as usual right now, because of his campaign schedule.
Still, he says, transportation is intertwined with sustainability and the environment, since the choices we make for the former have so much effect on the latter. And when we ask which committee he’d like to sit on, if elected, transportation is the first one he mentions – with the caveat that “freshmen don’t always get to have their first choice.”
And while any victorious candidate from the field of four will be a first-time legislator, Fitzgibbon makes one more pitch for his background as a legislative assistant, familiar with the issues, challenges and policymaking: “I don’t think it’s helpful to come into office and have to start by getting caught up.”
ENDORSEMENTS: Here’s his current online list
FUNDRAISING: $27,206 in contributions as of early today (7/13/2010), compared to $29,650 for Mike Heavey, $28,168 for Marcee Stone, $5,112 for Geoffrey “Mac” McElroy, per the state Public Disclosure Commission website. (To see who has given Fitzgibbon money, go here.)
WHITE CENTER – SEATTLE OR BURIEN? He isn’t taking sides, but says “the state needs to provide incentive money (from sales taxes) to make sure (annexation) does take place” and to make sure the annexing city can handle it – right now, he isn’t sure either of the cities could handle the added burden.
Early Wednesday, we’ll publish the story of our conversation with Mike Heavey; then on Thursday, Geoffrey “Mac” McElroy; and on Friday, Marcee Stone.
Registered to vote? If not – do it by July 19. Details here.