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Originally published November 1, 2012 at 9:27 PM | Page modified November 2, 2012 at 5:41 AM

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Jack Connelly spends close to $1 million in 27th District race

A Tacoma trial lawyer who made a fortune in part by suing Washington state has put nearly $1 million of his own money into a bid to become a state senator — a job that pays $42,000 a year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A Tacoma trial lawyer who made a fortune in part by suing Washington state has put nearly $1 million of his own money into a bid to become a state senator — a job that pays $42,000 a year.

John "Jack" Connelly, a renowned wrongful-death and personal-injury attorney, has paid for a barrage of television ads and mailers, yard signs, internal tracking polls and the salaries of a dozen people identified as providing "campaign management," according to campaign-finance documents.

"It does seem a little excessive," said Corinne Reiels, a 27th District resident who said she has received at least 25 mailers attacking Connelly's fellow Democratic opponent, six-term state Rep. Jeannie Darneille.

The record-breaking spending comes in a district known for frugality: The seat's current occupant, retiring state Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, spent the least amount of any state Senate candidate in a contested race in her last two campaigns — $46,000 in 2004 and $63,000 in 2008, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. And Darneille spent the least of any state House candidate in 2010, just $23,000.

Connelly says he wants to join the Senate so he can take his fight for people without a voice to a broader stage. The spending is necessary, he says, because Darneille is well-known after representing the district for 12 years in the state House. Darneille easily won the August primary, but Connelly says his polling indicates he has since closed the gap.

"My opponent is a semi-incumbent, has run six times before," he said. "We know we need to work harder and spend more."

The $988,383 that Connelly has donated to his campaign so far is about four times the $247,000 Darneille has raised overall and amounts to roughly $7.20 for each of the district's 137,000 residents.

According to the PDC, the previous record for self-funding in a state legislative race appears to be held by Bellevue investor Gregg Bennet, who loaned himself $100,450 during an unsuccessful 2010 campaign against state Sen. Rodney Tom.

Bennett also held the record for total spending, at $579,055. That's just more than half of Connelly's fundraising total of $1.06 million — the money he's contributed plus $67,000 in donations from other people.

For Connelly, the money is mostly funding attacks.

The 56-year-old, who ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 1996, is attacking Darneille for what he describes as an "uninspiring" record in the Legislature and for allegedly being in the pocket of special interests.

Darneille, 63, has focused on social issues: She supports gay marriage and abortion rights, while Connelly opposes them. Both have standard Democratic views on fiscal issues, emphasizing boosting education funding.

Connelly says he'd be a more effective lawmaker. He touts his numerous legal victories — including a record $22.5 million judgment against the state for the family of a woman killed in Tacoma in a 1997 car crash.

The woman's truck was hit by a felon on probation whom a judge determined wasn't properly supervised.

He also won multimillion-dollar settlements for 12 kids at the O.K. Boys Ranch, an Olympia group home whose staff was found to have abused boys in the 1990s.

Recently, Connelly won settlements of $5 million each from the state for the families of two Lakewood police officers killed by Maurice Clemmons in 2009.

Connelly's job history shouldn't pose a major problem for him as a legislator, as long as he is transparent and excuses himself from votes in which he might have a conflict, said Stephen Gillers, an ethics expert at the New York University School of Law.

Timothy Sekerak, a counsel for the state House, agreed.

"There are a lot of lawyers in the Legislature," he said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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