Joan McBride’s Senate Sea Change

With Rodney Tom out, her hopes soared. Then Habib happened.

Above Joan McBride’s fireplace sits a large painting by Seattle artist Terry Turrell. Titled Picnic, it depicts three children sitting at a table on a shore in the moments before a massive tsunami crashes down on them. It seems fitting.

“I love that painting. I just feel it,” McBride said last Friday. “I love the wave. I love the way the children are kind of vulnerable, but strong, and they’re staying at that table, and that wave is coming.”

It was a tsunami of sorts—albeit a political one—that threatened McBride as we stood in the 3,500-square-foot Kirkland estate she shares with her partner, Margret, and which serves as her campaign headquarters. She told Seattle Weekly she had already been on the phone so much that she feared developing cauliflower ear. And over the Easter weekend, things only intensified for the former Kirkland mayor and Democrat who—until Monday—was vying for the state Senate seat that Rodney Tom put on the map.

The wave had begun with a simple but unexpected announcement the previous Monday: Tom—one of the two infamous “turncoat Dems” who’d helped bring the conservative Majority Coalition Caucus to power in 2012—would not seek re-election, citing health and family reasons. McBride—with a 22-year history in politics, but none in Olympia—says there was “complete glee and happiness” for about an hour after the announcement. Her chances seemed solid: She’d been campaigning for months, and with more than $60,000 raised and a growing list of Democratic endorsements—including 48th District Reps. Ross Hunter and Cyrus Habib—her path to Olympia was momentarily clear. She spoke with SW from a position of power, saying her challenge of the vilified Tom “needed to be done,” and that she was the “fearless, progressive woman” for the job. “I would be great,” she said of her credentials. Bring on any challenger, she postured.

By Monday, things were different.

“The landscape is going to change,” McBride told SW in confidence early Monday, indicating that in a matter of hours Habib, a 32-year-old Iranian-American Democrat blinded by childhood cancer, would be declaring for the Senate race in the 48th. McBride, in turn, would step away from the Senate race and instead set her sights on Habib’s soon-to-be vacated House seat. She said the plan had been finalized over the weekend, and—in a pose starkly different from the one she’d struck just 48 hours earlier—said she believes it makes sense.

A Yale grad and Rhodes scholar, Habib is seen as a rising Democratic star. He and his state House colleague in the 48th, Ross Hunter, were approached about challenging Tom more than a year ago, but both decided against it. Back then, McBride was the only Democrat who wanted the fight. But with Tom out, Habib’s bigger name is thought to better assure victory in an iffy district. “I get it,” McBride now says.

“When an incumbent decides to step down, that creates an open seat,” Habib says of his decision to jump in the race, simplifying things considerably. He says the decision was reached after “a series of conversations” with McBride.

Predictably, King County Democrats—through Chair Karl de Jong—say both Habib and McBride are strong, reputable candidates, and they’re happy to have them both running in the 48th. Avoiding a head-to-head confrontation between the two is a best-case scenario for the party. Habib assures voters he’s endorsing McBride for the House “100 percent,” saying he’s “very, very excited that we’re going to have a chance to work together” in Olympia—assuming they’re both elected.

McBride insists she’s at peace with the move. “This is the best thing to do for the party,” she says, citing Habib’s one term of experience and the fact that she can operate as more of a progressive in the solidly Democratic House. “I actually think this is a brilliant idea. . . . I want to go to Olympia. I don’t care what my title is.”

That’s not to say the move doesn’t have its critics. Some see the switch as business as usual for the good ol’ boys in Olympia, with a male legislator stealing the thunder of a female Senate hopeful. It’s a chord struck by state GOP party chair Susan Hutchison; a statement issued following Habib’s announcement accuses the one-term Democrat of pouncing on a “perceived opportunity” and “seeking to throw yet another woman Democrat under the bus.”

“I don’t think blind Iranian-Americans are your typical good ol’ boys,” says Habib, somewhat dismissively.

Still, as next month’s filing deadline approaches, it’s a theme you can expect to hear more of as Republicans ready a candidate—whoever that may be. Habib seems prepared, telling SW he expects a “really formidable Republican opponent,” though no clear challenger has emerged. As Hutchison warned in the aftermath of Tom’s announcement, “The Democrats may be cheering now, but they won’t be cheering in November.”

What seems clear at this point is that Democrats have spent less time cheering since the tsunami broke on Joan McBride than they did positioning themselves at the table.

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