by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer
When state Senator Joe McDermott (D-34) decided to run for Dow Constantine's former County Council seat, he set off a political chain reaction.
Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-34) announced she would run for McDermott's senate seat, and her legislative assistant Joe Fitzgibbon is running for Nelson's state House seat.
The 34th Legislative District includes West Seattle, Burien, White Center, and Vashon and Maury Islands.
Because of Washington's top-two primary law, Fitzgibbon is running for the seat against fellow Democrat Mike Heavey. Fitzgibbon came out of the primary some 500 votes ahead of Heavey, with two other challengers trailing far behind.
Less than a week before Fitzgibbon spoke with SGN, the state's chief economist predicted another $1.4 billion shortfall in state revenue and a $520 million budget deficit.
Asked if he was certain he wanted to serve in the legislature under the circumstances, Fitzgibbon laughed.
"That's a good question," he said. "You know, I've served as a legislative assistant for three years, and we've already dealt with deficits that big - and bigger."
"It's not easy," he continued, "but there's a responsible way to deal with a deficit of this magnitude."
Fitzgibbon has worked as Nelson's legislative assistant since 2007. He tells SGN that position gives him an understanding of the state budget process that his opponent lacks.
"There are two sides to the problem: cuts and revenue," Fitzgibbon says. "A lot has been cut already, and we have a responsibility to protect essential services and the safety net."
That leaves the revenue side. Fitzgibbon supports I-1098.
The initiative would reform the state tax system by adding a state income tax for the wealthiest 1.2% of Washingtonians, eliminating the B&O tax for small businesses, and cutting property taxes by an estimated 20%.
"I-1098 is tremendously important," Fitzgibbon said. "Progressive tax reform. If it doesn't pass, then you have to look at tax loopholes - the sales tax exemption for coal, for example, or tax loopholes for banks. We could look at increasing the hazardous substances tax, to make polluters clean up after themselves."
While working for Nelson, Fitzgibbon had his hands on many of the key measures the legislature passed in the last three years. Fitzgibbon ticks off a list of legislative accomplishments.
"The broad categories I worked on? Budget and revenue bills & the 2009 payday lending reform, so families don't get stuck in the debt trap that payday lending can become & environmental and transport issues, to expand transit & smart land use around transit stations & getting rid of the gravel mine on Maury Island."
Fitzgibbon also had a hand in most of the pro-Gay legislation considered by the House. Nelson, his boss, has been a strong supporter of LGBT rights.
"I worked on both domestic partnership bills," he says, "both the 2008 expansion and then in 2009 the 'everything but marriage' bill. They were heavily supported by voters in our district, so it was easy for Rep. Nelson to work on them."
"In 2009, we included Trans people in the hate crimes law," Fitzgibbon added. "Joe McDermott led that on the Senate side, and he's from our same district. Rep. Nelson helped with it [on the House side], and I supported it in a staff capacity."
Asked if he could foresee the legislature repealing the state's DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) in the near future, Fitzgibbon said he was optimistic.
"I think we can have marriage equality within five years. I have every confidence I will be in the legislature, and I'd like to get it on the agenda as soon as possible. Everybody feels we're behind the times with marriage equality."
Among other issues he thinks the legislature will have to tackle, Fitzgibbon cites the needs of LGBT seniors.
"We'll need to address the issue of older LGBT adults in long term care," he says. "Providers may be homophobic, or maybe they're not aware of the specific needs of LGBT clients. We'll need to see that long-term care workers are trained for competency in those areas."
Fitzgibbon speaks with what appears to be unshakable confidence that he will win the election.
"I think I'll win because the voters are looking for someone who's well prepared to take on the challenges that the state faces," he says.
"It helps to have strong support from labor and the progressive community," he adds. "The more voters I talk to, the better I feel."
Asked if he detected any of the voter anger - or disillusionment - some commentators have observed, Fitzgibbon says he has.
"Folks are discontented," he says, "and rightfully so. They see a lack of progress towards a more fair economy."
"That's why I'm confident. I'm young - I can bring a new energy. I can take a fresh look at what's not working. I know it's a big commitment - an economy that works for everyone."
Fitzgibbon is young, smart, and well-connected. In the private sector he could make far more money than he will as a legislator. When that is pointed out to him, he laughs.
"I know I could make a lot more money & but my mom is a preschool teacher. My dad was a naval officer. I grew up with the expectation that I would serve the public."