OLYMPIA, Wash. — For the first time in two decades, a new lieutenant governor will hold the gavel in the Washington state Senate.
Voters will decide in November between Democratic state Sen. Cyrus Habib of Bellevue and Marty McClendon, a Republican real estate agent, pastor and conservative talk show host from Gig Harbor.
The second highest position in the state, the lieutenant governor is best known as the president of the Senate and presides over that chamber during the legislative sessions, ensuring that protocol is followed and weighing in on parliamentary questions that arise during debate. And in case of a tie in the chamber, the lieutenant governor would cast the deciding vote.
Less frequently, the office is called to fill in for the governor when the head of state is away or incapacitated. In Washington — as in more than a dozen other states — the lieutenant governor is elected separately from the office of governor.
Habib, a 35-year-old attorney who completely lost his eyesight to cancer at age 8, was first elected to the state House in 2012 and was elected to the state Senate in 2014. He says his experience in the Senate, as well as his position teaching legislative procedure at Seattle University, makes the office of lieutenant governor a natural transition for him.
“What voters have indicated through this choice is that they do want somebody who will use the office to be an active participant in our public policy debates and discussions,” he said of voters’ decision to advance him through last month’s crowded “top two” primary.
McClendon, 49, said he thinks voters are looking for something different than the status quo this year.
“I’m just a normal guy, I can relate to normal people,” he said. “People who have been part of the system have been part of the problem.”
McClendon has run for office before. He had an unsuccessful state Senate campaign in 2010, and another failed bid in 2014, that time for Congress.
So far, Habib has the fundraising edge, having raised more than $729,000 compared to McClendon’s $35,000. And an August survey by independent pollster Stuart Elway had Habib in the lead over McClendon, 38 percent to 33 percent, with 29 percent of voters undecided.
The winner will replace Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat who has held the post since 1997. He announced his retirement earlier this year, sparking a rare rush of candidates for the office that pays more than $100,000 a year.
Owen and Habib butted heads earlier this year after Owen sent Habib a letter suggesting he is too partisan for the position, criticizing Habib’s statements that he would not sign bills that he thought were unconstitutional — such as a budget that did not properly fund education. In a year when the state is under a Supreme Court contempt order and facing a deadline to comply with a court order to properly fund education, Habib said that it’s important for him to be on the record in protest if any budget passed by the chamber did not satisfy the court’s requirements. He notes his protest would only be symbolic, since the bill could move forward regardless of whether the president pro tem signs it.
Another thing Habib has said is that he would seek to prohibit all guns in the public gallery that overlooks the Senate floor. Currently, under a rule change implemented by Owen last year, only openly carried firearms are prohibited in the gallery. Those with concealed weapons permits are still permitted.
“I think it’s a reasonable precaution,” Habib said, calling the Senate floor a ‘target-rich environment.’ “I really don’t believe in ‘Well, it hasn’t happened yet.’ That’s not how you want to deal with public safety.”
McClendon disagrees, noting that people with concealed weapon permits have to go through a background check.
He said that expanding the ban to “those that are legally authorized to carry guns is not the way to do it.”
Owen has said that he doesn’t plan to offer an endorsement to either candidate in the race.