Incumbent state Rep. J.T. Wilcox is up for reelection this year, and his seat representing the 2nd Legislative District has drawn the eye of political newcomer Veronica Whitcher Rockett, a Democrat looking to leverage a focus on progressive education and family policies.
The two will duke it out for the seat on Tuesday, Nov. 3. Ballots have already been sent out to voters, with many counties reporting record early returns for mail-in ballots, likely due to the attention generated by the U.S. presidential election.
The 2nd Legislative District represents large portions of rural Pierce County and a small eastern portion of Thurston County.
The two candidates were the top-two vote recipients in the August primary, with Wilcox, who serves as the House minority leader, raking in 44.49 percent of the vote and Whitcher Rockett receiving 30.46 percent. Matt Marshall, the Constitutionalist Republican challenger to Wilcox, received 24.85 percent of the vote.
If elected, Whitcher Rockett would be the first Democrat to represent the 2nd Legislative District in more than 26 years. Throughout the last five months of campaigning, Whitcher Rockett has been narrowing in on progressive policies to address wealth and equity discrepancies for working class families and students.
“I know that it can be an uphill battle going against a 10-year incumbent,” said Whitcher Rockett, 37. “I’m going to do what I think is right, and what I think is right is stepping up and being the change I want to see in the world.”
Worried about cuts to the state education budget due to a projected revenue shortage caused by the coronavirus recession, Whitcher Rockett said she believes the state should be investing more into education programs, especially special education, during such a crucial time.
It’s also important to go beyond the base funding of the McCleary decision, she said, adding that the state needs to further fund programs that have become crucial for families.
“I have a kid in special ed and I see how important those services are,” said the mother of three, adding that the state also needs to pave the way for broadband internet for all.
A lifelong Thurston County resident, Whitcher Rockett has a modest record on political involvement with the Democrat Party.
Since 2017, she has served as a precinct committee officer. She’s also served briefly as both the chair and vice chair of the Thurston County Young Democrats, and has served for the last two years as the vice chair of the Thurston County Democratic Women, according to a Nisqually Valley News questionnaire returned last July.
Whitcher Rockett graduated from River Ridge High School and has attended some classes at South Puget Sound Community College and Cornish College of the Arts, where she studied vocal performance.
About a decade ago, Whitcher Rockett’s mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She said she had to give up working and pursuing her arts degree in order to take care of her mother. Six years later, her mother died.
“As a low-income mother of special needs children, I believe I have a frame of reference that is sorely needed at all levels of government,” she wrote.
Her experience with her mother, she said, educated her to the profound hardships people go through with medical bills, prescription costs and even insurance.
“I was talking to my neighbor just the other day where she makes too much to be on Medicaid but can’t afford things like premiums,” she said. “They just don’t carry insurance for her at all and they just pay out of pocket ‘cause it’s just cheaper than insurance.”
Whitcher Rockett noted that she’s in favor of Referendum No. 90, the comprehensive sex ed bill that passed last legislative session that Wilcox and his colleagues voted against.
Wilcox, a Republican, 57, is looking for a sixth term representing the 2nd Legislative District. He currently works as a farmer, legislator and political strategist, and holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Washington State University.
Part of the Wilcox family that operates Wilcox Family Farms near Harts Lake, the incumbent lawmaker has spent a majority of his life in the Nisqually Valley.
Amid the COVID-19 health crisis and recession, which will be entering its eighth month this November, Wilcox is running to “be a powerful voice of common sense budgeting and rebuilding the rural economy,” he wrote in a questionnaire.
Of the record spending passed last year by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate, Wilcox told the Nisqually Valley News: “I feel like the basic premise behind that budget was that the good times will roll forever … (but) we are going to have to take a good look at the budget.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilcox and his Republican colleagues have voiced concern over Gov. Jay Inslee’s unilateral approach to drafting state mandates on relief and curbing the spread of the virus.
Wilcox led the Republicans in calling for a special session this summer to address the projected revenue shortfall, though their calls ultimately fell on deaf ears.
“That really goes to the legitimacy of our government, and that’s a precious thing. We shouldn’t be trifling with that,” Wilcox said.
On the values and priorities of the 2nd Legislative District, Wilcox says he feels like he’s got a really good pulse on the people.
“I think most people vote alongside their values. I’m pretty much an open book,” he said, adding that it’s about building families, building the economy and building as much freedom as you can.
Throughout his life, Wilcox has been involved with the Roy Volunteer Fire Department, Pacific Education Institute, and the Nisqually Land Trust, according to his Legislature profile.
His campaign also touts that he’s been endorsed by the Human Life PAC, National Rifle Association and the Association of Washington Business.
In the nearly three months since the August primary, Wilcox’s campaign is close to doubling the number of financial contributions it has received. Wilcox has received more than $314,000 in contributions while Whitcher Rockett has netted $12,962 in total contributions, mostly from local Democrat-affiliated groups.
While the upcoming legislative session may look different, Wilcox said he and his colleagues are looking forward to getting back to doing as much work in person as safely possible.
“We want to be as available to people as we can, and we want to be in the chamber as much as I can. You have to do this safely, because those who tread around the campus tend to trend on the older side, but I don’t know any of my other members who want to be sitting at home,” he said.
Questionnaires from the two candidates can be found online at http://www.yelmonline.com/news/article_cc29a19e-c6c1-11ea-95ed-dfb8f09e70a6.html.