On homelessness, COVID-19 and systemic racism, the candidates for state Senate in the 17th Legislative District paint contrasting visions for getting Washington on the right track.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic challenger Daniel Smith met virtually with The Columbian’s Editorial Board to make their pitches.
Smith, a social worker, said he’s seen firsthand how the coronavirus and its economic fallout are harming vulnerable populations in the region. But before lawmakers can look toward opening the economy, he said, the first priority has to be the virus itself.
“The key to that, the connective tissue to that, is getting control of the virus,” Smith said. “Here in Clark County, we continue to see the needle move all the way to the right.”
Wilson said she wants to see the economy recover sooner rather than later, pointing to the collateral damage of the virus — domestic violence, suicide and depression are all on the rise, she said.
“We need to be looking at the metrics, and we have to do this safely, we know that. But there has been collateral damage,” Wilson said.
Smith countered that the social services in place to help people experiencing mental illness have always been underfunded.
“We have a lot of unmet needs in our community that need to be addressed,” Smith said. “The crisis we are experiencing has exposed just how flimsy that foundation is.”
Wilson echoed the criticism from Republican (and a few Democratic) lawmakers across the state: that Gov. Jay Inslee acted alone in responding to the coronavirus crisis, instead of convening the Legislature for an emergency session.
“We’ve been asking for several months now to get back to special session. We have 147 members who would really like to have their voice heard at the table,” Wilson said.
Smith said he’s supportive of Inslee’s aggressive early actions to slow the spread of the pandemic, measures that kept Washington’s death rates and infection rates well below the per capita average nationwide.
“I’m supportive of the governor’s decisions, even though I think they were some really tough decisions,” Smith said.
Washington’s general fund budget is $4.5 billion in the hole through 2023, according to the latest projections in Olympia. To help make up the deficit, Wilson promotes lowering taxes instead of raising them.
“If you have a tax cut helping businesses get back on their feet, that’s where the revenue comes from,” Wilson said. “We want to make sure we don’t overregulate businesses to the point where they cannot do that.”
Smith reiterated talks to accelerate reopening the economy are still premature while COVID-19 is still spreading. He supports a “wait-and-see” approach on the state’s budget deficit, he said.
“We can’t do any of this until we get the virus under control. That is what is stalling our economy,” Smith said.
The candidates have differing views on what drives homelessness in Southwest Washington. Wilson said the core issue comes down to mental illness and substance abuse.
“You have to look at this core issue,” Wilson said. “When you’re talking about the chronic homelessness, it is about the alcohol and mental illnesses.”
Smith told the editorial board that homelessness is first and foremost an economic issue.
“That downward pressure on the economy has made this worse,” Smith said.
He promotes a “wraparound” approach to homelessness services that encompasses housing, primary care and education, “so that they have the stability to then continue and contribute within their community.”
Police reform and racism
Race issues also divide the candidates. Though both believe racism exists, Wilson considers it an interpersonal conflict, while Smith considers it a structural one.
“I do believe that there is racism, and I believe that people of color still have to contend with disparities and bigotry,” Wilson said. “I don’t tolerate it in any form.”
“We can’t legislate these attitudes. We have to start changing hearts and minds,” she added.
According to Smith, racism expresses itself in ways other than outright malicious bigotry. It’s all around us, he said.
“Systemic racism exists, full stop,” Smith said. “It permeates every single sector of our economy and society.”
“Listen to how devastating it is to hear elected officials in this community say that it doesn’t exist,” he continued. “We have to address it in a way that when we have systemic issues, we have systemic responses.”
On improving policing, Wilson said it’s critical for officers to develop positive connections within the community. Every interaction with police shouldn’t be punitive, she said.
“They need to have good relationships. We need to know them before we meet them,” Wilson said, pointing to school security officers as an example of building strong community relationships early. “If you take away the funding from the police, it’s going to get worse.”
Smith said he’d be open to examining how police department budgets are allocated and making revisions if necessary.
“Are we appropriating those dollars appropriately to address the issues and the needs of our community, to provide public safety and to support our law enforcement officers?” Smith asked. “So that we’re not asking cops to do too much. We’re not asking cops to be saviors of social services.”
Wilson and Smith appear on the general election ballot in the 17th Legislative District, which covers east Vancouver, the southern portion of Battle Ground and parts of unincorporated Clark County. Election Day is Nov. 3.