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Thursday, September 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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District 37 Democrats support income tax

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's generally not a good idea to support an income tax in Washington when running for office, except perhaps in places such as Legislative District 37.

All three Democrats running for the state House seat opened by Rep. Kip Tokuda's departure support creation of an income tax as a matter of good policy. Washington voters have rejected corporate or personal income taxes at the polls eight times since 1934.

"My line when I was in the state Senate was, 'I don't like an income tax, but if I don't support it, I get killed at home,' " said Dwight Pelz, a Metropolitan King County councilman who used to represent the district in the state Senate.

"It's a very liberal district. It's a district that believes in raising taxes to pay for welfare, for example," he said.

District 37 is considered a safe seat for Democrats. The primary could determine who wins the general election.

Running to replace Tokuda, who is leaving the Legislature to spend more time with his family, are two political newcomers and a veteran school administrator/politician.

All three consider themselves liberals, advocating elimination of corporate tax breaks and increasing, if possible, money for education and social services. Two tout their ability to forge consensus and cross political and ideological lines, while the third promises to fight for her issues.

A veteran school administrator and longtime volunteer, Cheryl Chow served two terms on the Seattle City Council, where she was known as a team player who focused on children and education.

She left the council in 1997 to run for mayor and was defeated in the primary. Two years later she was defeated by Judy Nicastro in a bid to return to the City Council. She served as interim principal for two years at Garfield High School, and Chow says education is the prime issue.

She advocates creating an income tax, in combination with lowering the sales tax. Chow said voters in the district "understand that taxing right now is really on the back of low-income people, the working poor and the working class." An income tax is more equitable, she said.

Chow supports closing corporate loopholes and increasing government efficiency to help cover the budget gap and fund education. She favors Referendum 51, which would raise $7.8 billion over 10 years for transportation projects. The measure includes a 9-cent-a-gallon increase in gas taxes.

While Chow said she doesn't favor cutting programs important to the legislative district, education is the only area she said she would never agree to trim. She said her years of experience in education, on the City Council and as a lifelong resident in the district make her the best choice to replace Tokuda.

"I have worked with people across the state and established myself in different areas, which gives me a real jump-start," she said. "I can appreciate the big picture."

Tokuda asked Eric Pettigrew, a political novice, to run for the seat.

Pettigrew rose to prominence in the district after persuading his employer, Safeco, to open offices in urban neighborhoods that also could serve as community centers.

He also was part of a group that lobbied for $50 million in community-development funds to mitigate damage to businesses during construction of a light-rail line along Martin Luther King Jr. Way. As a legislator, Pettigrew said, he would use his experience in business to find common ground in Olympia.

"I am somebody who can bring people to the table," he said. "I look at problems and put together a strategy for tangible results."

To solve the budget problems, Pettigrew also would favor an income tax, a return to the vehicle-excise tax, and eliminating some corporate tax loopholes. Only programs that help poor children would be off-limits to cuts, he said. Ref. 51 is a flawed but workable first step to solving transportation problems, he said.

Angela Toussaint was so outraged that legislators didn't vote on a gas-tax increase that she decided to run for Tokuda's vacant seat.

She opposes Ref. 51, supports the monorail and says the state is not fulfilling its obligation to educate children.

Toussaint has been involved in politics for much of the past decade but never as a candidate. She started her career on the outside, advocating on behalf of parents whose children were having trouble in school. This led to several community initiatives including Powerful Schools, a group that persuaded schools to open up after hours for local events, tutoring and neighborhood gardens.

She supports creating an income tax, combined with cutting sales taxes and property taxes. "What I'm proposing is shifting the burden," she said.

Toussaint would focus on cutting back money given to corporations by the state. As a representative, she would expect to lose many votes.

"Progressive folks who are trying to make change have no allies when it matters," she said. "Someone needs to be down there pushing for good legislation."

No Republican is running for Tokuda's seat.

However, Ruth Bennett of Seattle has filed as a Libertarian candidate. Bennett has never been elected but ran for lieutenant governor in 2000, promising to eliminate the office.

Bennett does not support creating an income tax. "I can't see that I'd ever support an income tax. It's just one more opportunity for the government to raise taxes on all of us," she said.

Her top issue is transportation. She opposes Ref. 51. "I don't think it's well thought out," she said. "Let's figure out what projects we need to do and then how to fund them realistically."

In general, Bennett supports performance audits and spending cuts in trying to deal with the state's budget problems. "The first thing we need to do is see where the money is really going. If it's not going where it's supposed to, then right there we have automatic spending cuts."

Seattle Times Olympia reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

John Zebrowski: 206-464-8292 and jzebrowski@seattletimes.com.

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