One would think that if there was ever a time for the Association of Washington Business to take a hard line stance on business issues, it should be the 2012 election year. Not so in the 19th Legislative District, where AWB supported incumbent Democrats Brian Hatfield, Brian Blake and Dean Takko.

Many eyebrows raised following the AWB’s support of the 19th Legislative District incumbents, especially when these legislators fail nearly every endorsement test the state’s leading business organization has created to analyze candidates.

The AWB is typically referred to Washington State’s Chamber of Commerce and commits significant time, energy and money to support candidates that closely align to the goals of Washington State’s small businesses. The organization has several ways they review candidates for endorsement, including a candidate questionnaire, support for the ballot measures AWB has endorsed, a careful review of their pro-jobs or pro-business voting record and an interview process by members of the AWB Government Affairs Committee.

The challengers, Rick Winsman (R-Longview), Dixie Kolditz (R-Cathlamet) and Tim Sutinen (I-Longview) offer a remarkable contrast to the incumbents. All three have a high level of involvement, ownership and historical support of small business issues as well as commitment to all of the goals of AWB in many public appearances and in print. The three challengers are current or former small-business owners. Sutinen owns a computer store in Longview, Kolditz owns an adult disabled care business with 160 employees and Winsman is a former small-business owner and recently retired President and CEO of the Kelso Longview Chamber of Commerce. Winsman is also a member of the AWB’s Government Affairs Committee.

In 2012, AWB is focusing its attention on two ballot measures, Initiative 1185, regarding a 2/3 supermajority requirement to raise taxes, and Initiative 1240, regarding the establishment of publicly funded and independently managed charter schools in Washington State.

During the last legislative session in Olympia, the incumbent legislators in the 19th District voted to suspend Initiative 960 — the most recent implemented voter approved supermajority requirement to raise taxes. The voters of Washington State have approved the supermajority vote four times in the past 16 years and the legislature continues to repeal it by simple majority, including votes in favor by all three incumbents. Both Hatfield and Takko have described Initiative 1185 as unconstitutional and warn that it would allow the minority to control the majority. Clearly, since this is the fifth time it will be on the ballot, the voters of Washington State think differently. Two of the three, Takko and Blake, also oppose allowing a charter school option. In contrast, the three challengers — Winsman,  Koldt and Sutinen — passionately support the 2/3 supermajority requirement and charter schools.

The second test of a candidate — as designed by the AWB — is an analysis of their pro-business or pro-jobs voting record. In the past four years, none of the incumbents qualified for an automatic endorsement by the AWB. From 2008 to 2010, the incumbents had a percentage rating of less than 40 percent voting on legislation that affected jobs and businesses. In the year prior to an election, the incumbents’ business-friendly ratings increased to the exact same number, 64 percent. As indicated by a source inside the AWB’s Government Affairs Council, the significant increase in the three incumbent scores was due to three bills the AWB supported; the biomass bill and two bills regarding worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance reform. In contrast, in the adjacent 20th Legislative District, the incumbents earned automatic endorsements, as their 2012 ratings were in excess of 90 percent.

Challengers who do not have a voting record for AWB to analyze have two opportunities to express their views to AWB — a candidate survey and an extensive interview process. One would logically conclude that if a challenger candidate presented clearer support of all business issues through their survey and interview process, AWB would support them, especially in light of the incumbents’ poor performance on arguably the most defining test; their voting record.

Perhaps even more troubling is that even though the incumbents received the endorsement of AWB, the Association chose not to pledge any campaign funds to the candidates this season — a highly irregular decision for AWB which is organized — essentially — as a political group. All candidates make tremendous efforts to overcome the challenge of raising money. Former state legislators — such as those who are actively involved with AWB’s affairs — know this well, which makes the decision to not financially support their endorsees even more curious.

There is no argument that AWB traditionally endorses Republican candidates. In fact, AWB endorsed only seven Democrats in 2012, which is partly why the 19th District endorsements have caused discussion and drawn criticism. There are no other districts in Washington where AWB supported three incumbent Democrats.

It is arguable that in the 19th District, AWB abandoned their core principles and supported incumbent candidates that have done little in the past four years to earn the endorsement. By choosing not to financially support their endorsements, if anyone is second guessing the endorsements, it may well be AWB itself.