When the state Legislature reconvened on Jan. 8, the 26th Legislative District’s Derek Kilmer reported for duty. Not to the House of Representatives, where he served one term, but to the Senate, where Democrat Kilmer filled the slot vacated by Republican Bob Oke when he chose to retire.

Sen. Derek Kilmer receives the oath of office on Jan.8 from Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander on the opening day of the 60th legislative session. Photo courtesy state Senate

The win was part of what pundits called a “Democratic sweep,” as Democrats expanded their majority in Olympia, and Kilmer defeated his Republican rival Jim Hines by an overwhelming margin. An outcome that would seem to suggest that voters preferred Kilmer’s focus on issues like economic development, small business, healthcare and education to Hines’s promises to limit tax increases, and impose tougher penalties on sex offenders.

However, while it’s likely that issues were critical to the way the race turned out, so was the amount of money that each candidate had to spend. Kilmer, who was on the receiving end of approximately 1,800 donations, raised upwards of $476,000 compared to the $142,000 or so that Hines received.

When asked to comment on the amount Kilmer spent, Kevin Carns, the Republican political director for the state House of Representatives, said: “Races are becoming more expensive. Still, that’s a lot of money for a state race. But they (the Democratic Party) wanted that seat.”

To put the cost of the Kilmer/Hines race in perspective, consider a May 4, 2006, article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which said, “The cost of running a successful legislative campaign has more than doubled in the past decade; the average cost of waging a successful bid for the state Senate, for example, has grown to nearly $150,000.”  Which is roughly one-third of what Kilmer spent.

So, what does $476,000 buy? When asked about the television ads he ran, Kilmer said, “We did three separate ads — one highlighting my work helping military and veteran families; one listing some of my endorsements from nurses, teachers, law enforcement etc.; and one quoting from the various newspaper endorsements that we received.”

As for all those direct mail pieces, Kilmer said, “I know we sent out a couple in the primary election and then something like seven or eight in the general. We had a number of groups — the realtors, the teachers, the dental association — who sent out mailings in support of me as well.” And, according to information available online, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee sent $43,875 Kilmer’s way, putting him among the top candidates in terms of their donations. In addition, the Washington State Democratic Central Committee contributed $50,000 toward Kilmer’s campaign, and the 26th District Democrats gave him more than $20,000.

Why were Democrats and their allies throwing so much money Kilmer’s way? The answer may lie in the fact that while the pre-election Democrats had a three-vote majority in the Senate, two of their members had a consistent tendency to vote with the Republican minority, which made it difficult to muster the votes required to win where social issues were concerned.

George Robison, state committeeman for the 26th District’s Democrats, said, “It was very important to win this district, because this is kind of a swing district, and it could have gone either way. It’s not only important to have control of the Senate generally, but to control the committee process, so that the right legislation comes to the floor…   Because of people like Tim Sheldon (35th District) who may vote with the Republicans, you can’t count on them for support. Especially on issues that are very important to Democrats having to do with human rights.”

When asked why he chose to give up his House seat and run for the Senate, Kilmer seemed to lend support to that theory. “There were a lot of issues that we pushed out of the House that got jammed up in the Senate,” he said. “And my hope is that we can make some progress on issues related to the community.”

With a big win in his pocket, it would be understandable if Kilmer took a verbal victory lap, but the newly elected senator chooses to deemphasize party politics, in favor of getting things done. “I think people are tired of partisanship,” Kilmer said. “What is more important is how we can work together to solve problems. I did two things when I got to Olympia… First, I decided to vote for what was right, regardless of party. The second thing was to find a Republican co-sponsor for legislation that I put forward, and I think I succeeded about 90 to 95 percent of the time. I think we’re better off when we work with each other rather than duking it out.”

According to Robison, that philosophy has everything to do with why the Democratic Party chose to support Kilmer so strongly. “He’s a guy who can sit down and listen to all sides of a question. Not everyone will be happy — but good things will come out of it,” he said.

Do Republicans agree? Not exactly. Carns says, “To Derek Kilmer’s credit, he’s a ferocious campaigner. There are times when his partisanship shows through.”

Perhaps some of that can be seen where the so-called “wedge issues” are concerned.  Kilmer is crystal clear about the question of legalized abortion — and a little less so where gay marriage is concerned. When asked if he’s in favor of a woman’s right to chose, he said, “I am. I believe it should be safe, legal, and rare.”

But, when asked about gay marriage, Kilmer said, “I believe we can address rights issues without redefining marriage. I don’t think we should discriminate against anyone.” When KP News pressed for a yes or no answer regarding gay marriage, the senator smiled, and gave the same answer he had before.

Kilmer, who grew up on the Olympic Peninsula where he saw people lose their jobs as the timber industry collapsed, maintains that his primary focus lays outside the realm of partisan politics. His parents were school teachers, but thanks to scholarships, he was able to attend Princeton, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in public affairs, before going on to the University of Oxford, where he was awarded a doctorate in comparative social policy focused on economic development.

And that’s where Kilmer’s political and professional careers intersect each other.  When not in Olympia, working on behalf of the citizens of the 26th Legislative District, he is a manager for the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

When asked about the potential for a conflict of interest between the two jobs, Kilmer said: “The organization I work for is not for profit. I think there’s a great deal of synergy between it and my responsibilities in Olympia.”

As for the possibility of a full-time Legislature, like the states of California, Michigan, and New York have, Kilmer said, “I’m not crazy about that. I think there’s a value in having legislators who have real-world jobs and can bring that perspective to Olympia.”

Before winning his Senate seat, Rep. Kilmer sponsored a state constitutional amendment (House Joint Resolution 4223) to increase personal property tax exemptions, which the voters overwhelmingly approved. He also worked to pass measures that would authorize a job creation tax credit and provide financial protections to business owners who serve in the National Guard or Reserves.

Where the Key Peninsula is concerned, Kilmer points to his efforts to secure $10 million that will be used to provide local residents with discounted tolls on the new Narrows Bridge during its first year of operation, so long as the money is actually budgeted (see related story, page 9). He also worked to fund improvements to State Route 302, specifically preliminary design work having to do with the possibility of a new Key Pen access corridor, and found a way to pay for road improvements that helped move forward St. Anthony’s Hospital in Gig Harbor North.

For this session, Kilmer was selected as the vice chairman of both the Senate International Trade and Economic Development Committee, and the Senate Higher Education Committee. “I couldn’t be more excited, or honored, to be chosen for these committees,” he said. “The work of these groups represents my top two legislative priorities.”

When asked about what ambitions, if any, he might have for even higher office, Kilmer indicated that all his attention is focused on the Senate. However, when KP News addressed the same question to Democratic committeeman Robison, he said that Congressman Norm Dicks won’t be in office forever, and when the local Democrats ponder the future, Derek Kilmer’s name has a tendency to pop up.

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