It was the perfect night for this crowd of low-income housing advocates, enviros, and idealists to party. In addition to the starry night-sky view of downtown Seattle from the Melrose Avenue East co-op rooftop (not to mention the salmon and wine)--the evening's guest of honor, insurgent state legislative candidate Alice Woldt, had just come off a satisfying campaign trail boost. Two nights earlier, at the 36th District Democrats' endorsement meeting (that's Ballard, Queen Anne, Phinney Ridge, Magnolia, Greenwood, and the Denny Regrade), Woldt's troops prevented the district's longtime incumbent, centrist Democrat Helen Sommers, from winning the endorsement [In Other News, August 12]. Woldt, current director of the low-income advocacy group SAGE and former director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle--known for its food bank, low-income housing, and case-management work--didn't get the endorsement herself. But forcing a draw with the venerable Sommers--a 31-year incumbent who chairs the House Appropriations Committee with an infamous iron fist--is certainly a political coup.
The feeling that a Dean-style insurgency against the Democratic establishment might be possible at the local level this fall is palpable among Woldt supporters, who are rallying around Woldt's progressive campaign to take down Sommers. "We are not just going to stand by if your voting record isn't going the right way," says Woldt supporter and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spokesperson Marcy Johnsen.
However, Woldt's righteous campaign runs the risk of displacing one of the Democrats' fiercest players in Olympia. Seattle's liberal delegation lines up to praise Sommers. "For those of us from liberal Seattle," says House Rep. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill and University District), "Helen is key because she is able to get things out of Republicans. If she's ousted, the appropriations [chairmanship] will probably go to someone who's rural or suburban--not more liberal. Helen's one of the only people willing to talk about new taxes."
"She's invaluable," adds Eileen Cody, D-34 (West Seattle). "She knows that budget inside and out. The state agencies do not mess with Helen. And she's respected by the Republicans."
* * *
It's precisely Sommers' willingness to compromise with Republicans that has emboldened progressives to take her on. As evidenced by Saturday night's crowd (plus Woldt supporters like Queen Anne resident Lawrence Winnerman, recently a Dean delegate to the Dem convention in Boston, who spoke on Woldt's behalf at Thursday's 36th endorsement meeting in Ballard), Woldt is attacking Sommers from the left.
"In the past decade or so," Woldt says, "[Sommers] has gotten too conservative for the district." To make her case, Woldt, 64, points out the corporate donations on Sommers' campaign-finance reports: $500 from Boeing, $300 from Labor Ready, $500 from Wal-Mart, and $625 from GlaxoSmithKline.
Woldt, who on Saturday night was dressed like a hip grandma in a breezy black skirt and blouse, also hits Sommers' record: a vote for charter schools; a vote to ignore Initiative 728, which had demanded lower class sizes in public schools; a vote to cut unemployment insurance; and a vote to approve the infamous $3.2 billion Boeing tax break.
Steve Williamson, leader of the King County Labor Council, which recommended a Woldt endorsement in April, says that every election year, "There's always one progressive interest group gunning for Helen, but there's never been a viable challenger." This year, he says, the stars aligned when "the built-up anger combined with a viable candidate--Alice," whom he describes as "not a union member, but a sister," based on her union support work at the Church Council.
The built-up anger against Sommers detonated when Sommers said "no" to a $2.07-an-hour raise for unionized home-healthcare workers during the 2003 budget negotiations. Woldt's candidacy is widely seen as payback from the homecare workers' union, SEIU. (Judging from the Washington State Labor Council endorsement in May, however, it's clear SEIU isn't the only union gunning for Sommers.)
The attack on Sommers' record seems to be more an attack on the state budget. The campaign tactic unfairly ignores Sommers' long history of civil rights, women's advocacy, and gay rights work, her colleagues say. "I think it's stupid, and that Helen is being scapegoated," says West Seattle rep Cody.
"As budget chair... when you have a deficit in the billions, you have to say 'no,'" Cody adds.
As Sommers says, the state was facing a $2.6 billion budget shortfall in 2003 and a Democratic governor who said no new taxes. In the end, Sommers points out, the homecare workers got a 75-cent raise. "Their wage rate increased in a year when teachers and state employees got zero." Footnote: In 2004, the homecare workers got their full raise.
Sommers--an on-point 72-year-old whose sharp, dark eyebrows, granny reading glasses, and stern manner give her, appropriately enough for budget guru, the demeanor of a hawk--is unfazed by Woldt's attacks. She defends herself in a flat, no-nonsense tone.
Regarding her unorthodox vote to support a charter-schools pilot, Sommers cites minority-group support. "I do think there are schools that need to have some competition. Teachers don't like that, and I regret that, but maybe they need competition too," she says. As for postponing the voter mandate on smaller class sizes (I-728), Sommers calls the demand an "unfunded mandate."
And ultimately, it's unclear how effective Woldt's progressive efforts have been. Her work with SAGE--currently fighting for low-income housing concessions from Paul Allen's Vulcan in South Lake Union--has been hampered by tactical missteps such as naively being co-opted by Mayor Greg Nickels rather than planning direct challenges to Vulcan or teaming up with the city council to challenge the Nickels/Vulcan agenda.