Republicans in spotlight in race for Ericksen's Senate seat

Democrat Shewmake a shoo-in to advance
July 13, 2022 at 5:10 a.m.

Staff Reporter

Democrats and Republicans both see opportunity in this year’s election for the state Senate seat once held by the late Doug Ericksen.

For Democrats, the 42nd Legislative District race offers a chance to flip a seat currently held by Republican Simon Sefzik, the 22-year-old political newcomer who was appointed in January to replace Ericksen. The longstanding Republican senator had died the previous month after a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Based on campaign donations, Republicans clearly see an opportunity to hold onto the seat, which has belonged to the GOP for two decades. Party organizations have contributed $52,500 so far to Sefzik’s campaign, helping him sprint far ahead of his challengers in campaign funding.

Sefzik has received more than $246,000 in campaign contributions so far — compared to almost $144,000 for Democrat and current state Rep. Sharon Shewmake, and $103,000 for Republican Ben Elenbaas, a Custer farmer and current Whatcom County Council member.

Hot-button issues

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling, Elenbaas and Sefzik both described themselves as “pro-life,” although both seemed willing to defer to Washington voters who approved two ballot measures since 1970 securing abortion rights.

photo  Simon Sefzik, 22, was appointed in January to replace the late District 42 Sen. Doug Ericksen. (Photo courtesy of Sefzik for Senate)  

“I think that the Supreme Court decision changes very little in Washington state,” Sefzik said. “I think the voters have spoken on this issue.”

Shewmake supports an amendment to the state constitution that would enshrine abortion rights. She added that the Democratic majority in the Senate, currently at 28–21, is too slim to remain complacent about these rights. 

“Republican legislators introduce legislation to restrict or ban abortion every year,” said Shewmake, who has served the past four years as a 42nd District representative in the state House.

Heeding the Republican right wing’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 elections, Ericksen introduced legislation during his final session in 2021 that would have effectively ended all-mail voting and returned state voters to polling places to cast their ballots. The bill didn’t get anywhere, but Republicans elsewhere touched off a wave of new voting restrictions last year in their states.

Sefzik and Elenbaas said they would be open to rule changes that would reduce the chances of vote fraud or tampering. Elenbaas said he supports eliminating same-day voter registration and requiring a valid ID to vote. 

Shewmake said no voting reform is needed in Washington. She cited former Secretary of State and Republican Kim Wyman, who said Washington’s voting system was among the most secure in the country. 

Issues closer to home

The 42nd District has its own issues, of course, none more urgent than the devastating floods that have inundated parts of north Whatcom County as recently as November 2021.

Sefzik has made state senator his full-time job, and in that role he was able to tour Sumas recently and ride along with an Everson Fire District 1 crew.

“Though it may feel like some of our lives have moved on, people are still desperate,” Sefzik reported, adding that families are still receiving sleeping bags so they can sleep in their garages while they continue to wait for home repairs. 

Sefzik has been working with emergency responders to secure gates that can block roadways during floods and to figure out how to have more trained volunteers ready when the next disaster strikes.

photo  Ben Elenbaas is a Custer farmer and current Whatcom County Council member running for District 42's Senate seat. (Photo courtesy of Ben Elenbaas)  

Elenbaas, on the other hand, is juggling multiple occupations, including farmer and operations foreman at BP Cherry Point Refinery. But as a County Council member, Elenbaas has had plenty of opportunities to consider the north county’s flood problem. He advocates a direct approach to reducing flood risk, through sediment removal.

“While the official stance from the tribes and environmental groups is that dredging is a no-go, I think there is enough good science showing that a thoughtful approach to sediment removal will be beneficial to both goals of salmon recovery and flood mitigations,” Elenbaas said.

Shewmake highlighted the $750,000 she helped secure to plan ways to reduce flood risk in the Nooksack Valley. Shewmake’s solutions focus in part on buying out frequently flooded properties or helping homeowners raise their homes above flood levels.

The 42nd District contains roughly half of Bellingham, and lawmakers from the district also have been trying to tackle the affordable-housing crisis — Shewmake especially. 

Shewmake unsuccessfully sponsored a bill last session that would have allowed more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family lots statewide. The so-called mother-in-law houses tend to be lower-cost options for people who are looking to rent. She also supports financing mechanisms that make it easier to build ADUs for low-income residents or that pay for repairs that help keep people in their existing homes.

Sefzik wants to spur new-home construction by making permitting less cumbersome and by relaxing some restrictions imposed by the state’s Growth Management Act, which limits how much development can occur outside city limits.

“We need to build up, and we need to build out,” Sefzik said.

Elenbaas agrees that the Growth Management Act is an impediment to affordable housing.

“We are unnecessarily raising the cost and limiting the availability of housing in the name of ‘protecting the environment,’” Elenbaas said. “We need to acknowledge what is critical and what isn’t critical in regards to environmental protections, and balance that with our housing needs.”

photo  Current state Rep. Sharon Shewmake is running for the state Senate seat in the 42nd Legislative District once held by the late Doug Ericksen. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Shewmake)  

Of primary importance

In a district split roughly 50-50 between Democrat and Republican voters, Shewmake as the lone Democrat is certain to move ahead to the general election. In this primary, the votes that really matter will come from Republicans, who will need to weigh the finer distinctions between Sefzik and Elenbaas in order to decide Shewmake’s ultimate opponent in November.

“I want to do right by my neighbors, and the reality of that is, doing right by my neighbors may not follow party lines,” Elenbaas said. “I suspect that the involved parties know that about me and [that] may give some insight into why I'm not endorsed by either major party. I'm the people's representative, and I think that scares the establishment.”

While Sefzik may be the darling of the Republican Party, he casts himself as an underdog with the unique perspective that comes from being 22 years old.

“I genuinely do believe it is important for young people to have a voice,” Sefzik said. “Decisions made now will affect my generation more than the generation of those who are currently making those decisions.”

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