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A woman could win the 6th Congressional race for the first time. But which one?

Collage juxtaposing candidates Hilary Franz and Emily Randall. Photos courtesy of Hilary Franz for Congress campaign and Emily Randall for Congress campaign.
Teo Popescu
Collage juxtaposing candidates Hilary Franz and Emily Randall. Photos courtesy of Hilary Franz for Congress campaign and Emily Randall for Congress campaign.

In one Washington district that has elected white, male Democrats for 60 years, Democratic primary voters are choosing between two women for the first time this August.

Debbi Steele is sitting in a bottle shop on the ground floor of a boutique hotel in Port Townsend. In this brick-walled room, she’s attended “postcarding parties” for Democrats, often women, running for offices in other parts of the state.

So she’s excited to vote in the upcoming August primary, where on her local ballot for the first time, there are two viable women candidates who are Democrats. Steele is a super-engaged Democrat herself and “picketed and paraded” from the 1960s to the 2017 Women’s March in Seattle.

“It almost brings tears to my eyes,” Steele said, her voice cracking.

Across the country, women occupy less than a third of Congressional seats. Washington is the only state where women hold both Senate seats and a majority of House seats, but some districts have never sent a woman to Congress.

The 6th Congressional District, located on the upper edge of the Lower 48 and stretching from the Olympic Peninsula all the way down to Tacoma, has elected only white, male Democrats since the ‘60s.

This year, chances are good that a woman will win it in November.

The two fundraising front-runners are Democrats — Hilary Franz, the state commissioner of public lands, and state Sen. Emily Randall from Port Orchard. Two Republicans and an independent candidate are running as well, but Franz or Randall are favored to take the seat in November. The district has been 60% Democrat or close in the last several cycles.

Franz said she’s raised more than $1 million so far. Incumbent Rep. Derek Kilmer, who is retiring, has endorsed her, as has his predecessor, Norm Dicks.

But Randall has racked up endorsements from influential union groups, advocates, and powerful Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

Both candidates seem pretty similar on paper — they’re both somewhat progressive — but there are key differences in their resumes and priorities.

Franz and Randall have both stumped in Port Townsend, smack in the middle of the 6th. Though it’s not the oldest port town on the peninsula, it feels like it. Local lore has it brick makers used saltwater and glacial till to make the 19th-century buildings, giving the town a sand-washed feel.

Steele, one of the town’s many retirees, met both candidates when they visited. She plans to vote for Randall, who in addition to serving in the state Legislature has also been a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood.

“I’m a reproductive rights champion,” Randall said in a fundraising video in January, recording on her phone outside the state Capitol, where she’s the Senate’s deputy majority leader. “I will stand up against the right-wing extremists who want to strip us of our freedom to make choices about our bodies, our families and our futures.”

If she won, she’d be the first queer Latina in Congress. Steele likes that Randall comes from a union family and has the endorsement of the state labor council. Working-class cred is important to Steele, who moved here in 2007 because it reminded her of living in Alaska, with ”the loggers and the fishermen and the art.”

But many of Steele's friends are still deciding. Gina McMather, sitting across from Steele in the hotel, has been in the area since the ‘80s.

“I get kind of annoyed sometimes when all the newcomers... no offense, Debbie,” McMather said.

"It’s okay," Steele said.

“Jump in and bring mindsets from other places,” McMather said.

Gina McMather and Debbi Steele sit in the Bishop Block Bottle Shop in Port Townsend in June 2024.
Debbi Steele
Gina McMather and Debbi Steele sit in the Bishop Block Bottle Shop in Port Townsend in June 2024.

McMather has taught and fished and lived in other parts of the district, and thinks the working-class timber heritage of the peninsula is often ignored. She's considering the other Democrat, lands commissioner Franz, who since 2016 has managed the state's natural resources and wildfire response.

At a Clallam County Democrats meeting in April, Franz said this district, its Native tribes and coastlines especially, are already facing the effects of climate change.

“We're seeing increasing wildfires, increasing floods, we have sea level rise that is threatening Quinault Nation and Ocean Shores, and ocean acidification, decimating our shellfish and our salmon populations,” Franz said.

Ten of the 11 Native American tribes in the 6th district have endorsed Franz.

“She understands our dedication, and our priorities of protecting our natural resources, our climate,” said Julie Johnson, chair of the state Democrats’ Native American caucus.

Some climate-minded voters feel Franz has done too little to protect the state’s older forests, however. She did not get the endorsement of the League of Conservation voters, who are backing Randall.

Steele and McMather felt neither candidate had made decisive statements about Israel’s war in Gaza. At the April Clallam County Democrats meeting, both Randall and Franz condemned the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas.

Randall said her heart “continued to break” in the following months watching the death toll mount in Gaza.

“We have to keep pressure on Netanyahu and the Israeli government to limit the unnecessary loss of life,” Randall said. “And we have to work to deliver hostages home to their families safely, and make sure that we're building towards lasting peace.”

After Randall spoke, Franz said several things need to happen before peace in the region can be reached.

“Getting rid of Hamas, protecting Israel and preventing a larger Hezbollah-Iranian war,” Franz said at the forum, “and making sure we are not losing any more civilian lives, and we get humanitarian aid immediately in.”

Those responses don’t sway Christian Tullar, a 23-year-old history major at University of Washington Tacoma, more than an hour south of Port Townsend. Tullar voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, but now he identifies as an independent, and it’s unlikely he’ll vote for Biden again this November unless the president stops weapons shipments to Israel.

“I wouldn’t in good conscience be able to vote for someone who hadn’t made a statement about being in support of Palestine at this point,” Tullar said.

Christian Tullar is a history major at University of Washington Tacoma. Tullar used to be a Democrat but now identifies as an independent.
Christian Tullar
Christian Tullar is a history major at University of Washington Tacoma. Tullar used to be a Democrat but now identifies as an independent.

Though most of the land in this district is rural, a majority of voters are in cities such as Tacoma. Tullar’s family has been in the historically-Black Hilltop neighborhood since the late ‘70s. In his front yard, he pointed to an old, lichenous cherry tree his great-grandfather planted, its post-blossom leaves the color of red wine.

“This tree has been here as long as my family has,” Tullar said. “It’s a family tree.”

Families like his get less and less common each year. In 1970, the Hilltop neighborhood was 60% Black. In 2020, it was only a little over 21% Black, according to the city of Tacoma. Tullar nodded to the house next door.

“When I was young, the family that lived there. They were Black, and they were a very large family, and they had been there for a very long time,” Tullar said. Since they moved out, at least three families have cycled through, according to Tullar.

Standing under his family tree, Tullar reconsidered his earlier statement about Gaza. His family came to this neighborhood originally under a rent-assistance program, he said. A rent relief or aid proposal for families like his neighbors? That could win his vote.

Tullar still has two months to decide before the Aug. 6 primary.

Copyright 2024 KUOW

Scott Greenstone covers politics for KUOW, from Congress all the way down the ballot. In the past, he’s covered everything from arts to homelessness to movie reviews for newspapers and radio.