A Kennewick City Councilman and a former teacher who advocates for the arts are hoping to block incumbent Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, from winning a fifth two-year term in the state Legislature.
Republican Bob Parks of Kennewick and Democrat Richard Reuther of Richland are opposing Haler’s re-election bid, each saying they want to offer voters a fresh choice.
Both say voters are telling them they want new representation as they knock on doors in the 8th Legislative District, which covers Richland, West Richland and most of Kennewick.
“One door out of 50, I get somebody who asks me, ‘Are you the incumbent?’ ” Reuther said. “When I say no, they say, ‘You have my vote.’ People are so fed up with politics, it’s going to come back and bite everybody.”
Parks said, “There’s a lot of anti-incumbency right now. One of the first questions I’m asked is if I’m a Republican. The next one is if I’m the incumbent.”
But Haler said he hopes his work on education and energy policy in Olympia will convince voters to send him back to continue those efforts.
The position pays $42,106.
Primary ballots must be returned or postmarked by Aug. 7. The top two vote-getters in the primary move on to the November general election.
Reuther is a retired teacher and former King County bus driver who has been active in the Tri-City arts scene since moving here in 2006. He previously lived here in the 1970s after marrying a Richland native.
He is active with local theater groups and has served on the Richland Arts Commission. He also was a long-time union member.
Reuther said he got into the race because he believes the state has become so politically polarized that people with minority views — in the Tri-Cities that would be Democrats — are being suppressed.
“I think Democrats feel under siege here,” Reuther said. “I think they’re feeling the same thing Republicans are feeling statewide. Eastern Washington Republicans feel they have no voice in Olympia. They’re sort of in the same boat.”
Reuther said no group should end up feeling marginalized or like their voice isn’t heard.
“People end up giving up and that shouldn’t happen in a democracy. We shouldn’t have one party so powerful that they suppress the opposition,” he said.
Reuther said if elected he would give a voice to liberals and moderates living in the area who don’t feel represented by conservative Republican legislators.
He also would like to bring some civility to political discussions and debates, he said.
“Politics should not be a blood sport,” Reuther said. “It should be a conversation. Americans are at our best when we’re talking to each other. We’re at our worst when we’re at each other’s throats.”
His priorities, if elected, would include advocating to fully fund education and to expand the definition of basic education so that it once again includes subjects such as foreign languages.
“Foreign language is education. Foreign language helps our kids think,” he said.
He also would like to see arts and culture recognized as a tool for economic development in the state. He noted the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland employs 800 people and attracts people from across the country to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and take in shows.
He would like to see something similar supported in the Tri-Cities.
Reuther also would like to see the state re-evaluate its tax structure and have a conversation about how the system could be improved so Washington experiences fewer ups and downs in its budget.
“We should have some understanding of some of the things we can and cannot do in a recession,” he said. “I just get the feeling we’re not doing the smart things that will get us to the end goal. That’s certainly not helped by the sharp divides between the two parties.”
Parks was elected to the Kennewick City Council in 2001 and is a member of the Hanford Advisory Board and Hanford Communities, as well as a graduate of Leadership Tri-Cities.
By day, he works as a nuclear operator at Hanford. He also is a Navy veteran.
Parks’ campaign is focusing on education reform, gang prevention, drug testing for welfare recipients, citizenship verification for driver’s licenses and programs to encourage job creation.
Parks perhaps is best known as being vocal about immigration issues. He has supported efforts to make English the official language of Kennewick and Washington, to end the practice of allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain Washington driver’s licenses, and to make participation in E-Verify a requirement for new hires and contractors working with the city’s government.
Parks said his messages about welfare drug testing and cracking down on the issuance of driver’s licenses are resonating with voters as he talks to people in the community for his campaign.
“There’s a big problem out there, and people are tired from both parties,” he said. “They want to see things fixed.”
He described the drug testing proposal as “tough love” designed to give people an incentive to get off drugs.
“Hopefully, they’ll clean their act up and get a job,” he said. “We can’t continue to be this liberal community that wants to help everybody. I believe in the (welfare) program if it’s a hand up, not a hand out.”
Another policy idea Parks would like to take to Olympia is to replace the state’s need-based grant program with low-interest loans. The idea is that the loans would be available to a broader range of students than the need-based grants and help more middle-class families send their kids to college.
He said a loan program would be self-funding because students would pay the state back for their education. He sees the program as an alternative to continuing to raise tuition to make up for budget cuts.
“We can’t keep raising tuition rates and putting the burden on kids,” Parks said.
Although his platform is arguably conservative on its face, Parks has earned endorsements from labor unions — including the Washington State Labor Council — and said he also would be a voice for people from across the political spectrum in the district.
“I would listen and be open to both sides,” Parks said. “When I talk to people, they realize I’m not some right wing guy. I’m a guy who wants to listen to people. I believe in people, not parties. That’s what it comes down to.”
Haler serves as the ranking Republican on the House Higher Education Committee, and also sits on the budgetary Ways & Means Committee and Technology, Energy and Communications Committee.
He is a former licensed nuclear reactor operator who managed nuclear reactor training. Since being laid off from his job with a Hanford contractor in 2011, he has volunteered as a docent for Hanford’s historic B Reactor.
In 2009, he organized the first “Energy Day,” an event celebrating energy production, technology and research in the state and in the Tri-Cities — and used it as a launching platform toward convincing Democrats from Western Washington that nuclear power should be part of the state’s energy policy toolbox.
He said that effort paid off when nine Democrats — including Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, chairman of the House energy committee — joined 21 Republicans in a letter urging Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu to locate a small modular nuclear reactor project in the Tri-Cities.
On higher education, Haler has voted against bills authorizing higher tuition increases for the state’s universities and community colleges. He voted in favor of a 2011 bill granting university boards of regents more flexibility in setting their own tuition rates, but said he hasn’t been pleased with the results and wants to revisit the issue.
“The boards of regents are giving exorbitant pay increases to administrative staff at a time people are hurting (while raising tuition),” he said. “I’m looking at some remedies for that for the next session.”
Haler said he would like to see funding restored for higher education so that the state will have an educated, competitive work force.
“These are the people who make our economy work,” Haler said. “In order for the state to be competitive, not just in the U.S. but worldwide, we have to have highly trained men and women coming out of our educational institutions.”
On energy policy, Haler has been an advocate for nuclear power and for recognizing hydro power as a renewable energy source.
If re-elected, he said he is drafting an amendment to the state constitution that would require the Legislature to pass a balanced budget and limit the amount that the state budget can increase each year, indexed either to the consumer price index or population growth. He also would like to see a requirement for a 7 percent to 10 percent budget reserve to cover dips in revenue collections.
“We have to have money in reserves for those bad times,” Haler said. “It should be there for emergencies. When we get into a bad time, we could release some of those monies without raising taxes.”
During the 2011 and 2012 sessions, Haler had perfect attendance for all 1,224 recorded votes, according to political watchdog website washingtonvotes.org.-- www.larryhaler.com
-- Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org