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Feb. 5, 2023

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Vice President Kamala Harris, in Seattle, touts electric school buses, infrastructure bill

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SEATTLE — Kamala Harris made her first visit as vice president to Seattle on Wednesday, announcing a nearly $1 billion award to school districts to replace older buses with electric and cleaner-running models.

The visit also mixed in midterm partisan politics as Harris headlined a fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, urging a crowd of Democrats to reelect Murray and ward off handing control of the Senate to Republicans.

The bus funding announced Wednesday is part of a total of $5 billion for cleaner school buses to be distributed over five years, included in the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by Congress late last year.

Harris spoke for about eight minutes to an invite-only crowd of several hundred in the bowels of Lumen Field against a backdrop of four electric school buses.

“Who doesn’t love a yellow school bus?” she asked. “It’s part of our experience growing up, it’s part of a nostalgia, a memory of the excitement and joy of going to school to be with your favorite teacher, to be with your friends and to learn.”

Harris spoke in front of a Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley electric bus that can go up to 138 miles on a charge and was purchased this year using a state grant. It’s one of three electric buses in the Highline School District, which serves the Burien, SeaTac and Des Moines area.

Every day, 25 million kids ride on yellow school buses, Harris said, calling it the largest form of public transit in the country. And 95% of those buses currently run on diesel, she said, emitting climate-warming greenhouse gases and contributing to health issues like asthma.

“We are witnessing around our country and around the world the effects of extreme climate,” she said. “What we’re announcing today is a step forward in our nation’s commitment to be a leader on these issues, to reduce greenhouse gases, to invest in our economy, to invest in job creation, to invest in building the skills of America’s workforce.”

Four Washington school districts have, so far, applied for and received funding to replace aging diesel-powered buses with electric, natural gas or propane models: Easton, Pomeroy, South Whidbey and Toppenish.

The $1 trillion infrastructure bill, signed by President Joe Biden last year, includes billions for roads, public transit, ports and the power grid.

Harris, while in the Senate in 2019, had originally sponsored legislation to provide funding to electrify the nation’s school buses. Murray, Washington’s senior senator, then offered similar standalone legislation last year, before working to get the funding included in the massive infrastructure package.

“Building new, clean, electric buses and getting them on the roads is good for our kids, our economy and our planet,” Murray said.

The $1 billion in rebates awarded for school buses will help purchase nearly 2,500 school buses in all 50 states, 95% of them electric, according to the White House.

Seattle Public Schools contracts its transportation needs out to two bus contractors: First Student, which has said electric buses are not in its near future, and Zum, which has promised it will include electric buses in its fleet by the end of the school year.

There are or will soon be about 80 electric school buses on the roads in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.

Harris appeared with Inslee; Michael Regan, head of the Environmental Protection Agency; Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell; and Murray, who is seeking her sixth term and is facing her most competitive race since 2010.

Murray’s opponent, Republican Tiffany Smiley, has said climate change should be fought at the local level. At a recent debate, she declined to say whether she believed human actions are contributing to climate change.

In Washington, ballots are in the hands of voters who are weighing competitive races for U.S. Senate and for at least two congressional races.

While Murray has led in polls, Smiley has narrowed the gap, and outraised the incumbent senator in the most recent quarter of fundraising.

The Harris visit shows Democrats are taking no chances, seeking to shore up Murray in the closing days before the Nov. 8 general election.

At the midday fundraiser for Murray, U.S. Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina; Marilyn Strickland, D-Tacoma; and Sen. Maria Cantwell urged Democrats to vote early and ensure friends and family, and strangers on the street, to do the same.

Harris emphasized the stakes of the midterm election to the crowd of about 550 people packed into The Showbox music venue near Pike Place Market —including for abortion rights already diminished following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v. Wade.

“These extremist so-called leaders around the country are proposing and passing laws that will criminalize doctors and nurses, literally put them in jail for providing reproductive care,” Harris said.

Murray and Harris pledged to pass legislation to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law if Democrats are able to pick up a couple of seats in the Senate that is now evenly divided 50-50.

Murray also attacked Smiley for declining to say whether people are contributing to climate change.

“Does anybody here think we should send a climate denier to the United States Senate?” Murray asked the crowd, drawing a loud chorus of “No!” “You shouldn’t be representing the state of Washington in the United States Senate if you can’t admit that climate change is real.”

Attendees at the fundraiser paid at least $200 to attend, with some contributing the maximum legal limit of $2,900 to the campaign, and some other supporters attended free of charge, said Murray campaign spokesperson Amir Avin in an email. He said the event raised “well over six figures.”

Smiley, who is on a cross-state campaign bus tour, released a statement during Harris’s visit.

“We have a humanitarian crisis at the border. Vice President Kamala Harris — Joe Biden’s so-called border czar — has failed us and Patty Murray has gone right along and made it worse. With Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Patty Murray, it is easier for a child to find fentanyl than a for parent to find baby formula. No more!” she said.

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