Hey, 11th District, who do you want to represent you: A lobbyist (Natalie Reber), a bureaucrat (Roger Valdez), or a working stiff (Zack Hudgins)?
Each of the major Democratic candidates for the open seat in the long, skinny district that runs from Beacon Hill down into Tukwila and Renton argues their work has prepared them best to represent the 11th's blue-collar neighborhoods.
While there is a Republican, Ruth Gibbs, in the race, the district is 75 percent Democratic. There are a couple of other D's in the race—Azziem Underwood and Robin Jones—but neither is running hard enough to be a contender. The reality: It's a winner-take-all primary among the big three on Sept. 17.
Roger Valdez, 32, hates being called a bureaucrat, especially since he thinks ordinary citizens have lost trust in government. As a result, he argues, the voters are yanking their money back through initiatives and leaving deficits behind. He's got a solution: curb bulbs and traffic circles. Don't laugh! Valdez insists, "People are willing to pay taxes. They want value for what they pay. You have to show them that something is going on, something is getting better." While Valdez has ideas and opinions on a range of issues from transportation to the income tax, his unique thinking grows directly out of his work as neighborhood development manager for the city of Seattle, where he helped implement neighborhood improvement plans.
Valdez cites the example of installing more sidewalks in the West Seattle Junction. "We didn't know how we would do it," Valdez admits. "We coaxed city departments to the table, got business to put in a little money, got the community to bring in their volunteer resources—and suddenly you have a critical mass. Now we can say, 'Go look at the Junction; see how it works there.'"
Valdez wants to translate that experience to the Legislature. He jokingly calls it "curb bulbs on steroids." He wants the Legislature to allow communities to borrow money for better roads, sidewalks, and drainage. In turn, he explains, the infrastructure improvements will attract new housing and business development that will generate more sales and property taxes to pay off the community's debt. The sexy moniker for this program is tax increment financing. It's ambitious because it may even require a constitutional amendment, Valdez admits. That's the point, though—he's aiming high. He believes tangible results that improve people's lives can shift our whole political paradigm. "You can take the sting out of the word 'tax,'" he predicts.
Natalie Reber, 28, is squeamish about being called a lobbyist. She knows people think of lobbyists as guys in Gucci loafers raking in the big bucks from Philip Morris and Enron. She is a different sort—a progressive public-interest lobbyist, she explains. She advocates in the state Legislature for women, children, and the working poor. "I'm a bleeding heart," she says, laughing. Public-disclosure records confirm she's not getting rich at it and has no large corporate clients.
Reber hopes to follow in the footsteps of Rep. Kip Tokuda from the neighboring 37th District, who is stepping down. "We need someone who will stand up for the rights of the working poor, children, and legal immigrants," she says.
Reber argues her work as a lobbyist will give her a big advantage. She knows "the basic navigation" of the Legislature. "A lot of freshmen [legislators] go through the deer-in-the-headlights phase." Reber says she can skip that: "I know the steps." She claims her work has helped her build political relationships with both Republicans and Democrats. "A legislator needs to build coalitions. That's something I can do effectively." Moreover, she argues, many of the skills you build as a lobbyist are the ones you need as a lawmaker. "One of the most important jobs of a legislator is to lobby for your bills. Take that bill and lobby it through. Make your argument and know your facts."
So here's a fact: State government is facing a $1 billion deficit, and you want to preserve the social safety net. "We go through the budget line by line," she says. She believes there are still significant amounts of fat hidden in the folds of the pork. She also wants to close business tax loopholes. In addition, she says, we need "new and creative ways of creating revenue." She says the state is not ready for an income tax. She prefers user fees such as the gas tax and tolls for transportation. She acknowledges that's not going to help social services, however. "We have to really look at how we are spending the money already."
Zack Hudgins, 33, is proud of the fact that he was unemployed last year, currently has a temp job with no benefits, and sits in traffic every day. He says it's precisely because he's "a regular, everyday Joe" that he would make a great legislator. "In any group, people tend toward the person with experience," he says. "That's the way to be effective." Since he believes the No. 1 issue for his district—for the whole state, in fact—is "jobs, jobs, jobs," he can speak with authority about how to help the unemployed and families living paycheck to paycheck. "I can enrich the debate."
Hudgins stresses the need for job retraining for the unemployed. "We have to build capacity to train folks quickly and easily." In today's fast-changing economic climate, he says, workers "need to gain new skills quicker and easier."
Hudgins believes transportation improvements tie into jobs in two ways. It is important to clear up congestion so companies' goods and services can move freely about the region—otherwise the climate for business degrades. "Boeing says their transportation problems made them leave," and we have to take that seriously, he says. Just as important, workers need to be able to commute to their jobs in a reasonable amount of time. That's why he believes in a huge investment in transportation: roads, freight mobility, and mass transit.
How are you going to pay for it all? The state's credit card is maxed out. In order to close the deficit and fund job training, Hudgins likes Rep. Jim McIntyre's, D-Seattle, approach: "Look at the 430 [business] tax exemptions worth over $13 billion—that's a great place to start." For transportation, he favors the gas tax and tolls, as long as there are enough real alternatives—car-pool lanes, passenger-only ferries, buses, and light rail—so that workers can afford to commute.
"I'm living these issues," Hudgins says. "They aren't just numbers on a balance sheet to me."
Voters in the 11th are lucky to have a solid trio of candidates, but we think Natalie Reber would make the best representative.
Reber is an energetic, bright, fresh standard-bearer for issues that are vital to her district and our hearts: social services and gender justice.
She is opposed by a couple of solid contenders—Roger Valdez and Zack Hudgins—and a bunch of pretenders—Azziem Underwood, Robin Jones, and Ruth Gibbs—who aren't seriously in this battle.
Hudgins and Valdez are both fine candidates, but their bickering over petty issues (who's the "real" Spanish speaker in the race, for example) left us uneasy about their abilities to work well with others.
Moreover, Reber's enthusiasm is infectious. She understands that in these hard times, we must protect the most vulnerable. She also knows how to get it done: Her experience as a lobbyist will give her a head start over other rookie legislators. Reber's clean-cut, young Democratic, Girl Scout persona will be an asset in Olympia as she builds coalitions to fight for what's right.
Seattle Weekly Editorial Board