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Freshman senator finds Olympia experience ‘humbling’

Republican Simon Sefzik fought for flood victims, lower gas prices

Simon Sefzik
Simon Sefzik (Photo courtesy of Sefzik for Senate)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Even the ambitious young Republican from Ferndale thought of himself as a longshot to replace the late Doug Ericksen in the state Senate.

Simon Sefzik had just turned 22 when Whatcom County Republicans sought applicants for the Senate vacancy in the 42nd Legislative District created after Ericksen died unexpectedly, after being hospitalized for COVID-19.

Sefzik, in a recent interview, said he gave himself “a 10 percent chance” of getting the appointment from the Whatcom County Council two months ago. Somehow, the four progressive council members who would cast the deciding votes all chose Sefzik over more seasoned Republican rivals.

When he first pulled into a Capitol parking lot to begin his new role, Sefzik had to convince a security guard he was a senator and not a college intern. 

After a 60-day whirlwind, which concluded when the Legislature adjourned on March 10, the youngest person ever to serve as a state senator in Washington, according to available records, had established himself as a lawmaker who would fight for victims of the Nooksack River floods and for everyone feeling the pinch from higher gas prices.

“It’s just been humbling,” Sefzik said in an interview the following day. “I can’t even put into words how amazing this has been.”

A Republican in a Legislature controlled by Democrats, Sefzik saw only one of his bills pass on to the governor: a minor proposal requiring governments to consider using biochar in sewage and wastewater projects for its ability to reduce nitrous oxide and methane.

Early in the session, Sefzik introduced a bill that would have suspended the state’s 49.4-cent fuel tax until the end of 2022. The move would have saved the average driver $221, according to the senator’s office — although that estimate was likely higher by March 8, when Sefzik attempted unsuccessfully to resurrect the bill from its death in committee amid record gas prices related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

When he first introduced the bill, Sefzik said, “It was laughed off as sort of an out-of-touch idea.” Sefzik argued otherwise in his interview with Cascadia Daily News, pointing out that two Democrats had introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to suspend the federal gas tax. 

Calling the state gas tax “regressive,” Sefzik said his bill would have provided “immediate relief to families that need it the most” — those who “can’t afford a Tesla or whatever it is.”

Also early in the session, Sefzik returned to his district to meet with flood victims, to give them a chance to tell a state-level lawmaker what they needed.

“I don’t want these people to be forgotten, whether it’s getting lost in paperwork or fighting through the bureaucracy,” Sefzik said. “It’s just sad.”

Sefzik said he wishes the Legislature could have done more this session to support flood victims. By late February, more than three months after the floods, about 100 people were still sheltering in hotels due to damage to their homes.

When Sefzik first arrived in Olympia, he was noncommittal about seeking election later this year to retain the Senate seat he earned by appointment. Halfway through the session, he announced he would join the race. One of the experiences that motivated him to run, he said, was getting to know people in his district displaced by floods.

“These people need somebody who is going to stick up for them, not just this session but next session, because it’s going to be a long recovery,” he said Friday.

The senator also said he would bring a much-needed “new voice in the political world” to the race, one that talks about ending the partisan rancor that has plagued all levels of politics in recent years. He delivered the same message to Whatcom County Council members during his Jan. 11 interview for the appointment.

His first two months of real-world experience in the political trenches didn’t diminish that idealism.

“I’ve gone out to more dinners with Democratic senators than I have with Republican senators,” Sefzik added. “I genuinely get along with my friends across the aisle.”

Local Democrats on the House side offered mild praise of the new senator. Sefzik made a favorable impression on Alex Ramel, who serves in the House for the 40th Legislative District, which includes the parts of Whatcom County not covered by Sefzik’s 42nd District. The two lawmakers exchanged cordial texts during the session.

“Simon is one year into his career and I’ve only got a limited window on it, but he comes across to me as very genuine in that way,” Ramel said. “It seems like there’s a potential to have a real relationship with someone who represents a neighboring community.”

“I think he’s nice,” offered Sharon Shewmake, a Democratic member of the House in the 42nd District. She pointed out that she salvaged Sefzik’s biochar bill by adding amendments to address concerns brought up in committee hearings. 

Shewmake is running against Sefzik and two others, so far, in the race for the Senate seat formerly occupied by Ericksen. 

Shewmake and a third candidate, current Whatcom council member Ben Elenbaas, are neck-and-neck in fundraising, with Elenbaas accumulating $62,828 in campaign contributions so far, compared to $61,374 for Shewmake. Filings listed on the Public Disclosure Commission website show no campaign funds yet for Sefzik, who hasn’t been able to campaign from Olympia.

Sefzik clearly has some catching up to do, which is why he said he wouldn’t have an opportunity to slow down, now that the legislative session is over. 

“No rest for the weary,” he said.

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