Opinion

The unpredictable 30th Legislative District | Bob Roegner

Linda Kochmar’s supporters congratulate her on election night after early results reported a slight lead over Democratic challenger Roger Flygare. Kochmar won with 51 percent of the vote.  - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
Linda Kochmar’s supporters congratulate her on election night after early results reported a slight lead over Democratic challenger Roger Flygare. Kochmar won with 51 percent of the vote.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

The 30th Legislative District is a swing district that leans Democratic.

Prior to the election, the district had a Democratic Senator in Tracey Eide, a Democratic House member in Mark Miloscia, and a Republican House member, Katrina Asay. Miloscia vacated his seat to run for State Auditor.

Pre-election conventional wisdom was that incumbent Asay should win, and with 14-year city council member Linda Kochmar running in the open seat, the Republicans might win both seats. But Asay lost by a large margin to Roger Freeman, and while Kochmar beat Roger Flygare, it was close. So what happened?

If you’re looking for simplicity, then you would argue that the two best candidates won. And that may be true. But the tale of these two races is far more complicated.

Kochmar is a well known public figure in Federal Way and has a resume full of experience. Asay held an advantage as the incumbent and had done well in her first term as a legislator despite being in the minority party. She previously served as mayor of Milton, so her government elected experience was also longer than her opponent’s. Kochmar and Asay were good candidates.

Roger Flygare, a longtime Democrat, had earned support from the rank-and-file Democrats through labor contacts. He held traditional Democratic values, but was also a small businessman, which heightened his marketability. He demonstrated a firm understanding of the legislative process due to his involvement with bills on behalf of his business. His name familiarity had improved after he ran for the Federal Way City Council last year. With President Obama and governor candidate Jay Inslee at the top of the ticket, Flygare would benefit by the Democratic ground game.

Last year, Flygare made first-time candidate mistakes that he corrected for his legislative race. His Municipal League rating went from “not qualified” to “very good.” His signs, literature and newspaper ads were much better. He doorbelled more than Kochmar and raised more money. He had served in the military and had a Purple Heart. He had done some community work, although much of it was low profile and outside Federal Way.

Flygare could have won this race.

But he made one big, almost unbelievable and unnecessary mistake that dominoed into other questions.

When he started publishing his resume, Flygare committed the one error a candidate can’t make: He misstated a key part of his own personal story, his military record. In these days of hardball politics, opponent research and the availability of information with the push of a button, a candidate can’t make that type of error. Flygare said he served two tours of duty in Vietnam when he only served one. The error was significant in itself, but the bigger problem was that it opened the door for his detractors to raise questions about his entire resume — which they did on several fronts.

He was passed over for appointment to a city board by the city council because he said he was a member of the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce for longer than he was. Even though Kochmar excused herself and didn’t participate, the council was able to verify a difference of several months. Flygare should have considered that, with six colleagues of Kochmar’s involved in the process, someone would check. They did. His information had to be accurate, and it wasn’t. Lost in the process was the question about how such usually confidential information regarding Flygare’s application would find its way into a political campaign. The disclosure came toward the end of the race and compounded Flygare’s problems.

Flygare knew from last year’s unsuccessful run for the city council that he had enemies who were watching him. He should have anticipated they would check every single detail.

These were self-inflicted wounds that didn’t have to happen. In politics, voters expect differences of opinion, maybe differences in interpretations on issues. But the one thing every candidate has to get exactly right is their personal story. For a candidate running on “integrity,” the errors became fatal.

This should have been a debate between two candidates with different points of view that provided the public with policy reasons to choose the candidate they thought would represent them best. It wasn’t.

Flygare spent much of the election on the defensive and in damage control mode, rather than concentrating his time and money identifying the differences between him and Kochmar. While Kochmar had much to be proud of during her time on the council, after 14 years, she also had a record to defend. Flygare was never able to draw a clear distinction for the public. Equally as important, Kochmar didn’t make any major errors. It is a testament to the Democratic ground game and Flygare’s hard work that the election was still very close.

Roger Freeman has the perfect package for a successful political career. He is handsome, articulate, bright and has a beautiful family out of central casting. He has a law degree, is among the best public speakers in town, and is a city council member from the district’s biggest city. Most observers felt it was not “if” he would run for the Legislature, but “when.”

Even against a well entrenched incumbent, Freeman would be a formidable candidate. Asay was not entrenched, although she showed much promise. She was a freshman legislator who would attract 48 percent in the primary, signaling potential vulnerability. She is from Milton, a small city in the district, and as a Republican, she is from the minority party where it is hard to establish a resume of major accomplishments.

Freeman got into the race late as he was recruited by the Speaker of the House after others had turned down the race. At the time, some questioned whether this was the right time and the right race for him. Was Freeman prepared for a race at this level?

Freeman had only been a council member for two years, and even some of his allies were disappointed that with his ability he hadn’t emerged as one of the council leaders. He had taken the lead on restarting the MLK celebration, but hadn’t taken the lead on other high-profile policy issues and made them his own. He deferred to others on the council who lack his skills. At times, even his colleagues on the council questioned his commitment. But he did bring personal skills and passion to the race.

While Asay doorbelled 16,000 households, Freeman did not have the latitude in his job to take significant time off, but he was able to leave literature at 8,000 homes, and his campaign sign program was noticeably better.

Asay, while not Freeman’s equal as a speaker, clearly had a better command of the issues and the legislative process during the debates. Freeman relied on his legal training in the debates, but his answers suggested that not enough time had been spent in preparation. His position on gay marriage and abortion at the Mirror primary debate caused some problems within the Democratic party, so he “clarified” his position at the final debate and smoothed out the change. It made him appear indecisive, and more importantly, it was an issue he should have been prepared to handle from the beginning — not at the end and after it had become a problem. His position was actually the same as several other Democratic and Republican office holders, including Asay, but he hadn’t perfected his answer.

Unions such as the Federal Way Police Guild typically support Democrats. They endorsed Flygare. But in this race, they endorsed Asay. Many speculated that the guild’s lack of endorsement of city council members Freeman and Kochmar was intended as a comment on Mayor Skip Priest and labor negotiations. But in a partisan race, the endorsement of Asay was important.

The most telling moment of the campaign came at the last Mirror-sponsored debate. Each candidate was allowed to ask their opponent a question. Asay asked Freeman, “what would you have done differently than I did?” To some in the audience, it was a great question. It wasn’t. It was a softball that Freeman should have knocked out of the ballpark, and didn’t. That question symbolized the entire election. What is the difference between you and the candidate you want to replace? Freeman should have had six specific, well researched answers to that question that he could rattle off in two minutes. The answers are what his campaign should have been all about. On other issues, he appeared to come up with an answer on the spot rather than offer a well reasoned response. Other answers appeared naive as to how the Legislature works. But where Asay won on substance points, Freeman won big on style. He looked and acted comfortable in the role of a legislator. His training was paying off.

Freeman also got a break, and Asay may have made some key mistakes.

Asay did not launch a media campaign to contrast herself and Freeman. She ran a positive campaign, but in this case that benefited Freeman. Asay allowed Freeman to define himself and didn’t raise questions about his record that could have placed doubt in voters minds. That may have been her biggest mistake. To a lesser degree, some Asay supporters felt she may have over-estimated her name familiarity in Federal Way. She had run here once before. This was Freeman’s third Federal Way race. Mayor Skip Priest was very active in Asay’s campaign and she described him as her mentor. Some now question if she over-estimated the political impact of his support. Others wonder if her deference to Priest was part of the reason she wasn’t aggressive about Freeman’s city council record or his lack of support from the police guild. Asay says no, but the speculation remains.

After the election, Federal Way ended up where it started: one Republican and one Democrat in the House. Kochmar won by a small margin, but with the Democrats’ impressive Get Out The Vote effort, Flygare might very well have won this race had it not been for his mistakes. Freeman won big. He benefited by the Democratic effort, his own talent and Asay’s decisions.

Four good candidates. Only two could win. Kochmar and Freeman now have two years to validate the public’s confidence in them.

 

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