Talk of taxes and COVID-19 restrictions dominated the two remote town halls held with GOP lawmakers from Southwest Washington, a set of forums that presented perspectives from both the center and right-leaning factions of the party.
In a pair of public telephone conferences, state representatives and senators from Washington’s 17th and 18th legislative districts answered questions from constituents. John Sattgast, public information officer for Washington State House Republicans, served as emcee and also conducted a series of polls with callers.
A few themes united the lawmakers in the two forums: they all railed against the array of legislation introduced this session that would increase taxes, such as a capital gains tax bill that passed the Senate earlier this month.
“They’re doing that to create a structure to create a full-blown income tax,” said Sen. Lynda Wilson R-Vancouver, citing a common criticism of the bill that would impose a 7 percent fee on sales of certain assets over $250,000.
“There’s a lot of really awful bills coming through. I’m overwhelmed,” Wilson added.
The delegation from Southwest Washington also highlighted the importance of reopening schools and businesses as COVID-19 transmission rates continue to cool.
“That’s the only way we get this economic engine back on track,” said Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver. “We need to get all of our businesses back wide open.”
The lawmakers from the 17th Legislative District – Reps. Paul Harris and Vicki Kraft, and Wilson – convened remotely on March 15. Sen. Ann Rivers and Reps. Brandon Vick and Hoff, from the 18th District, followed suit on March 22.
In a few places, however, the candidates diverged. Kraft was a vocal outlier on a few issues including alleged voter fraud and the COVID-19 vaccine.
Two factions in 17th
As the Republican Party works to find its footing in a post-President Donald Trump era, some GOP lawmakers are sticking to the center while others are leaning into the more Trumpian brand of politics. The 17th District, which encompasses east Vancouver, the southern portion of Battle Ground and parts of unincorporated Clark County, is a microcosm of that dynamic.
Kraft and Harris pingponged back and forth on multiple issues during the forum, with Kraft stating an opinion that Harris would later walk back.
Harris, who was first to represent the district in 2010, hails from a fairly moderate wing of the Republican Party – in 2019, for example, he championed a bill that would remove the philosophical exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, a move that earned him accolades from the Washington State Medical Association.
At the time, Kraft opposed that bill on the grounds that it violated personal freedoms. In the telephone town hall, she expressed similar concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s your body, and ultimately it should be your choice,” said Kraft, who has been among a small group of legislators that has consistently questioned the seriousness of COVID-19, the efficacy of mask-wearing, and the administration of vaccines, all against scientific evidence.
Harris followed up Kraft’s statement with his own on the subject: “I’m vaccinated. I was vaccinated with the COVID vaccine. I’ve had both, and it’s been over three weeks,” Harris said.
At another point, a constituent on the call asked Kraft if she would denounce her previous assertion that Black Lives Matter and “antifa” were behind the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a claim for which the FBI has found no evidence. Kraft declined.
“I believe there were some very coordinated efforts outside of people who were pro-Trump,” Kraft said. “If they wanted to cause some challenges, they’re probably going to want to look like Trump supporters.” She later said that she believed widespread voter fraud was a serious ongoing issue, including “statewide fraud at the top of the ticket.”
Harris immediately walked her claims back, pointing out that Washington’s top elections official, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, is a Republican, and that every GOP lawmaker on the call had won their own reelection fairly.
“I am not one who believes there was widespread voter fraud,” Harris said.
The group of lawmakers will continue to represent Clark County constituents during the remainder of the 2021 legislative session, which is expected to conclude on April 25.
Sattgast encouraged listeners to reach out to their legislators with questions or concerns; contact information for each member can be found at https://leg.wa.gov/legislature/Pages/ContactUs.aspx.