Daniel Nichanian

In 2017, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed a decision by the State Bar Association to block Tarra Simmons from taking the bar exam because of her criminal record. Emily Randall, a Democrat running for the state Senate this year, turned to social media that day to express support. “In law, like in any profession, we need diversity,” she wrote on Facebook. “Tarra’s path and her raw conviction to change her life—and help others change theirs—makes her even more qualified to practice law.”

Republicans have since used this Facebook post to attack Randall as “too soft on crime.” “Randall has supported Tarra Simmons, a drug-addicted ex-con who was denied admission to the Washington State Bar Association due to multiple felony convictions,” a recent campaign mailer said. The mailer was sent by WA Forward, a PAC affiliated with prominent GOP lawmakers; Randall’s Republican opponent Marty McClendon has since disavowed the attack.

I asked Randall how her support for Simmons would translate into policies that foster second chances. She mentioned her support for the rehabilitative Post Prison Education Program and called for a focus on fighting the “school-to-prison pipeline” by “lower[ing] costs and other systemic barriers at all levels of education.” She also made a case for expanding the ability of young defendants to remain within the comparatively rehabilitative juvenile system. “Science is clear that young people’s brains do not stop fully developing until they are 25 years old,” she said.

Washington State’s 26th Senate District is in Pierce County, south of Seattle. It is held by a retiring Republican. There are three candidates on the Aug. 7 ballot: McClendon, Randall, and Bill Scheidler, an independent. The top two will move on to a November runoff. This is a swing district that has voted evenly in recent presidential elections, according to Daily Kos Elections data. Its result could determine the balance of power in Olympia, where Democrats currently hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate.

The death penalty is one issue where this election could make a difference. The Washington Senate narrowly voted to abolish it in 2018, but the House adjourned without picking up the bill. Randall told me that she would vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty if the bill came up again next year, emphasizing its ineffectiveness as a deterrent. McClendon has indicated support for the death penalty.