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Smith plays new role as incumbent

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Enjoying the benefit of incumbency, Norma Smith is hot on the campaign trail pursuing her first election victory in a regional contest.

Smith, a Republican from Clinton, has failed in past efforts to win a seat in Congress and the State Senate, but she’s never before been an incumbent. And this time she’s not trying to unseat ingrained incumbents like U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen and State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen.

This year, Smith’s opponent is another former political loser, Mount Vernon Democrat Tim Knue. Knue was defeated two years ago in an attempt to unseat Oak Harbor State Rep. Barbara Bailey. This year, he’s going after what he may have thought was as softer target in Smith. Bailey holds Position 2 in the 10th District House delegation, while Smith holds Position 1.

Smith, an energetic person who’s quick with a smile, hit the campaign trail shortly after the end of the 2008 legislative session. She was appointed late last year to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of former Rep. Chris Strow.

Smith, 56, has no lack of issues to campaign on. As a former school board member, she’s concerned about unfunded state mandates that local schools have to deal with, and she wants to pump up alternatives for kids who are not college-bound. She supported a successful effort this year to build more skills centers throughout the state, including one in nearby Skagit County.

“We’ve got a 30 percent dropout rate,” Smith said of the statewide figure on students who do not finish high school. “It’s a tragedy.” Beyond the skills centers, she would like to give local school districts more resources for their technical training programs.

Smith sees education as clearly the state’s number one priority and would funnel more resources into education at the expense of other state programs. “You’ve got to prioritize government spending,” she said.

Spending will be a big issue when the Legislature convenes for the 2009 session. Smith says revenues can’t keep up with expenditures already approved by Democrats who control both houses and occupy the governor’s mansion. Some of that spending came over her objections. “I couldn’t support some votes that would have helped people,” she said, reiterating the need for priorities.

“The budget is up 33 percent in four years,” she said. “You can’t sustain that.” She rules out tax increases to erase a projected $2.4 billion deficit, and points out that some new programs, such as state-mandated pay for family leave and low income tax credits, haven’t even been funded.

The Keystone ferry fiasco unfolded as Smith was preparing to go to Olympia late last year. The Steel Electric boats were pulled from service due to safety concerns and for a few months the route was served only by passenger ferries. Smith supported legislation to spend $85 million for three new ferries, but later agreed with the decision to buy only the two larger ferries. The smaller ferry now serving the route proved to be to small.

“Our first priority is to get the right boats built,” she said. State law requires that the new boats be built in Washington, and Smith seems satisfied with that requirement even though bids might be lower from southern shipyards. “We’ve got to work with the law we have,” she said.

On another issue, Smith is critical of how the state handles sex offenders who have served their time, sometimes sending them back to the county they came from to be homeless.

“These people are dumped back here,” said Smith, citing a recent case in Oak Harbor. “There’s no support system.” She called for monitoring the whereabouts of sex offenders on a real-time basis, using high technology ankle bracelets. The cost is half the price of prison, she said.

Smith once served as an aide to the late Congressman Jack Metcalf, a Republican proud of his maverick streak. He would sometimes buck his party’s caucus to support environmental legislation, for example.

When asked if she has any maverick credentials, Smith said she’s not afraid to go against the Republican caucus in Olympia. She supported a bill limiting how close boaters can get to orca whales, for example, while the caucus opposed it. “It was very sensible,” she said.

But Smith said she works closely with others in her caucus, and also with the Democratic majority. She can get things done that way, she said, “as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.”

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