When Washington State Representative Ed Murray (D-Seattle) announced last weekend that he is surrendering his seat in the house in order to make a run for the state senate, he lifted the curtain on a highly anticipated race that has been underway, behind the scenes, for more than four months.

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It's not the intraparty showdown that Murray has set up between himself and longtime incumbent Senator Pat Thibaudeau (D-Seattle), although that will be one of the more exciting races this season. Rather, it's the race Murray created by vacating his house seat, a race that's shaping up to be a six-way brawl among a group of dedicated Seattle liberals who want to become the next state representative from the 43rd District (which encompasses Capitol Hill, Madison Valley, and parts of Fremont and downtown Seattle).

House seats like the one Murray is giving up are much sought after because they are considered easy to keep and can be good steppingstones to higher office. Murray held his seat for 11 years, rising to the powerful post of transportation chair and becoming the legislature's loudest voice on gay rights issues. When rumors began circulating last winter that he was considering running for a higher position, one of the first people to file to replace him was Jamie Pedersen, the well-connected partner at Preston, Gates, and Ellis who put his name in the hat back in December. Pedersen is the only gay candidate in the race. He has served as chair of the National Leadership Council for the gay rights group Lambda Legal and is a cooperating attorney on the high-profile lawsuit—now being decided by the state supreme court—that seeks equal marriage rights for same-sex couples in Washington State.

"I don't feel any sense of entitlement as the only gay candidate," Pedersen says. But his sexuality and his history of gay rights advocacy are nevertheless going to make him, in the minds of many 43rd District voters, the obvious heir to Murray.

Pedersen is also the front-runner in the money race, having raised nearly $47,000 already. His nearest contender, money-wise, is former Seattle City Councilman Jim Street, who has almost $39,000. Among the rest of the candidates, Dick Kelley, the garrulous chair of the 43rd District Democrats, has $25,000; King County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and environmentalist Bill Sherman has about $20,000, as does labor activist Lynne Dodson; and Stephanie Pure, an aide to City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck who championed the repeal of the Teen Dance Ordinance, has about $11,500.

Money won't be everything in the 43rd, a highly educated and politically active district where people expect a candidate who can connect in intimate settings and civic meetings. But in a race where the key is going to be differentiation—standing out, somehow, among a group of liberals who mostly share the same opinions—Pedersen's money lead is certain to help him increase his name recognition and create an aura of inevitability.

Pedersen says the impetus behind his run was the uncertainty over how the fight for gay rights will progress at the state level. "No matter what the court decides to do there's going to be some legislative reaction," he says.

He also says that as a legislator he would follow Murray's model of focusing not just on gay rights, but on issues like transportation, health care, and education. And he adds that his experience as a business attorney in the private sector (he is the only candidate for Murray's seat who is not currently working for the government) will help him "talk across party lines."

The knock on Pedersen is that he's too well scrubbed for the 43rd. A self-described "Eagle Scout lawyer," Pedersen is an earnest man with a first-rate legal mind, a clear commitment to social justice, and a pure-as-the-driven-snow sincerity. But his detractors whisper that he comes across as too milquetoast and has a confidence in his own understanding of issues that can at times make him politically tone-deaf.

Murray is unlikely to be endorsing a candidate in the race. But he did say he believes that the 43rd likes a politician with bite—a description that could cover a number of Pedersen's opponents.

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"If you look at the people who have won in the 43rd District over the years, you've got to have an edge," Murray says. "You're not going to do it if you're just soft and fuzzy."

eli@thestranger.com