Candidates running for office in Vancouver gathered for an indoor, in-person community forum for the first time in more than a year Tuesday evening, sharing their wide-ranging views on COVID-19, homelessness and the environment.
Eight of the contenders seeking three different elected roles at City Hall addressed the crowd gathered at Trinity Baptist Church.
The event, organized by the Heights District Neighborhood Coalition, offered an early chance for candidates to introduce themselves publicly. It also threw the considerable amount of daylight between their respective opinions into sharp relief.
COVID-19 and the resulting economic shutdown was one wedge. Two candidates — mayoral challenger Doug Coop and city council hopeful Justin Forsman — expressed a belief that the pandemic was overblown, and that statewide restrictions on businesses and gatherings were unnecessary. The same candidates, along with mayoral candidate Earl Bowerman, also claimed that reports of climate change were similarly fabricated.
“Capturing carbon? That is pretty much a farce. I’m gonna say it. It’s a hoax. Folks, we gotta wise up to it, it’s just a way of getting your money,” Coop said.
Bowerman and Forsman both used the three minutes allotted for their opening remarks to say that they decided to seek public office because they felt that white people were being pushed out or made to feel guilty for running for office (in Vancouver, a Black city councilor hasn’t sat behind the dais since the 1970s). Forsman said he was “disgusted, to be quite honest” at the current state of politics.
Bowerman said, “Whenever we hear about white supremacy, and we need more people of color — well, I’m working on that. I’ve got age spots, and they’re dark brown. I think it’s ludicrous to segregate people according to color.” “There’s no special privileges for anyone, and there’s no hardship for anyone imposed by law enforcement or anyone like that,” said Bowerman, who until last year served as chairman of the Clark County Republican Party.
The differences between the candidates were stark. Kim Harless, a program coordinator for a state nonprofit that helps recycle paint cans, used her opening remarks to highlight her experiences growing up as a person of color in Vancouver and her background working in environmental science.
“I am someone who is Indigenous and Hispanic,” Harless said. “We can’t continue that status quo without that representation for our growing, diverse community … I’ve been on WIC, I’ve been on food stamps, I’ve been this close to living on the streets. I have those lived experiences that you can’t learn or be taught.”
Harless and Forsman are both running to fill Position 1 on the city council, which will be left empty when current Councilor Laurie Lebowsky finishes her term this year.
The two also sparred over Forsman’s claim that climate change is “a hoax.”
“I think it’s a talking point,” Forsman said.
“I am a scientist. It’s not a hoax. We do need to address it, urgently,” Harless responded.
A third candidate for the seat, Mike Pond, attended but did not participate. Event organizer Kate Fernald said he responded to the group’s invitation too late to join in the discussion. John Blom, the former Clark County councilor also in the running for Position 1, did not attend.
While three candidates are also running for Vancouver City Council Position 2, only the current councilor seeking reelection, Erik Paulsen, was in attendance. He didn’t participate. Challenger Kara Tess didn’t respond until after the event concluded, and challenger Tami Martin didn’t respond, according to Fernald.
The incumbent speaks
Of the eight candidates who addressed the crowd Tuesday, only one currently holds elected office: Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle.
While Coop and Bowerman spent much of their allotted time speaking broadly about national issues and the current political discourse, McEnerny-Ogle’s focus was comparatively granular. She spoke about using the Vancouver Municipal Code to settle disputes between citizens and city staff, as well the opportunities posed by a new HP Inc. campus and the biotech industry to bring living-wage jobs to the area.
In response to a question about homelessness, McEnerny-Ogle explained that Clark County — not the city of Vancouver — is actually the lead agency that receives funding and distributes resources.
“I’m going to say that one more time, because many people think that the city is the lead agency, but we’re not. It’s the county,” McEnerny-Ogle said, adding that Vancouver is shifting its focus away from providing comprehensive, long-term services and is instead developing emergency shelters.
“They are now showing us the opportunity for those shelters. That was not in their wheelhouse before.”
In the weeds
Tuesday’s event concluded with a forum between the three candidates running for Vancouver City Council Position 3: wildlife biologist and former state director of League of United Latin American Citizens Diana Perez, construction contractor and chair of the Westside Neighborhood Coalition Glen Yung, and former Clark County GOP chair and current president of Activate Republicans, David Gellatly.
Their discussion ventured further into the weeds of local issues, spotlighting a controversial program that grants tax breaks to developers of multifamily housing units. They also dug into a package of proposed fees and services being referred to as the Stronger Vancouver initiative.
Perez was critical of the Multifamily Tax Exemption program, pointing out that it’s currently tied to Portland’s higher income levels and leaves rents too high for many Vancouver families.
“I think we need to be more strategic,” Perez said, adding that she’d work with the Legislature to improve the program. “I think it’s an important piece, not just for the city council but also to get the developers to the table.”
Gellatly said he took issue with one proposed piece of a Stronger Vancouver that’s since been removed — a business and occupation tax.
“The Stronger Vancouver package was largely just a tax package on small businesses,” Gellatly said. “They’re leaving Seattle, they’re leaving Portland, we could be that kind of bright spot. … All we can do is screw it up.”
Yung, who is a frequent presence at council, commission and board meetings around the city, said that he’s laid enough groundwork to hit the ground running on his first day in office.
“I’ve been all through the city. I go to neighborhood association meetings. I go to NAACP meetings. I go to Republican meetings, I go to Democrat meetings,” Yung said. “It’s so critically important that people on our council are involved in our community.”