GOP state senator starts to feel election heat

Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJuly 18, 2013 

State Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, just finished her first legislative session (plus a couple of special ones), but she's already facing two city councilmen looking for her job.

Brown, who is trying to fill out the final year of Jerome Delvin's four-year term, is being challenged by West Richland Councilman Tony Benegas and Richland Councilman Phillip Lemley.

All three candidates are Republicans. The top two finishers in the Aug. 6 primary will move on to face each other again in the Nov. 5 general election. The job pays $42,106 annually.

Brown, a former Kennewick city councilwoman, is proud of the job she did in Olympia after Benton County commissioners appointed her to the post in January, she said. She took Delvin's place after he was elected to the county commission.

Brown co-sponsored a package of four bills that seek to streamline rules and regulations for businesses. All four bills were passed by the Senate and House and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

-- Senate Bill 5765 requires state agencies to look at manufacturing regulations to check for redundancies and ways to streamline them.

-- Senate Bill 5680 seeks to further streamline the process of creating businesses.

-- Senate Bill 5718 will monitor the creation of an Internet portal that is designed to serve as a "one-stop shop" for developers to get their questions answered about finding licenses and permits. She helped create a similar program while on the Kennewick City Council, she said.

-- Senate Bill 5679 requires the state health, ecology and labor and industry departments to formally review their rules.

Benegas, 52, said there is more to creating jobs than passing bills. As the owner of a nuclear engineering company that works at the Hanford site, he regularly hears from people looking for work, he said.

"I think time was wasted," he said. "We're not trying to pass a lot of bills. I think the name of the game is focusing. I'm a results-driven guy. You've got to be when you have a business."

Lemley, 71, who has been endorsed by numerous labor unions, wants to focus on expanding area businesses and farms, rather than using incentives to try to lure new business to the Mid-Columbia, he said. He also wants to create a sustainable workforce.

"Everybody says they can bring jobs in, but they really need to create better working conditions," he said. "With existing companies, it's a lot cheaper on cities and the state. If we give up the farm to get them to move here and they don't live up to expectations, the city loses, the county loses and the state loses."


Brown also takes credit for helping secure $5.4 million from the state to build a new Delta High School in west Pasco. The school offers a science, technology, engineering and math focus.

If sent back for another session, Brown wants to try to continue helping expand STEM education at the next level, she said, adding that 25,000 STEM-related jobs are unfilled in Washington. She wants to make sure that some of the $18 million intended to expand STEM at the University of Washington and Washington State University goes to WSU Tri-Cities.

"Kids could go from Delta to local higher ed and focus on STEM, and segue into national laboratories or DOE facilities," she said.

Benegas said improving the economy would go a long way toward helping education. Some children can't focus because their families are facing homelessness or other issues.

"Sometimes the kids aren't focused on how they can understand the concepts in math, they are focused on where will they sleep tonight," Benegas said. "We have to take the holistic approach, and it comes down to the economy."

Lemley said he will focus on funding education from kindergarten through high school.

Brown said education was a primary reason the legislature had to go to two special sessions before a budget was finally agreed upon this year.

"It was particularly frustrating to me because I came from the private sector, where when you have a deadline, you have to meet that deadline," she said. "It was important that we fight the fight so education was prioritized and education was funded with our first dollar and not our last dime."

Benegas blasted the special sessions, saying taxpayers were stuck with having to pay $77,000 in legislator per diems for the first session alone.

"Why we waited so long, why we had to go to two special sessions is beyond me," he said.


Brown didn't want to consider a transportation package that would have added 10 cents per gallon to the gas tax until the state Department of Transportation got its act together, she said -- the agency has instances of double-billing and problems with existing transportation projects.

The tax could have helped fund better access from Interstate 82 to West Richland and Benton City, as well as widen 22 miles of Highway 12 between Pasco and Walla Walla to four lanes.

Lemley would support a gas tax increase if it included a fair distribution to local governments, he said. He wants to not only pay for new projects, but shore up existing roads to help avoid disasters like the May collapse of the Skagit River bridge near Mt. Vernon.

"No one wants to pay more taxes," Lemley said. "I live on a fixed income like a lot of people do. At some point, you have to do something."

Benegas said a tax increase isn't the answer to transportation problems.

"The economy is dependent on the transportation system," he said. "We have the revenue -- we need to expand our tax base, not the tax rate."

Religious freedom

Some will remember Brown's first session for a bill that has yet to make much progress. Senate Bill 5927, or the "Religious Freedom Protection Act," which sought to update the state's anti-discrimination and human-rights laws to protect people or religious organizations from "legal persecution," she said.

The bill was introduced in the wake of a highly publicized case involving a Richland florist who refused to provide services for a gay couple's wedding. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued Arlene's Flowers owner Barronelle Stutzman, who said she wouldn't provide the services because of her religious beliefs.

Brown's bill made national news, with some saying it would legalize discrimination. It could have been "drafted a little bit differently," she said.

The state lawsuit conflicts with an existing law (RCW 50.20.050) that allows employees to refuse to show up for work based on a religious objection, she said.

"This isn't about discrimination," she said. "This is about having a discussion about issues that aren't going to go away. Where you have a protected right against a protected right."

Benegas fought against legalizing same-sex marriage three years ago, he said. He worked with Joseph Blackholm, executive director of the conservative Family Policy Institute, on proposing an initiative to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Now that gay marriage is legal, it is time to make sure that the three branches of government remain separate, Benegas said.

"Unfortunately, Referendum 74 passed," he said. "We all knew it would lead to litigation, and where are we now? In litigation. I think it is not a good idea to pass legislation when something is in litigation because Arlene's Flowers may prevail."

Lemley supports the state law on discrimination, which includes prohibitions against people based on both religious beliefs and sexual orientation, he said.

"I'm against discrimination of any sort for any reason," he said.

Controversy in the race

Both of Brown's challengers have defended themselves against attacks since declaring their intentions to run.

In June, some leaders in the Benton County Republican Party attempted to force Benegas out as a precinct committee officer, which could have jeopardized his position as a state committee officer, which he's held the last four years.

They attempted to use a rule prohibiting a precinct committee officer from running against an "elected incumbent Republican" endorsed by the party's central committee. But Benegas pointed out that Brown had not been elected, only appointed.

In the end, the motion to remove Benegas was shot down. Benton Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Pat Holten sent him a note apologizing for her handling of the issue. Benegas said the move against him was particularly shocking because he was the only candidate in the race not to support Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

Lemley, meanwhile, was the subject of a complaint filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission by a Richland resident. The complaint said Lemley did not make it clear that he is a Republican on campaign signs and literature.

Lemley's signs are marked with a red "R" and his brochures say he is a member of the Benton Franklin Mainstream Republican Party, he said.

Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the agency has followed up with Lemley about his signs, and officials are satisfied that they are in compliance.

Brown leads in money

Public Disclosure Commission figures as of July 17 show Brown raising more than her two opponents combined.

Brown had brought in $26,194 and spent $19,193. Lemley raised $13,870, including a $5,000 loan, and spent $9,463. Benegas' total of $11,482 raised includes $6,219 in in-kind contributions from himself and his family. He had spent $8,007.84.

Lemley and Benegas are trying to make up the fundraising gap by meeting face-to-face with residents. Lemley estimates he has knocked on 8,500 doors.

They have both noticed that people don't seem to know about the election.

"This is a grassroots effort," Lemley said. "I'm not about lobby money. The money in my campaign comes from working men, women and families."

Brown has already established ties in Olympia that would help next year, she said.

"It's been incredibly humbling to represent the people of the district," she said. "I've accomplished a lot in the time I've been there. I've worked to develop a relationship across the aisle, and accomplished things that will benefit the Tri-Cities. There's much work left to be done."

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-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543;; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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