The candidates seeking a seat in the state House of Representatives from the 18th Legislative District met virtually with The Columbian’s Editorial Board ahead of the general election to highlight their contrasting stances on COVID-19 recovery, economic policy and education.
Republican Rep. Brandon Vick of Felida, who’s seeking a fifth term, emphasized that the state has a resilient economy despite the $4.5 billion deficit coronavirus has inflicted on state government.
“I think our underlying economy is good,” Vick said.
“We’re dealing with a budget situation that I truly believe is temporary,” he added. “I think the solutions we have to come up with should also be temporary.”
Kassandra Bessert, a Democrat from Battle Ground, said she decided to run for the state House when COVID-19 struck — she’d been out camping when the state started locking down. She came home to find out a friend had caught the disease. He died later that week.
In the conversation with the editorial board, she prioritized the health of people over the health of the economy. She supports Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased reopening plan, she said, in which individual counties need to hit certain milestones in testing and case numbers in order to advance.
“Listening to as many epidemiologists as you possibly can with something like this is really important,” Bessert said. “The phased program seems to be the most reasonable approach, the reasonable structure.”
Vick said he has less of a problem with the way Inslee initially responded to the pandemic than he does with how the governor did it — unilaterally, without calling an emergency session of the state Legislature. It’s a common criticism among local Republican lawmakers, as well as a few Democrats.
“It’s not so much about the fact that COVID isn’t real — I think it’s very real,” Vick said.
“(But) we’re 7.5 million people as a state, and we have one individual who’s guiding us — if you want to call it guiding — through a pandemic,” Vick said. “There is a balance out there, and we haven’t found that balance.”
Vick said he wouldn’t consider raising taxes to help the state dig its way out of the budget deficit. He’d instead look to eliminate newer, less established programs, like a grant program that offsets college tuition for students with family incomes up to the state median.
“I think that money could be better spent in the short term bridging the budget gap,” Vick said.
Bessert said that she’d look to create a more progressive tax system that places more of the burden on larger corporations to help raise revenue.
“Making sure that it was lined and tiered out in a progressive way, so the big companies are paying the most,” Bessert said.
The candidates sparred over Referendum 90, which would require every school district to choose comprehensive sex education from a set of state-approved curriculum. It’s proved a flash point in Olympia; some Republicans decry the requirement as an infringement over parental rights and local control, while Democrats champion the bill as a way to ensure health and safety for Washington’s students no matter where they live.
The comprehensive sex education plan “gives parents a lot of freedom and choice, and I think there’s plenty of opportunity for parent and local input,” Bessert said. “I’m struggling to see a lot of the controversy … You have every choice available to you. We’re just making sure that the playing field is level.”
Vick countered that R-90 tries to fix a problem that wasn’t broken.
“We have local school boards, local governments, closest to the people” setting the sex education curriculum that best reflects their constituency, Vick said.
“I’ll be voting to repeal that legislation. I think it’s bad legislation,” he added.
The candidates also discussed where they stand on the candidates running for governor and president, with their support falling along party lines.
“It’s not my business to defend Donald Trump, but at the same time I think there’s been a lot of good done,” Vick said. “When was the last time we had a president who didn’t start a war?”
Bessert criticized the current federal administration for its inaction on the infrastructure plan that Trump had touted during his 2016 election campaign.
“Our current president walked in with a full majority in the House, Senate, and a Supreme Court that was very supportive,” Bessert said. “We still don’t have a (Interstate 5) bridge.”
Bessert supports Democrat Joe Biden for president, adding that she believes he’d govern with morality. She also plans to vote to reelect Inslee, touting his strong leadership during the coronavirus crisis.
“I do think that Jay Inslee has at least put structures in place. He’s listening to the right people,” Bessert said. “We were one of the first outbreak sites, and we account for less than 1 percent of fatalities.”
Vick said he plans to cast his vote for the Republican challenger, Loren Culp.
Vick and Bessert appear on the ballot in the 18th Legislative District, encompassing east Vancouver, Camas, Battle Ground, Ridgefield and rural unincorporated areas in much of north Clark County. Election Day is Nov. 3.