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Wednesday, September 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislature: Dems running neck and neck

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

MUKILTEO — In a race that could be decided by absentee ballots, former Mukilteo Mayor Brian Sullivan and political newcomer D.J. Wilson were running neck-and-neck in their battle for a Democratic Party state House nomination.

The winner will go on to face Republican incumbent Rep. Joe Marine in a race that could alter the balance of power in Olympia.

With all the precincts counted last night, Sullivan held a slight lead over Wilson and had gained on Wilson through the night. The next vote tally will not be conducted until Friday, and election officials said they did not know how many absentee ballots remained uncounted.

The two Democrats combined led Marine by a wide margin, possibly indicating Marine's vulnerability.

Though Sullivan and Wilson earlier this year vowed not to smear each other, the race had grown increasingly tense in recent weeks. The rival camps accused each other of dirty play, and the race pitted key Democratic support groups against each other. But both Democrats last night pledged a united front in the effort to defeat Marine.

"Our real opponents here are Joe Marine and (Republican House Co-Speaker) Clyde Ballard," Wilson said. "I don't think either of us has lost sight of that."

If the Democrats were to oust Marine, it would almost certainly end the 49-49 tie between Democrats and Republicans that has hobbled the state House for the past three years. It would also mean that, for the first time since 1994, the Democrats would control both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor's office.

With such high stakes, party leaders on both sides predict one of the fiercest and most expensive legislative contests in state history.

"We're pulling out all the stops to win this race," said state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt.

"And so are we," responded state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.

Only two legislative districts have seats up for grabs this year, and both are in Snohomish County.

In the 38th Legislative District, a Democratic stronghold that runs from Everett to Marysville, Democratic Rep. Jean Berkey sailed through the primary against Randall Rike and is widely favored to defeat Republican challenger Erv Hoglund in November.

But in the adjacent 21st, which stretches from Woodway to Mukilteo, the race is considered a tossup. Though Republicans used to dominate here, the district has been swinging toward the Democrats in recent years.

Marine, an insurance salesman and former Mukilteo city councilman, was appointed last fall after Rep. Renee Radcliff resigned. But in order to retain the seat, Marine must win a special election this year.

Though he had no primary opponent, Marine as of last week had raised nearly $150,000 in campaign contributions, more than Sullivan and Wilson combined.

In the coming weeks, the Republicans will argue that full Democratic control in Olympia would mean higher taxes and government spending.

Democrats will try to blame Marine and House Republicans for the Legislature's failure to tackle major issues such as transportation.

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