This horse-ridin' candidate kicking up dust in GOP country

Let’s cut straight to the bottom line: Karen Hardy is a badass. And she’s looking to parlay her horse-sense pragmatism and seemingly bottomless well of energy into becoming the first Democrat in forever to win election to the state Senate from the devoutly conservative 7th Legislative District.

The 7th is far from the bright lights, in the exceedingly rural northeastern-most corner of Washington, yet gives rise to a made-for-TV tale about an underdog's fight to change the way things are.

While all eyes — and massive dollars — are focused on Kirkland, Redmond and Woodinville and the Senate’s 45th district special election between Manka Dhingra and Jinyoung Englund, the most interesting candidate among the state’s various special election races looks to be a woman in wide brim and boots.

Hardy is a straight-talkin’ shit kicker.

Literally.

She doesn’t channel John Wayne for nothing. A true blue cowgirl, she founded one stable and now is head wrangler for the Rocking K Ranch in Deer Park, just north of Spokane.

The 7th Legislative District covers all or parts of five counties and 11,000 square miles. Bordered by Canada to the north and Idaho to the east, it is the most rural district in the state — and so conservative that Democrats rarely field candidates for most offices.

Hardy wants to change all that.

Washington State Democratic Party chair Tina Podlodowski describes the candidate succinctly: “A smart lady with a horse, a dog and a gun.”

Make that three dogs and eight horses.

Plus a husband. And two daughters that Hardy took horseback riding across Ireland and beyond when they graduated from high school.

In other words, Hardy is the perfect candidate to make waves against Republican Shelly Short, the four-term state representative who was appointed to the 7th district's Senate seat earlier this year after Brian Dansel left for a post in the Trump administration.

The slogan on Hardy’s campaign signs speaks to her chutzpah:

“Standing tall for the 7th LD.”

Subtle or not-so-subtle, the double meaning, given her life in the saddle and her foe’s last name, is quintessential Hardy.

But make no mistake. Her fight is uphill and the road is long because no matter how the special election turns out this fall, she’ll be back in it for the regular cycle in 2018.

In a lengthy telephone interview from her home in Valley, Wash., Hardy offered up insights on the race and why she’s tossing her hat in the ring.

AW: What inspired you to run?

Hardy: I was not going to get a ballot at my house one more time with Shelly Short’s name on it and no one’s name next to hers. We cannot change if no one is willing to step in and there was a long line forming on the right, so I was going to prove that it could be done.

AW: How are you running your campaign differently than previous Democratic candidates in your district?

Hardy: Well, there have not been any (previously). First off, I am running a campaign. There’s a Democrat running! I am going very old school and grassroots. This is a two-year campaign, win, lose or draw. Because this is a special election, I committed to running this year and next year. I am taking the time to build relationships. I am literally out on my horse riding through areas that are very rural, having coffee at coffee shops, putting postcards on bulletin boards and really immersing myself in the community. The 7th encompasses five counties; it’s 11,000 square miles. It’s enormous! Our population ranges from three people per square mile to a high of 15 people per square mile. To say we are ‘rural’ is selling it really short. No one has taken the time to just get out and actually be among the people.

AW: What are the most important issues facing the constituents of the 7th LD and where do you stand on those issues?

Hardy: The most important issues facing my district right now are healthcare, economy/jobs and education — three legs to the theme-stool. Thirty percent of our economy comes from healthcare — people are either giving it or getting it here — so we need to stabilize the healthcare market …. We have to figure out where we are going with healthcare in the country and where we are going with healthcare in the state. I’m a huge proponent of a state Medicaid-for-all-type program, whether it be single-payer, universal, etc. Whatever format ends up coming in so that the residents of Washington state have some certainty and ability to get healthcare. Rural districts like this are so disproportionately affected by the inaccessibility of healthcare. What’s happening now is compounding it to the point of a crisis. [I plan on] working with several groups to bring that to life so that wherever you live in the state of Washington, you have access to affordable, quality healthcare.

That will protect the jobs that we already have. The next thing is that we need to bring more jobs in; people don’t want to start businesses here and people don’t want to move here because they don’t have access to healthcare. It’s this self-perpetuating loop that we are stuck in. By stabilizing the healthcare jobs we already have, that will make it easier to entice businesses to come to the 7th.

The final leg of it is education: our schools have suffered because of lack of funding over the years, which was brought to light by the McCleary Act. Since we should have funded it but we didn’t do the capitol budget. $9 million of the $14 million in capitol projects for the 7th were for schools. Because the capitol budget isn’t funded, we won’t get that $9 million and our schools still won’t meet McCleary. If we actually fund the capitol budget, we actually start working at investing in our schools, making [the 7th] a more desirable place for businesses to come and families to live.

Many of these services have been eroded in the roughly three decades since we have had a Democrat in the Senate. [The Republicans] have been trying to dismantle a functional government for 25 years here. As a result, the 7th leads the state in unemployment, use of social services, suicide and opiate use. There is despair here in the 7th and by addressing those three topics, I think we can start to turn the tide on them.

AW: What are the biggest differences between you and your opponent?

Hardy: I’m supported by my community. My opponent raises $100,000-plus every two years. Of that money, $2,000-$3,000 comes from individuals. The rest comes from corporations. Last year, she had 28 individuals donate to her campaign. The rest was all from corporations. She is not supported by her community and she is not part of her community. Her money comes from outside of this area. I think my (most recent) PDC filings showed 160 individuals had donated 205 times. I do not have any corporate money. The only PAC money is from the Win With Women PAC, which is made of sitting female state senators looking for someone to work with. The rest of it is from people in the district or unions. I have received money from unions who represent the people looking for jobs in my district.

AW: Why have Democrats done so badly in the 7th LD the last several decades?

Hardy: Because they haven’t shown up! It’s that simple. They have not shown up after Reagan. They just stopped running for city council, mayor and commissioner. In the 7th, we have 15 commissioners: 14 are male, 15 of them are white and 15 of them are Republicans. Democrats haven’t been running in any capacity in government for the better part of one or two decades. You can’t win if you don’t play!

AW: Do you think waging a serious race for this legislative seat could have broader impact on the political landscape in Eastern Washington?

Hardy: Oh my stars, yes! We are a little hidden secret. The 7th LD is a huge portion of the 5th Congressional District, which is represented by Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, who is a loyalist to Trump and the Republican Party.

If we figure out how to run a rural campaign in Eastern Washington, in the 7th, where half of the district is in the 5th [Congressional district], …. then we will be able to effectively campaign against McMorris-Rodgers for the first time in over a decade. If you flip the 7th (LD), you’ll flip the 5th (CD).

AW: Who are your most ardent supporters?

Hardy: My handsome husband is always at the top of that list. I could not do anything I do without his support. I have the most supportive husband on the planet. My kids come next because they pick up a lot of slack when mom is not around since they are grown. Tina Podlodowski has been a huge supporter. She has championed people on the west side and told them, “don’t write [the 7th] off.” It is easy to look at the map, see all of the red and think that it is not worth the effort. When I told her that this is not a Republican area, it is just an area that has not run a Democrat, she said, “let’s run a Democrat.” She and the state party committed to this, and I am very grateful. We have had some loyal Democrats in the 7th who have stuck it out the last two decades who have held on to that flame of the Democratic Party and kept it alive. I will forever be in their debt because they didn’t want the flame to die.

AW: How much money have you raised, and how much more do you think you will need to sway 7th LD voters?

Hardy: We passed $20,000 (in late July), which sounds small, but in this district, that is a very respectable number. $20,000 was our goal for the primary. I went back and looked at the Republican fundraising. We do not have a television market or any print market either. Again, it is very rural, so it does not cost much to run a campaign here. We met our primary goal of $20,000. Our goal for the entire campaign is $50,000. Brian Dansel who held this seat and was appointed to the Trump administration to set up this whole chain reaction, he won this seat and he only raised $42,000. So $50,000 is perfectly reasonable. We are well on our way to reaching the $50,000 goal. The more small donations I receive ($5-$20), it shows that the people support me.

AW: Final thoughts?

Hardy: I want to help people understand that Eastern Washington is so red on the map because Democrats have not run here. It is not just full of Republicans. Thirty-three percent of the 7th LD votes consistently Republican. This means that 67 percent of voters in the 7th do not consistently vote Republican. Most people assume that because 80 percent of our representation is Republican that 80 percent of our voters are Republicans. We have been minority-led for two decades. It is a minority of the population who are truly conservatives, but they run the majority of the government. Getting that message across has been tough, but it is true and is coming to light. I looked at the election returns, and we are at 27 percent returned on our ballots right now, whereas King County is at 7 percent. People are engaged in this and we are about to find out how many Democrats there truly are here.

To learn how Hardy stands on all the issues, her campaign website can be found here.

STORY BY LAURA BRINDLEY

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