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Rockefeller, Kitchens battle for Senate seat

The Bainbridge Democrat hopes to move up from his House seat.

With Republican control of the state Senate teetering at the edge of a single seat, the race between Democrat Phil Rockefeller and Republican Doug Kitchens could influence the balance of power in state government.

“This race is extremely important,” said Kit­sap County Demo­cratic Party Chair­woman Sharon Peterson. “The majority chooses the Senate’s leadership and committees. We want to hold this seat.”

Democrats expect Rockefeller, a three-term state Representative from Bainbridge Island, to maintain their party’s grip on the 23rd Legislative District’s Senate position as Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton) retires.

Republi­can strategists, meanwhile, have identified close races throughout the state, cautioning that one loss would end the party’s control of the 49-member Senate.

Republicans hope to pad their slim Senate lead by highlighting the contrasts between Rockefeller and Kitchens.

“We need to take a fresh look at the problems,” said Republican Party County Chairwoman Shirley Brown. “(Rockefeller) has been down in Olympia for years, but we don’t have any better of an economy. He thinks it’s important to increase taxes but has no idea how to create opportunities for family-wage jobs.”

Rockefeller said his work to improve ferry service has boosted access to jobs and regional markets.

“Transportation is critical for anyone who wants to improve the economy,” he said. “As vice chair of the Transportation Committee, I worked to strengthen service and investments in terminals.”

Kitchens said his background as a Central Kitsap real estate broker gives him a closer connection to county residents and businesses.

“I’m closer to the ground, helping people every day deal with the biggest purchase of their lives,” he said.

Most of Rockefeller’s professional life has been spent behind the walls of government, distancing him from people’s everyday concerns, Kitchens said.

Rockefeller said his government experience is an asset. In addition to his six years in the House, Rockefeller worked for the U.S. Department of Education and served as an aide to Republican Gov. John Spellman. He said his experience will make him a results-oriented Senator.

“I’ve been an effective advocate of Kitsap issues,” he said. “As a member of the Senate, I’ll have more leverage in the legislative process.”

Rockefeller pledges to make education his top priority in the Senate. He advocates Initiative 884, which would draw an additional penny for education from each dollar of sales tax.

While the initiative increases a tax Rockefeller considers “regressive,” he said the money will be well spent.

“The juice is worth the squeeze,” he said.

Kitchens has focused much of his campaign on medical malpractice and tort reform, but said education is also his main concern.

“Education is not just the Constitution’s top priority, it’s mine,” he said. “But why throw more money at it if it’s not working?”

Kitchens wants tougher audits to hold schools accountable. He said education funding has increased by 30 percent since 1993 but the performances of teachers and students “has gone the other way.”

He said I-884 will increase the sales tax by 15 percent and accomplish little. He said existing funds should be redirected to classrooms and teachers.

Rockefeller and Kitchens are slated to appear at the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum set for 11:30 a.m. Oct. 21 at the Pavillion.

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