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Politics through a pandemic: How the race to represent Capitol Hill in Olympia is shaping up in the summer of COVID-19

(Image: Elect Jessi Murray)

Jessi Murray was ready to start door-knocking.

The candidate for the 43rd Legislative District’s Position 2, representing the areas of Capitol Hill, Madison Park, and Montlake, had ordered her nametag and was prepared for the campaign’s first day of action with canvassing in late March.

But with social distancing restrictions and stay-at-home orders quickly levied in the state to stunt the COVID-19 pandemic, Murray and the rest of the field have had to recalibrate their campaigns on the fly to unprecedented circumstances as attention has partially turned away from politics to a global pandemic that has left hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians unemployed and killed over 1,400.

Murray first pushed the kick-off a couple weeks thinking maybe “this will blow over.”

“A week later, we were like ‘This is not gonna happen.’”

Murray’s first move was a big push toward digital campaigning, with weekly town halls on Thursday nights on various topics and some text-banking. The campaign has also invested more in targeted mailing campaigns, focusing on areas where voters may be more interested in a new candidate who fashions herself as running to the left of the longtime incumbent, Rep. Frank Chopp.


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(Image: Frank Chopp)

Chopp, who stepped aside last year after a tenure as the longest serving House speaker in state history, says he would have been more focused in past election cycles on helping other Democrats across the state. But now he is placing his attention on his own re-election, adjusting to the new normal of virtual campaigning: “I am getting a lot of experience at Zoom meetings.”

“I don’t take anything for granted and I don’t make predictions,” Chopp told CHS on Friday. “And so I’m just working real hard.”

Murray says that although local elections may be getting less attention, the pandemic has made clear how important every level of office is. Citing the state’s regressive tax system and the idea of employer-tied health care, she says the need for change is as clear as ever.

“There were so many problems that already existed leading into this that were only laid bare and exacerbated by COVID,” she said. “We were coasting by on a broken system that was just incredibly fragile. This situation sucks, it sucks for a lot of reasons, but it’s also an opportunity to look at those problems and say ‘Let’s actually fix them in the right ways instead of putting a band-aid on.’”

Chopp has been working in recent months with a work group on the issue of unemployment insurance with the hope of improving the system next year in the Legislature as he expects continued wide Democratic majorities in both chambers. Lauding the tax on big business passed in Seattle last week, Chopp also said he is working on progressive revenue measures at the state level to make the Washington tax system more fair.

It appears Murray may be making a little headway in the race as no candidate was able to garner 60% of the votes from the 43rd District Democrats to receive their endorsement. Without a strong competitor in 2018, Chopp was endorsed by the local Democrats.

Ballots for the August 4th primary will be mailed to voters Friday with drop boxes across the district, including by Seattle Central College on Broadway. The two candidates who garner the most votes in the primary will advance to the November general election, regardless of party affiliation.

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Meanwhile, community organizer Sherae Lascelles has frustrated some of their backers who want to see a more traditionally-run campaign, but Lascelles says that’s impossible with vital work to continue doing on the ground related to the ongoing pandemic and the protest movement against systemic racism.

“There’s no way that I could have sat here and said ‘I can represent the people in this district’ without showing them some of the tools that we’ve been using to survive as marginalized individuals for our whole lives,” Lascelles told CHS last week as a Seattle City Council hearing on the police budget played in the background.

Lascelles, who ran for the interim council seat in District 4 last year, says they have helped secure emergency housing for people vulnerable to COVID-19, given away more than 15,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, and raised more than $200,000 for crisis response.

(Image: Sherae for State)

Also a member of the Decriminalize Seattle coalition that has helped shape demands around policing, Lascelles has been attending recent demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd. Citing this work, Lascelles announced last week they were endorsed by The Urbanist. They also received the endorsement from 350 Seattle Action.

“You have to actually be there in community, seeing how things are impacting your community in order to make the most competent and least harmful policy,” said Lascelles, who is running as an Independent. “I really hope this is an upward trend of people that are impacted by these systems being able to lead.”

Both Murray and Chopp have received endorsements from NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and the Washington Stonewall Democrats.

Chopp has been endorsed by several dozen other elected officials, including seatmate Rep. Nicole Macri, who appears to be sailing to reelection, and Seattle City Council members Teresa Mosqueda and Andrew Lewis. His other endorsements include lots of unions, the Washington State Labor Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

Murray has also received the sole endorsement from the King County Young Democrats — as well as the personal endorsement of its chair — as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington and Seattle Subway.

The candidates have also had to shift their fundraising away from house parties and other in-person tactics. Murray, for example, has hosted themed Zoom parties to try to raise money. One such event was brunch-themed, in which hosts dropped off cookies at attendees’ doorsteps.

Chopp is the fundraising leader in the race, having brought in over $85,000, according to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Since launching her candidacy in late February, Murray says she has raised more than $75,000 and Lascelles has raised a shade under $3,600.

“I always knew it was going to be hard running against a 25-year incumbent, so I’m up for a challenge,” Murray said.


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