The three candidates running for a seat in Washington’s 49th Legislative District agree on a few key points.
They all think that the state’s lawmakers should have convened in Olympia for a special session by now, to deal with the economic fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
They believe that law enforcement agencies need supplemental resources — either in the form of more mental health professionals and social workers, or increased training for officers themselves — to better serve their communities. And they believe that replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge should be a top priority for whomever is elected to the seat.
But in a video meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board Tuesday morning, the candidates seeking Position 2 in the House of Representatives expressed wide-ranging opinions on other issues that will directly impact voters of the district, which represents west Vancouver.
One such urgent issue is whether students, teachers and school support staff should be expected to return to their classrooms in September.
Currently, new coronavirus cases are rising Clark County. Public health officials reported 47 new cases Tuesday, a new daily record. Some local teachers are starting to eye a potential back-to-school date with trepidation.
The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Monica Stonier, argued that school systems need to be prepared for the possibility that they’ll have to “pivot quickly back to an online environment, and we have to be able to do that better than we did in March.”
With some districts showing higher coronavirus spikes than others, Stonier, who works in public education, also advocated that local school boards ought to be granted some authority over reopening decisions, so long as they follow public health guidelines.
But it’s possible that reopening schools could put the health of everyone at risk, not just young students, she added.
“Many kids right now are raised by grandparents and other family members,” Stonier said. “(Kids) may be taking a virus home to very vulnerable family members, and that has a huge impact on our ability to recover.”
Park Llafet, a Republican challenging Stonier for her seat, said that reopening schools in the fall is crucial for the state’s economy. That holds true for the employees within the school system, he added, as well as for parents who need to get back to their own jobs.
As to whether reopening schools in the fall is wise, Llafet said, “I think you better ask all of those moms that question.”
He said that the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Chris Reykdal, needs to be proactive in coming up with a plan to keep students and staff in the classroom from contracting the virus.
“I believe we can reopen the state safely,” Llafet said. “Not only for the students, but for the employees.”
The third candidate seeking the House seat, independent and fellow first-time candidate Troy Potter, said he’s staunchly against reopening schools until at least 2021. He said he watched his wife, a preschool teacher, conduct successful online learning sessions when schools closed four months ago.
It’s too soon to gamble with coronavirus, he said.
“Let’s reevaluate in January. If everything looks good, let’s go for it,” Potter said. “I’m just looking at the safety of not only our kids, but what they can bring home.”
Stonier, Llafet and Potter agree that replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge is a top priority.
Potter expressed frustration about how a previous project, the Columbia River Crossing, ultimately fell through after an eight-year planning effort that cost nearly $200 million.
“Everything was done completely wrong on the first round,” Potter said.
Potter also came out strongly against a potential bridge toll to pay for a replacement, claiming that Washington residents wouldn’t see the benefits of those funds. He suggested a 1 cent gas tax increase in both Washington and Oregon to help cover the cost of the project.
Llafet said he’d like to see a federal infrastructure package work hand-in-hand with COVID-19 economic recovery, in a similar fashion to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
The I-5 replacement bridge could potentially benefit from such a program, Llafet said. He also said he’s against paying for the project with tolls.
“I am not opposed to looking at an alternative for a third bridge,” he added.
Stonier countered that discussions surrounding a third bridge at this point are a distraction, and one that has been used to unnecessarily politicize the push to rebuild the I-5 crossing. A divided government, she pointed out, was ultimately behind the failure of the last rebuilding effort in 2013.
“Replacing the I-5 crossing is the most important and prioritized focus,” Stonier said. “The idea of a third bridge is a long-term project. We’re going to need to know a lot more about transportation patterns.”
Stonier also said that there are takeaways from the Columbia River Crossing’s planning phase that can potentially be carried forward into a new bridge project —it’s not a total loss.
“I think we need to first see what leftover data and study info would be helpful from the past process. As time moves on it becomes less relevant, but it can be useful,” Stonier said.
The candidates also touched on their views surrounding climate change, police reform, and the state’s budget deficit.
Though all three agree that the planet is changing, they disagree on the cause.
“It follows natural law. Things are decaying,” Llafet said. “At what level are they decaying, that is perhaps what is subjective.”
Potter said that humans are actually helping to improve the planet, with their heightened awareness of the environment. Stonier took a different stance.
“To not accept and take full responsibility for the impact that we as humans … have on the climate, would be a failure on my part as an elected official,” she said.
On policing, they were largely in agreement: law enforcement needs more de-escalation options. That could come in the form of social workers or mental health professionals who could accompany officers on calls, or officers could receive more training on those topics directly.
Funding could potentially be funneled into those services from traditional police budgets, Stonier suggested. The other candidates said they’d be reluctant to consider any kind of reduction in funding for local police departments.
The full conversation with The Columbian’s editorial board is available at youtube.com/user/columbiannewspaper. The three candidates will appear on the primary ballot on Aug. 4, and the top two will advance to the general election on Nov. 3.