Last night, the legislative candidates from Whatcom County debated at the annual Tea Party debate. While the main attraction, Seth Fleetwood versus Doug Ericksen, offered few surprises, the races for state representative actually drew some very revealing responses from the candidates on both sides of the aisle.
Kris Halterman, KGMI host and coordinator for the Coal PAC last year, served as host of the event. She stressed the importance of voting, why the Charter Review is so important and introducing the moderator for the event, Richard Thorndike. Stressing their non-partisan credentials, Thorndike reminded the audience that, “The Whatcom Tea Party is non-partisan, we do not endorse or disparage any candidate or initiative.” After that, we were off to the races with the Public Utility District (PUD) race between incumbent Jeff McClure and challenger Bob Burr.
This race, like so many before it (2011 Bellingham Mayor’s race, 2013 County Council) is about the Gateway Pacific Terminal project. Burr blasted the PUD for “aiding and abetting shipping coal to China.” While Burr wove in some other criticisms over transparency and accessibility, he always brought it back to Cherry Point. “It is not a P – U- D, it is an I – U – D, industrial utility district, it provides water to Cherry Point and has one electricity project . . . I never would have shilled for the Gateway Pacific project and urged them to curb environmental studies in the fishways.”
McClure responded with defiant outrage, arguing that the PUD has put the discussion squarely on the side of land use and out of the hands of the PUD. “My opponent is twisting the facts to suit his political agenda and hasn’t spent the time to understand the issues of the PUD,” said McClure. He cited the PUD’s double A bond rating and several successful audits as a testament to their effectiveness.
After that it was time for the race for the seat vacated by gold enthusiast Rep. Jason Overstreet. Longtime Republican party official Luanne Van Werven is running for the seat against former Dean of Bellingham Technical College and local businessman Satpal Sidhu.
The contrast between the two candidates was immediately clear. In his opening remarks, Sidhu drew on his roots as an American immigrant. “I love this country, I love the american values of hard work, high morals, ethics of honesty and putting my country first. I do not promote any partisan agenda or political party.”
Van Werven instead focused on her partisan credentials. “Thank you to the tea party for putting this on tonight and for your ongoing efforts to educate our community on our issues. I understand why the Tea Party was started, we ARE taxed enough already.” Her response were met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.
The first question revolved around whether a gun owner should have to pass a test, similar to a drivers test, before purchasing a firearm. Sidhu was firm, “Yes, yes, emphatically yes, It is something that is really a responsible item. There should really be a test every 5-7 years.”
Van Werven offered similar sentiments, “For your concealed weapons permit, you should have some basic training. I felt that it was the responsible thing to do . . . while I support the right to bear arms, I think it is a wise policy to encourage responsible training programs.”
However this moment of agreement quickly faded as the candidates went back and forth over Gov. Inslee’s proposed climate change efforts. Van Werven blasted the proposals as, “complicated, expensive and will literally do nothing to reduce emissions at a time when our economy is struggling to come back from a recession. The Democrats and Governor Inslee are also proposing an income tax and an additional gas tax. For thirty years the Democrats have been in charge and the voters are ready for something different.”
Sidhu countered that Van Werven’s response was short-sighted, “These are the scare tactics. We need to think twenty years from today, everyone thinks only of tomorrow.” He offered that the same objections were made to the $0.05 gas tax back in 2003 that would have funded major repairs to our state roads.
This divide continued over the subject of education. Van Werven cited the need to fight tax increase and credited the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus (the Republicans in the Senate plus two turncoat Democrats) for investing in education. Sidhu shot back that, ““It is easy to read party memos, but the reality is much more difficult. How do you find a reasonable Republican? I’ll let you try and figure that out.”
Sidhu spoke about fixing our educational system. “Our education system is fundamentally flawed, you should revisit the education system, we need to fix our education with a long-term plan. Not this gimmicks. There’s enough money to pay for it, you don’t need to raise taxes,”
Next the candidates tackled the Citizen’s United decision and the role of corporations. Van Werven offered a passionate defense of the belief that corporations are people,
“You know what, my business is a corporation. I own a corporation so I defy you to say that I am not a person with political rights. There are real faces behind that business,” said Van Werven. “I will do what I can to role back regulations on businesses . . . Right here in Whatcom County, there are people who have formed corporations and businesses that are the back bone of the county. As far as corporations, that is just a legal definition.”
Sidhu strongly disagreed. “It is nothing to do with successful or not successful, it is an artificial entity. Citizen United is not good for our country, it will hurt Republicans, it will hurt Democrats, income inequality is our biggest issue.”
In their closing statements, both Van Werven and Sidhu hit familiar themes. Van Werven calling for a shift of power to the Republicans as a fresh approach. “The fact is for 30 years, Seattle liberals have been in charge of our state government. Washington has been liberal for too long, and the voters are tired of one party rule.”
Sidhu stressed his business and non-partisan credentials. “America is the very best place to live in the world. There is only one candidate in front of you who has actually created jobs, who has actually balanced budgets, who actually volunteered for non-partisan organizations, who actually is the real deal. Remember that old ad, ‘Where’s the beef?’ I’ve got the beef.”
After that stirring and lively back and forth between the candidates for state representative, the Senate candidates seemed bored and frustrated by comparison. The quiet and procedural Seth Fleetwood’s soft spoken manner and polite deference was met with vigorous smarm from Sen. Doug Ericksen – who’s responses were littered with strong applause lines and humor.
Fleetwood hit his main points of criticism, Ericksen’s efforts to block all the bills relating to rail safety and his budgeting gimmicks about education. “My opponent cites the fact that they found a billion dollars for education but what he doesn’t say is that it was a bunch of one time fund transfers, we still have some of the largest classroom sizes.” Fleetwood called for the “ending of extreme partisanship.”
Ericksen, by contrast, was all personality and personal appeal, speaking at length of his daughters, his wife who is a public school teacher and how much he enjoys living in Ferndale. “We epitomize the middle class family – when the propane bill goes up, we have to cut somewhere else.” He defended the efforts of the Republican-controlled state senate citing their bipartisan leadership. This was ironic for me considering Ericksen’s rather aggressively partisan work during the session this year.
Ericksen and Fleetwood clashed over the role of corporate welfare. Fleetwood called for closing corporate tax loopholes as a way to fund education. Ericksen shot back “He calls them corporate loopholes, I call them jobs for working people because if you eliminate those tax incentives they will lay people off and that will hurt people right here in Whatcom County.”
While neither candidate delved into Ericksen’s ongoing ethical issues, they did quarrel over the latest Republican boogeyman, Tom Steyer. “I don’t have any California billionaires sending me big checks so yes, our system should be reformed.” Ericksen said about campaign finance reform. Fleetwood did not let that stand,“You are the one who has received 2/3rds of your donations from special interests and business PACs, you are the one who is getting the benefit of that, not me.”
Overall, their clash seemed a subdued rehash of the debates already spilling out in the public eye. Neither candidate was very engaged in the debate, simply going through the motions waiting for the clock to run out. I imagine both candidates understand that this election will be decided by getting their voters to turn in their ballots, not winning debates in front of Tea Party supporters.
However, the debate between former Everson City Councilwoman Joy Monjure and Rep. Vincent Buys more than compensated for the lackluster Fleetwood/Ericksen matchup. Buys began his remarks by praised the Tea Party for being a neutral arbitrator of political discussion. “Without both organizations supporting the Tea Party, we wouldn’t be able to have the robust discussions.” He spoke about what an honor it is to serve in the state legislature, “To realize what people have really entrusted me with, it is not taken lightly by the members down there.”
Monjure highlighted her personal connection to this community, as owner of the farm stand in Everson, as a long-time employee of the Bellingham Public Works department and a grandmother of three. After the initial remarks, the candidates dived into the thorny subject of education funding.
Buys said that he would follow the Senate Republicans lead by funding education first with any new tax dollars coming in. Monjure pointed out Buys hypocracy as an advocate for funding education.“I believe that our supreme court has mandated that we fully fund education, however my opponent has signed a letter rejecting the authority of the court, I support the constitution and I believe that our children need to be our top priority.” said Monjure. Both candidates agreed that the education system needs reforms but Monjure expanded this – speaking to the larger factors that affect learning.
“Standardized testing takes up too much of our classroom time,” said Monjure. “Beyond that, children living in poverty cannot come to school ready to learn.” Monjure called for supporting our social safety net as well as funding are schools.
When it came to the Gateway Pacific Project, it was no surprise that the candidates were world’s apart. “I support a deep water port at Cherry Point, what I don’t support is coal.” said Monjure, “There are jobs to be had sure, but we should be exporting things that are helping our world, not hurting our world. I’m concerned about the safety of trains bringing coal and oil through our communities. Nine freight trains derails every month in the United States. We need to make sure we aren’t hurting our community.”
Buys took the opposite tact, seeing this project as a ticket to third world prosperity. “If we want to look at the global impact of what is going on, nothing is more helpful than global prosperity and access to energy. Allowing access to a cheaper and cleaner energy source, helps those developing countries.”said Buys.
The last question for this round was about legislators receiving meals from lobbyists (a question clearly written with Sen. Ericksen in mind). Buys defending the practice, saying that putting limits on free meals will, “limit access for people to meet with us, we are limited to the number of times we can sit down and meet with you.” Monjure pounced on this, “I don’t know how we would be restricted from meeting with people as long as we pay for our own meals. I think it is really important to meet with constitutents. I don’t believe that people should be buying our meals, I don’t have any problem using the per diem for that process.” Buys responded that this would be a bad thing because, “What we are going to see a chilling affect from industry associations holding less events because of low attendance.” .
The final candidate debate was remarkably one-sided. Dan Miller, running against Rep. Kris Lytton, was the only one to show up, Lytton was delayed in Olympia and unable to make it. Miller compensated by often cutting himself off mid-thought and switching topics as rapidly as possible. His best moment was when he was asked about whether negotiations with public sector unions should be made public. “Sure,” said Miller with a shrug. There was a pause and then the audience cracked up at the sudden burst of brevity.
After that, they wrapped up the proceeding and urged attendees to visit with the Charter Review candidates stationed at tables in the back (pictured left). As was with year’s past, several major issues were left completely ignored by the questions and the candidates themselves. No one spoke about environmental issues beyond the context of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, very few touched on the need for better mental health services in our community or investment in workforce development and technical education.
All counted, it was a fine event. It was filmed by the Kirk family of Whatcom Works and the videos will be released on youtube when they are done. In the meantime, I hope my humble reporting will help.