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Why lieutenant governor race is bringing big bucks from around U.S.

Habib and McClendon campaigns
Washington Lt. Gov. candidates Marty McClendon (left) and Cyrus Habib (right).

The race for Washington's lieutenant governor is usually kind of a snooze, but not this year.

One candidate has raised a record sum ($723,000) in pursuit of that little-noticed post, with nearly half his campaign cash coming from outside Washington state.

After Lt. Gov. Brad Owen announced in March that he would retire from the post he'd held for 20 years, 12 politicians, including four state legislators, scrambled to replace him.

State Sen. and Seattle University law professor Cyrus Habib (D-Kirkland) finished first in the 12-way primary last month. Republican talk-show host, real estate agent and pastor Marty McClendon of Gig Harbor came in second and will face Habib in November.

Habib's primary victory was fueled by at least $321,000 in contributions from outside the state, much of it from Iranian-Americans around the country. His campaign has raised $723,000 in this year's election, including $97,000 of leftover funds transferred from Habib's past campaigns for the state legislature, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.

McClendon has raised just $34,000 — about 5 percent of Habib's total. Even so, he came in a close second to Habib in the crowded primary.

"Obviously we need to raise money, and that's one of the things we're working on right now," McClendon said. 

If Habib wins in November, he would become the first Iranian-American to hold statewide office in the United States. He is currently the only state legislator of Iranian heritage.

"The Middle-Eastern-American community certainly feels a great deal of pride, and I feel a lot of pride, to be able to break that barrier," Habib said.

It's not the first fundraising record Habib has broken. In his first run for the state House of Representatives in 2012, he raised $338,500, at the time the most money ever amassed by a House campaign, according to Lori Anderson with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. About a third of Habib's funds came from out-of-state donors that year.

Habib likened his run to that of Gary Locke, who became Washington's first Asian-American governor 20 years ago.

"Gary Locke is still the only person of color to hold statewide political office even though we've got nine statewide offices and two Senate seats," Habib said.

That statement is true if you don't count the state Supreme Court as a political office. Washington state has had African-American, Asian-American, and Latino Supreme Court justices.

McClendon was critical of Habib and other candidates who get much of their money from other parts of the country.

"Many of our Congressional candidates raise 80 percent of their money outside or in D.C.," McClendon said.

McClendon said he'd prefer a system where candidates had to raise money from their own constituents.

"I don't know how you represent your constituents in the best way if you're not raising money from the district you represent. Obviously this is the state, so you can get money from anywhere in the state. But if you're getting that much from out of the state, it does bother me."

Habib said he is not troubled by getting so much support from individuals outside the state.

"What would give me pause is if a large percentage of my contributions were from special interests," he said.

Habib said he has a lot of national connections from going to law school on the East Coast and from the national recognition his work as a legislator has received.

He said it's legitimate to examine in-state vs. out-of-state funding of candidates, but the ethnic backgrounds of donors exercising their rights as citizens is irrelevant — especially in a time when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump regularly makes racist and xenophobic comments that leave many people of color feeling vulnerable.

McClendon attended the Trump rally in Everett in August and said he supports Trump because he is the Republican Party nominee and winner of the state's Republican primary. But he said he would have preferred Sen. Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee as the Republican standard-bearer.

Habib wants to make lieutenant governor a more activist position – to pursue economic development and ensure that the legislature upholds its constitutional duty to fund basic education.

The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate, chairs the legislature's Committee on Economic Development and International Relations and occasionally fills in when the governor is away.

"I think more can be done with this office," Habib said. "There's a lot more that we can do to position our state, our workers and our businesses on the global stage."

McClendon called himself both an unabashed conservative and a bridge-builder who hopes to bring the people of Washington state together. He said he would work to break legislative gridlock when the Senate is in session and do more to engage communities, businesses and faith-based organizations the rest of the year.

McClendon and Habib both said they hope to help the state Senate operate in a less partisan fashion.

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