Voters in the 17th Legislative District have a choice between two drastically different candidates for the state House of Representatives on Nov. 3.
Rep. Vicki Kraft, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic challenger Tanisha Harris disagree on most substantive issues, from COVID-19 recovery to education to transportation infrastructure. In a conversation with The Columbian’s editorial board, the two candidates highlighted their differences.
Kraft, who’s seeking a third term, made headlines over the past several months for her attendance at rallies in Vancouver and Olympia protesting COVID-19 closures. She told the editorial board that her participation — and her willingness to criticize Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee — was evidence of political courage.
“My votes show it, and my actions show it, and that is exactly why I went to the capital,” Kraft said. “(Inslee) saw, in my opinion, that people weren’t just going to take this and stay quiet.”
Harris countered that it was irresponsible for Kraft to attend the events as an elected official and associate with dangerous groups.
“There are people at these rallies who are members of known white supremacy groups, and hate groups, and people who are holding Nazi flags and have signs that are referencing the Holocaust,” Harris said.
“We can all have discussions about how we safely open up our economy,” Harris added. “But when we have these other distractions and other elements coming into play, the message is lost.”
Kraft responded by comparing Inslee with Adolf Hitler.
“I never saw, I’ve never seen yet, a Nazi flag. Maybe there was one there, who knows? You know what, somebody could have come and been the plant, to be there with one. Let’s just say it, right? That’s kind of the unfortunate, very pathetic political climate we’re in these days. If there was a Nazi flag there, along with the tons of U.S. flags, U.S. flag shirts, freedom, standing for our constitutional rights, people in shirts that I’ve surrounded myself with that were there at that event, if there was a Nazi flag, let me tell you exactly what that would mean. Nazi represents Hitler. Hitler was a dictator. One man, dictating to his country, and trying to dictate to the world, what needs to happen. Gov. Inslee is acting as a dictator,” Kraft said.
On how to more broadly handle COVID-19, the candidates diverge. Harris said that, in order to get the economy rolling and schools back open, elected officials need to take the threat seriously and communicate that to their constituents. She offered her condolences to the people who have contracted the virus — more than 3,500 in Clark County since March.
“I think we need to acknowledge that this is real,” Harris said. “It is not a joke. It is not a hoax. It is not something that is just by miracle going to go away, and it’s disappointing we have elected officials who think that way.”
Kraft advocated for personal responsibility. Individuals are best equipped to know how to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy, and the economic, mental and social damage from the shutdown — not the just virus itself –has been a huge burden, she said.
Only a small portion of COVID-19 cases are fatal, and of those, most are elderly people with other conditions that exacerbate the virus, Kraft added.
“When people focus on the positive case number, that means nothing. Let me say that again: It really doesn’t mean anything, because it’s the death rate that matters,” Kraft said.
Harris, visibly frustrated, disagreed.
“They mean something to the families who are affected by this. They mean something to our businesses who can’t reopen fully,” Harris said. “I think it’s irresponsible to dismiss anybody’s death, anybody who has COVID-19.”
The candidates also diverge on where to prioritize transportation funding. Harris said the first order of business needs to be replacing the aging Interstate 5 Bridge.
“I’m glad that Oregon and Washington are finally back at the table working together,” Harris said. “We can’t talk about a third bridge until we have a replacement of the I-5 Bridge.”
Kraft said that the Legislature’s first priority ought to be building another crossing over the Columbia River.
“Common sense says you need more lanes,” Kraft said, adding that a third bridge could potentially start in Woodland, Ridgefield or Fruit Valley. “We have 15 more good years, at least, on the I-5.”
On climate change
Kraft does not believe climate change is caused by people, or that it should be a driver of governmental policy.
In the editorial board, Kraft took Inslee to task for blaming the recent wildfires that decimated portions of Oregon and California on climate change.
“‘Climate fires! Climate fires!’ You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m sorry,” Kraft said. “I don’t subscribe to climate change. You can make up any number you want. You see it all the time, right?”
The incumbent added that she believes climate change was created by politicians to push an anti-business agenda.
“If carbon emissions are so horrible, humans, we breathe out carbon emissions, right?” Kraft asked. “Are we going to get rid of all humans? Should we stop breathing?”
Harris told the editorial board she believes climate change is a real, urgent concern, and that human activity contributes to it.
“There is a way that labor and business and industry can come together to deal with climate change,” Harris said. “We can reverse the course that we are on, but it’s going to take a lot of effort.”
The upcoming election is a rematch between the two candidates. In 2018, Harris challenged Kraft for her seat and lost narrowly. Kraft won 50.73 percent of the votes. Harris got 49.27 percent..
Kraft and Harris will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot for voters in the 17th Legislative District, which encompasses east Vancouver, the southern portion of Battle Ground and parts of unincorporated Clark County.