Republican candidates competing to unseat Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler gathered Tuesday evening for the largest debate this year for the congressional position.
The event, held at Vancouver RV Inn Style Resorts, featured challengers Joe Kent, R-Yacolt, 17th District Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, Heidi St. John, R-Battle Ground, and Leslie French, R-Camas, who asserted why they believe they should represent Southwest Washington.
Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, had prior commitments and was unable to attend the debate, according to her campaign.
The event was livestreamed and can be found on the host’s Facebook page.
Candidates fielded questions from former state legislator and county staffer Don Benton, who was the event’s moderator, as well as audience questions. Each candidate had two minutes to provide an opening statement, respond to Benton’s questions and deliver their closing statements — the latter devolving into rowdiness between Kent and St. John supporters.
Divisive language that dug deeper lines between political ideologies made frequent appearances throughout the conversation, which was also saturated with candidates’ dissatisfaction with the incumbent. Benton asked the challengers about public safety, dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, transportation and other topics.
Safety, homelessness, immigration
The debate came one week after the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people were killed. According to previous reporting from the Associated Press, authorities presented conflicting reports regarding why it took nearly 40 minutes for police to apprehend the shooter.
Candidates did not entertain the topic of gun control. Instead, they spoke about officers’ inability to use force.
“We also have to safeguard our Second Amendment because we can’t rely on the police as we just saw down there in Texas,” Kent said. “We have to have the tools to keep a tyrannical government off our back and to defend ourselves.”
They all criticized sanctuary cities, also known as an area that protects undocumented immigrants from deportation; Kent claimed these cities must be completely cut off from receiving federal spending. Southern border control was a prominent topic, as candidates echoed one another’s wish to “build the wall” and tighten laws involving immigration.
All candidates proposed ending the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program and the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — commonly referred to as DACA and Dreamers.
Despite the southern border being more than 1,000 miles away from Washington, the candidates connected its purported influence on the state to drug addiction and homelessness.
“We will never be a sanctuary state if I can help it,” Kraft said. “The bottom line is all that does is open up our borders, even though we’re not as bad as the southern border. Obviously, it opens us up to a lot of crime, drugs (and) sex trafficking.”
“(Homelessness) is all part of a larger plan to destroy our American culture in our society. How do we fix this? We begin by sealing up the southern border,” French said.
St. John, who placed homelessness in three categories — acute, chronic and criminal — said communities need to determine how to get to the root of the issue with limited intervention from the federal government.
Alleged perils in education
All candidates were opposed to classroom instruction surrounding gender identity and orientation, as well as racism in America, which opponents commonly refer to as “critical race theory.” Instead, they proposed an alternative plan: push school voucher programs.
Support behind dismantling the U.S. Department of Education is rooted in its academic frameworks to acknowledge systemic racism and the nuances of gender or, generally, sex education, according to the candidates. St. John, who co-founded a home-school center and taught her seven children, said parents should determine what their kids learn and avoid “indoctrination.”
Among those who spoke, French presented a divergent idea to break up the federal agency while supporting teachers’ unions, which elicited commotion from the crowd.
“I believe on the local level, these unions are necessary” French said.
Fear of Portland’s ‘weird’
The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program announced its preferred design in early May, which included light rail — much to the dissatisfaction of the congressional challengers.
Kraft referred to her previous attempts in the Legislature to support constructing a third bridge to avoid tolls. Kent and St. John spoke about their fears of the proposed project transferring Portland’s culture to Southwest Washington.
“They want to see the policies of Portland bus over by train into Southwest Washington, and we have repeatedly stood and said, ‘No we do not want that,’ ” St. John said. “What we do want, however, is a third bridge.”
Again, French deviated from his fellow challengers.
“I say we need to do whatever it takes to get this job done,” French said. “If it means including light rail if that’s the deal killer, let’s do light rail. If that means a toll bridge or a toll lane, let’s do a toll lane.”