From Interstate 90 to Sprague Avenue and most points in between, the race for 4th District state senator has been well advertised.
Signs touting the respective Republican campaigns of incumbent Jeff Baxter and challenger Mike Padden dot most arterials throughout the district both candidates are hoping to represent. In February, Baxter became the first senator not named Bob McCaslin to serve the area in Olympia since 1980. While 4th District Rep. Matt Shea was the first pick among local Republican precinct officers to take over after McCaslin resigned his post for health reasons, Baxter was the selection of Spokane County commissioners.
Padden, a former Spokane District Court judge who served in the state Legislature for over 14 years, was among a group of hopefuls to replace McCaslin in February that included Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman and former Spokane Valley City Council Member Diana Wilhite. McCaslin, who also served on the Spokane Valley City Council, passed away in March.
Padden’s current campaign has included a reminder to voters that he received McCaslin’s endorsement as his replacement when it became clear that a change was imminent. Baxter, meanwhile, is quick to point out that the triumvirate of county commissioners picked him unanimously over Shea and Army veteran Roy Murry.
Baxter has run a platform emphasizing his background as a small-business owner. He runs Baxter Group Inc., a company that specializes in point-of-sale equipment like the machines near cash registers that process debit and credit cards. While Baxter’s experience in the Senate falls short of a full session, he expressed confidence that he is ready to return to Olympia when the special session begins on Nov. 28.
“My experience is in the Senate and in the business world,” Baxter said. “My opponent’s experience is in the House of Representatives and being a judge and lawyer.”
Born in Yakima, Baxter graduated from Shorecrest High School in Seattle and went to work in the logging industry shortly after graduation. Words of advice from a veteran logger led to Baxter signing up with the Air Force where he served from 1980 to 1984.
“He told me I should do something with my life,” Baxter said. “I started to realize my potential for the first time.”
After his military service, Baxter worked for a collections agency and eventually started his own business in 1986. He said the experience of working with thousands of companies – from manufacturers to restaurants to furniture retailers – has given him a valuable perspective on the challenges faced by business owners.
“I think it’s one of my strong suits that I’ve worked with different temperaments and personalities,” Baxter said. “That’s very important when it comes to negotiating and working with leaders across the aisle.”
Married for 25 years with two grown sons, Baxter has lived in Spokane Valley for the past 15 years. He ran as a write-in candidate for the West Valley School Board and has served on the board of the Spokane Valley Home Scholars as well as vice president of the West Valley High School Booster Club.
While not a candidate for political office before his appointment in February, Baxter has donated time to the campaigns of several prominent Republican politicians including gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi and U.S. Senate hopeful Clint Didier.
Baxter has spoken out for a reduction in taxes and regulations across the state while supporting a “pro-business environment that creates jobs.”
“We don’t have a revenue problem in this state, we have a spending problem,” Baxter said.
Baxter, 50, said he continues to communicate consistently with leaders from the three cities within the 4th District – Spokane Valley, Millwood and Liberty Lake – and has made it a point to attend community events such as the celebration of a decade of incorporation in Liberty Lake last month.
“I want these cities to succeed,” Baxter said. “For me, working with them is vital, not only for the health of their communities but to bring business to their communities.”
Padden served as Spokane County District judge from 1995 to 2007 before working as a judicial liaison for the National Highway Safety Administration from 2008 to February 2011. He was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1980 and served for over 14 years before beginning his tenure as a judge.
Padden voiced support for job creation, a reduction in regulations and tax cuts at a debate with Baxter on Sept. 16 sponsored by the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce. One of his ideas involves waiving the state business and occupation tax for new businesses in their first year or two as a way to spur the economy.
“As I’ve been talking with people, jobs and economy are the No. 1 concerns,” Padden said.
Padden has been critical of spending practices in state government, pointing to examples like a new computer information systems office in Olympia that cost $44 per square foot to construct. He said the state – which currently holds a reserve of around 2.5 percent of its overall budget – could learn lessons from some local jurisdictions that maintain a reserve of closer to 15 percent. He has talked about streamlining personnel costs and contracting with the private sector to reduce expenditures.
“Government needs to be more efficient,” Padden said. “You look at lobbyists – they’re not there to reduce spending.”
Padden said he has spoken with superintendents of the school districts within the 4th District and is “in tune with the issues” affecting local cities. He supports funding for levy equalization – the amount paid by the state to supplement the dollars raised by school districts through property tax – and said “education should be a greater percentage of the state budget.”
While Padden admits to being “disappointed” after being passed over as McCaslin’s replacement earlier this year, he said he “has moved on from that.” He points to his experience in Olympia as one of his strong points as a candidate.
“It’s like any other job, when you’ve been there before, you have a knowledge of the rules and procedures,” Padden said. “I think I could go in there and be effective.”
Padden, 64, donates time to several local causes, including Spokane Valley Meals on Wheels and American Legion baseball. He and his wife have lived in Spokane Valley for 34 years and have five grown sons.
Padden grew up in the Seattle area but graduated from Gonzaga University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1971. He went on to earn his law degree from Gonzaga in 1974 before starting his own practice. He also served in active duty stateside for the Army Reserve.
Like Baxter, Padden has been taking his campaign to the streets in the months leading up to the general election, knocking on doors and talking with civic groups.
“I like meeting people,” Padden said. “My style is to work with constituents and leaders from both parties in working on solutions.”