The Stranger: Is the Democratic Party Playing Favorites In the Race to Replace Dave Reichert?

The Washington State Democratic party appears to be making the same mistakes the national party made in 2016.

Though the primary isn’t until August 7th, accusations are flying in the race for the 8th Congressional District. Candidates and activists say high-ranking officials in the Washington State Democratic party have been working to ensure that Kim Schrier will be the party’s sole candidate in the race.

One Democratic donor tells The Stranger he believes Washington State Democratic party chair Tina Podlodowski is “putting her thumb on the scale” in the race. Democratic candidate Jason Rittereiser says he’s heard from donors and activists that the party chair is “using her power to attempt to manipulate the outcome of the primary election in favor of her preferred candidate,” Kim Schrier.

Party leaders also appear to be using their influence to winnow the field before voters get a chance to do so in the August primary. A former candidate, Chris Franco, says a party leader told him he wouldn’t “make any friends” if he filed for election.

Schrier denies receiving any “preferential treatment” from the state party, and dismisses the other candidates’ claims as sour grapes.

This is a huge year for Democrats in Washington state. National news outlets are reporting that Democratic challenger Lisa Brown is posing a credible threat to incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers in the state’s deep-red 5th Congressional District. And with seven-term GOP Congressman Dave Reichert retiring at the end of his term, activists and Democratic party leaders are hopeful they can work together to flip the 8th district from red to blue for the first time since its inception. But with all this attention comes money. And with all this money comes pressure. Where should the money—or “resources,” as party officials like to call it—be directed?

The Stranger spoke to Democratic candidates, a Democratic donor, and an activist with Indivisible WA-8 for this story. Some wanted to remain anonymous for fear of party reprisal. Most were scared to talk because they didn’t want to, as one person put it, “blow up the Democratic party” before an important, closely-watched election that could flip the district from red to blue and amount to a pretty significant drop in the anticipated Democratic wave of 2018.

But everyone we spoke to fears the party hasn’t learned from the king-making mistakes they say it made in 2016, and all wanted to clear the air in the hopes of returning power to the voters of Washington’s 8th. They say they want an open and fair election, and they think there’s still time to have one.

Shannon Hader, a public health doctor who managed the Centers for Disease Control’s HIV/TB unit before officially entering the race in January, told me over the phone she’s “aware of shenanigans going on that seem to be driven by party leadership.”

“We need an election, not a coronation,” Hader added, echoing a phrase she expressed at recent candidate forums in Auburn and Sammamish.

A Democratic donor who requested anonymity to speak freely told me that “the message from Tina has been write a check to Kim, or wait until after the primary. I and others have heard that over the last couple months,” this person said.

But Podlodowski says she hasn’t directed donors to give to one candidate or another. Over e-mail she writes: “I’ve had several donors very frustrated with me since I won’t tell them which candidate to give to. My advice is twofold in that case: either wait and find out more until the donors feels sure, or invest in organizations like the State Party, the local legislative district organizations, or groups like Indivisible.”

In response to that, the donor who spoke with The Stranger said: “I’m not going to say she says that in every call, but I know she has made more than a small number of calls with the message to write a check to Kim or wait until after the primary. She has clearly had her thumb on the scale.”

“The last thing we need is party bosses in Seattle trying to dictate to working people in the 8th District who should represent them or for whom they should be able to vote,” Rittereiser said in a statement.

Schrier’s spokesperson, Katie Rodihan, pushed back on these statements from the other Democratic candidates. “To say [Schrier’s] success and momentum are the result of a backroom deal is a desperate attempt by her opponents to dismiss the hard work that Kim is putting into this race and delegitimize the support that is receiving all over the 8th district.”

Rodihan suspects “the real reason these candidates are saying this is because they come from outside the district, and they’re not finding the support they thought they’d get here. Kim is from the district, and that’s one of the reasons why she’s getting support.”

Rittereiser was born and raised in the district, but moved back in May of 2017 after time away. Hader was also born and raised in Auburn, but moved back into the district in November of 2017 after she stopped working for the CDC.

Hader’s frustration with party meddling in the race stems from her relatively late entrance. Due to the federal law, Hader had to wait to explore her candidacy until she was no longer a government employee, which meant she couldn’t talk about running or raise any funds until November of 2017. She officially announced her candidacy early in January of 2018.

Another candidate who entered the race relatively late, Chris Franco, says Washington State Democrats executive director Karen Deal pressured him to stay out of the race in the 8th district.

Franco is a 32-year-old combat veteran with four kids. He’s a white guy, but he’s also a second-generation immigrant whose grandparents are from Mexico. He works for King County as a program manager focused on equity and social justice, and he’s a Teamster (Local 117).

Though he and his family live in East Renton Highlands—which is located approximately 1,000 feet away from the new borders of the 8th district—he’s spent plenty of time in the district proper. He graduated from Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA, and he was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord for a stint during his eight years of service. (The military base is technically in Washington’s 10th district, but it’s close to east Pearce County, which is in the 8th.) Just as important as all that: Over the phone, he sounds like a no-bullshit guy who might more quickly garner the trust of the independent voters in the more rural parts of the district.

Franco’s profile is formidable in a district full of veterans, powerful unions, and growers interested in seeing Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform. But he says the party didn’t treat him with much respect.

During a phone conversation on January 17th, Franco says Deal told him “something along the lines of ‘I would never tell anyone not to enter this race. That would be wrong. But if you file with the FEC you’re not going to make any friends.’” 

Franco says he immediately got off the phone and filed with the FEC.

According to Franco, Deal later misrepresented him to members of his own union, telling one union official that Franco didn’t prove he could “speak to veterans issues” and that he couldn’t even tell Deal what union he was part of.

“That was just a slap in the freakin’ face,” Franco says. “I was a two-time company commander responsible for 260 soldiers. I helped them navigate opioid addiction, depression and suicide, VA coverage, and transitioning to homes. To try and make an argument that someone else can better represent veteran’s issues or labor issues is ludicrous.”

Dustin Lambro, political director for Teamer’s Local 117, declined to go into details about how Deal characterized Franco as a candidate, but said they did have a conversation about him.

“I think she was worried about his ability to win in that district,” Lambro said. “When there are a limited number of resources, it behooves the party to have less Democratic candidates in the race,” he added. “That’s all Karen was doing when she talked to me.”

That said, Lambro thinks the party could have “handled this situation…more delicately” and adds that Democrats need to have a “more deliberative touch with people who are newly energized in this post-Trump world.”

Lambro said he hadn’t known Franco before Deal called, either, but said he sounded like a “compelling individual.”

Though Franco says Deal didn’t actually “Rolodex” him—a practice where party officials ask a candidate to add up the amount of money they could raise from people on their phone’s contact list—she told him that in order to be a viable candidate he essentially needed to be able to raise $250,000 within the first month of his candidacy from the contacts in his phone.

That would be a steep climb for Franco. “My network is veterans and teachers—we don’t come from money,” he said.

Though Franco had never heard of the term before, after I described it to him he said: “For all intents and purposes, I got Rolodexed,” though he admits his connections with people he met during the course of his Leadership Tomorrow training may have helped him reach a high enough fundraising number to satisfy the Democratic official.

Franco suspects his voting record may have turned off the state party. Franco voted for Obama and wrote in Bernie Sanders in 2016.* He says he occasionally voted for Republicans, though he claims he never voted for Dave Reichert, the outgoing seven-term congressman. “They were discouraged to see I was not super-duper left-leaning man, but that’s another reason why I’m a good fit for the 8th congressional district,” he said.

Though Obama and Clinton (barely) won the district in presidential races, Republicans overwhelmingly represent the district in the state house.

Franco also says Deal was “personally insulted” by his entering the race because he had no elected experience, despite the fact that no one on the Democratic ticket has been elected to anything.

Furthermore, Franco says that during the phone conversation, he committed to dropping out of the race if he wasn’t a top-three candidate come the FEC filing deadline on May 18. “I would have walked out of that race if I didn’t have a shot in hell,” Franco said.

He’s come forward about all this because he wants the people of the 8th to decide this race. “Force-feeding candidates down voters’ throats isn’t the best way to represent the people,” Franco said. 

Franco ultimately decided to drop out of the race due to health complications involving his family. “This is the year to focus on family but stay engaged as possible to flip the 8th and restore some moral justice to the process,” he said.

*Update* 5:04 p.m.

In a statement, Deal describes her version of the interaction with Franco. “When I talked to Chris about the possibility that he would jump into the crowded primary, I asked some tough—but legitimate—questions. Why does he want to run for Congress now after rarely voting in the last decade? He told me Trump’s election motivated him to run, but he couldn’t be bothered to vote in the primary or the general elections in 2017. I mean, there is a ballot box where he works and he still couldn’t bring himself to vote. I asked him how he would ask primary voters to vote for him when he had never voted in a primary himself. He didn’t have a good answer. I never said he could not run or ‘rolodexed’ him. To be accused of this is, frankly, insulting.”

Franco admits that Deal is right about the proximity of his ballot box. “There’s no excuse. There’s not. I could have, but didn’t. Fact is, I’m here now and wanting to fight for what’s right,” he said over e-mail.

Indivisible WA-8 founder Chris Petzold also reports having a dispiriting conversation with a state Democratic party official. The official told Petzold, whose group helped push Reichert into retirement, that “feedback from people on the ground who are meeting candidates isn’t meaningful. The race is just based on money and momentum, rather than who [voters] think can do the job.” Petzold says that same person told her that “only 1 percent of the voters will meet the candidates, and so the whole thing is really about marketing.”

When I ran these comments by Podlodowski, she told me that they were “simply not true,” and pointed to the party’s canvasing efforts around the state.

Still, Petzold said those comments troubled her. “All of us want the same thing, which to have a Democrat win,” she said. “But if our candidate is being decided by the DCCC, the state party, or EMILY’s List—that could really extinguish the fire from the boots on the ground. I’m considering this the most important midterm of my lifetime. It’s making me extremely concerned.”

Former Democratic candidates in the race noted the party’s emphasis on a candidate’s ability to raise money, too.

A staffer for Mona Das, a WA-8 candidate who dropped out of the race in mid-January due to trouble raising funds, told me they “got the sense that the party was mostly concerned about fundraising at the early stage.”

In his departing statement, former Democratic candidate Toby Whitney warned against the “distorting power of money” in politics, calling it “the biggest threat to our democracy.”

Hader worries that the party’s emphasis on fundraising may scare off potential candidates and hurt the party in the longterm. “When you look at some of the candidates who are being affected, folks like Chris Franco and others—these folks are all part of the future of our party. They’re talented, committed, and each bring unique perspective and insight. It makes me mad that there would be any cause to try to discourage them or alienate them from participating in the Democratic party or party politics,” she said.

Entrepreneur Brayden Olson, another candidate in the race, says, “If I were in a position of influence in the party, I’d take a ‘both/and’ approach and look for opportunities to speak about the virtues of all of my candidates to media and donors. I’d be talking about how excited I am to have so many great candidates in the race. Let’s make it a strength. Let’s make it something the Republicans are afraid of, not excited about.”

*The Stranger originally stated that records only show Franco voting last in 2008. Records actually show he voted in the last three presidential races, but not the midterms. We regret the error.