This Washington

Never Mind the GOP Backlash, Democrat Lillian Kaufer Aims to Take Out Her Party's Incumbent with a Challenge from the Left

By Camden Swita July 1, 2010

In Election 2010, the main threat to Democrats is coming from GOP candidates capitalizing on anti-incumbent sentiment and a potential Obama backlash. The goal? To take back swing districts like Eastside Seattle burbs. But internal tension between the main Democratic caucus and the moderate, if not conservative, caucus faction known as the Roadkill Caucus has prompted an attack from the left in the 44th District--swing turf in Northeast Snohomish County around Lake Stevens. Enter Lillian Kaufer.

She's running a small but potent campaign against Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens), a leader in the Roadkill Caucus. ("Roadkill" is a self-deprecating reference to the fact that the moderate Democrats' agenda gets run over by their liberal colleagues on the left and the conservative GOP on the right.) Kaufer and Hobbs are old political enemies; both ran for an open Senate seat four years ago, and, with a campaign Kaufer considers to be far more amateurish and ill-funded than her current one, she lost to Hobbs by four-hundred-some votes, she says. (She lost by 635 votes—or 52.5 to 47.4 percent in the then-Democratic primary.)

Kaufer claims that both candidates ran as progressive Democrats in that election and that in the intervening years Hobbs has completely shirked this progressive shell and become a "corporate shill."

“Every single vote he takes is on behalf of big business and corporations and its reflected by his PDC,” she said, referring to his campaign finance reports.

It's true that a large support base for the Roadkill Caucus comes from big business interest and Hobbs's Public Disclosure Commission reports show that two of his top donors are AT&T and Bank of America, among other large corporations.

Unions are also calling Hobbs a traitor, claiming that he aligned himself with their interests in 2006 only to turn against them in the following years.

"He has openly attacked working families on issues ranging from workers compensation to privatizing liquor stores and privatizing other things," said David Groves, spokesman for Washington State Labor Council, which gave Kaufer's campaign a boost by endorsing her over Hobbs. "He's not only disagreed with us, he's organized opposition to us."

Kaufer's race against Hobbs is a local example of the liberal-bites-Democrat story that captured national attention this Spring when U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) narrowly beat Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Halter tried to paint Lincoln as a D.C. insider and stressed his own Lefty support from labor unions in that state's Democratic primary in early June. Labor unions and liberal groups sought to make an example of moderate Lincoln and pumped millions of dollars into Halter's campaign, but to no avail. Lincoln took the election with 52 percent of the vote.

Hobbs believes this perceived Democratic infighting—both on the state and national level—is first of all, overblown and second of all, could cause a collapse of Democratic control in Olympia.

"I just hope that we don’t have this liberal vs. conservative vs. centrist Democrat fight," he said. "If we lose our (Democratic) moderates, we will not have a majority. I am very concerned about that."

And, at least on paper, Democratic leadership is getting behind Hobbs, Roadkill Caucus leader or no.

Ed Murray, co-chair of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, claimed to know next to nothing about Kaufer, a small-business owner and part-time paralegal. The SDCC and Murray personally (partly because Hobbs has proposed progressive domestic partnership legislation three years in a row now) are lending their full support to the incumbent.

Kaufer shrugs off the lack of institutional Party support. She believes that a candidate, not necessarily donors or endorsers, should be the main driving force in any campaign.

“Win or lose, I have to at least get my message out there and be a part of the debate because I think people deserve to have a choice,” she said during an interview at Belltown's Black Bottle earlier this month.

Kaufer, who has an abundant head of dark hair and wears flamboyant red glasses, moved away from home at the age of 17 and has supported herself without federal or state aid since. She studied to become a paralegal in California, eventually making her way up to Washington with her husband. She and her husband have run a vending business for 18 years in the Snohomish area and have two teenage daughters.

Kaufer is largely a cookie cutter liberal (although she calls herself a "progressive" Democrat). She supports the decriminalization of marijuana and I-1098 (high earners income tax), opposes the privatization of liquor sales and workers comp. Her platform is built upon education reform, greater funding for environmental clean up and reforming health care and social services. She's close friends with Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44, southwest Snohomish County), a liberal bastion in the House. (He's her informal adviser.)

She wants to use the state's Basic Health Plan as a vehicle for creating Washington's own public option, something the Washington State Health Care Authority attempted to do last March.  (She says she supports Congress's health care reform, but wishes it had a public option.) The Helath Care Authority effort failed to come to fruition, however. She also wants to create a state health care option specifically for small-business owners like herself.

The first thing she'd want to accomplish in Olympia: Lift the $100 million tax exemption for big banks in Washington—something the Legislature attempted to do last session but the move never made it through the Senate (something for which Kaufer blames Hobbs) and use that extra revenue to aid small businesses by lowering B&O taxes, etc.

"I think they really missed the boat on the budget last session," she said. "Because to add more onto B&O tax on small businesses right now as they're starting to hire people I think they're going to find was a mistake because people are going to be less in a rush to hire people back again."

Kaufer also says she's heard a lot of complaints from voters about the sin tax increases. If Democrats are going to take the hit for those increases, she says, they might as well have increased taxes across the board, sales tax included, in order to resolve current and future budget problems once and for all. This, of course, will involve eventual tax reform. Which is fine with Kaufer, who again,  supports I-1098.

With regard to education reform, Kaufer falls in line with the agenda of the Washington Education Association (WEA)—which endorsed her over incumbent Hobbs. That agenda is sympathetic to teachers and, in large part, resistant to the Obama Administration's call for more teeth behind teacher evaluations. Echoing the WEA line, she believes the education reform passed in 2009 was essentially an unfunded mandate.

“What they passed were new requirements without funding them," she said. "Basically, you're telling the teachers, 'now you need to meet this standard and, by the way, we don’t have money so we’re not going to give you the support you need or the products you need to reach those goals, we’ll worry about it down the road.'”

She criticizes student test scores as way to measure teacher's skill as a flawed mechanism because some factors, such as a student's home life, are beyond a teacher's control and can negatively impact scores.

"I think there needs to be a more comprehensive way to evaluate teachers and, you know, I think testing is fine, to help the teachers find out where that particular child is at and then they can get them the resources they need or try to support them," Kaufer said. "But I think there are some students who just don't care about school and we need to give them options to do online schooling or go to a trade school or go into an apprenticeship program, not everyone is really good at book work so I think we need to have options for those kids so they're not dropping out and falling through the cracks."

Hobbs, on the other hand, has been endorsed by Stand For Children, a national education-reform advocacy group that is aligned with President Obama's agenda. Hobbs voted for the 2009 reform bill.

Although she's positioning herself to the left of Hobbs, Kaufer does have a slight conservative streak. Kaufer's take on the state's social service system sets her slightly apart from a run-of-the-mill lefty. She wants cuts. She's worked as a guardian ad litem and seen parents go from one office to another to receive the same services two or three times.

"There's your General Assistance Grant that goes to anybody, plus they're already getting federal aid, plus they're getting food stamps, and then there's housing as well on top of that," she said. "So I've seen folks who've gone and gotten multiple things. So I think that when times are difficult everyone needs to tighten their belt, you kind of have to go with what the budget gives you. It's great if we can be generous all the time, but its just not possible all the time."

When it comes to going after Hobbs, though, Kaufer defitely swings from the Left. One of her most scathing attacks: The legislature's failure to raise the hazardous substances tax last session—something her pal Dunshee tried to sneak into the capital budget. She believes that Sen. Hobbs was instrumental in stopping the bill from passing.

Hobbs acknowledges that he worked against the hazardous substance tax increase, but explains that questions about the constitutionality of the tax increase, along with suspicions about whether additional tax revenue from the increase would, in fact, be used for environmental clean up, prompted him to oppose it.

"My opponent was instrumental in that tax being stepped on because he takes tremendous amounts of money from oil and gas and those interests," she said.

Actually, Hobbs has only taken $400 dollars from Houston-based BP America. That was in 2009 when BP was investing in alternative energy, Hobbs said.

Kaufer certainly has her work cut out for her if she's going to best Democrat-backed Hobbs this election. Fundraising amounts alone present her with a staggering hurdle: Hobbs has raised $141,248.98 and has a little over $121,000 of that on-hand; she's raised about $14,000--split between two accounts, one for her Senate race and another for a long-dead campaign against Rep. Mike Hope (R-44, Lake Stevens)--and has a little over $7,000 on-hand. Much of Kaufer's contributions--$4,000--have come from the various unions that have endorsed her, including the WEA and Machinist's union in that district. The WSLC hasn't sent her a check yet. Hobbs has received most of his from big businesses. (There are two Republicans in the race: Joseph Ferrie, who's raised $6,000, and David Schmidt, who's raised $12,750.)

"Even though I'm considered a centrist Democrat, I fully support all of our incumbent Democrats," Hobbs said. "I hope that all Democrats can unify behind keeping our incumbents."

As for Kaufer (and the unions') perception that Hobbs is a turncoat, he says: "(Four years ago) I ran as a democrat, I ran because there should be opportunities for working families, young people and for business," he said. "I think if you look at my race four years ago, it was broad based. I had support from the left and the middle, I had progressive support back then, and I have progressive support now."
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