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News / Northwest

Political stunt or needed perspective? Congressional candidates travel to border, Ukraine

By Emry Dinman, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 2, 2024, 6:00am

As candidates vying to represent Eastern Washington in Congress attempt to distinguish themselves in a crowded field, several have made trips far afield from the district to demonstrate their commitment to issues they would need to address in D.C.

But do these trips, including two to the border and one to Ukraine, provide needed perspective, or are they merely a political stunt?

Spokane City Councilman Jonathan Bingle was the first, traveling in early March to Arizona’s Santa Cruz County, south of Tucson and immediately north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The border has been a central focus this election season, particularly for Republicans. The issue is so ubiquitous in the Republican field that several candidates acknowledged at the Spokane County GOP convention in April that their positions would be largely identical, arguing that their stances on the border wouldn’t help voters differentiate between them.

A month prior, however, Bingle did make an effort to differentiate himself, traveling to a border area and talking to law enforcement and border patrol in the area. He met with Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway and border patrol agents while touring the border wall, arguing in a KHQ interview at the time that most crossing illegally were just looking for work but some posed a threat to Americans. He also highlighted the human cost to the migrants themselves, noting the wreaths and crosses dotting the border where people had died during the dangerous trip.

In a recent interview, he acknowledged that he hoped the trip sent a message to voters ahead of the August primary, but also argued there was an opportunity to form his own opinion of the situation by seeing it first hand.

“You can learn about a lot of things in the classroom, but once you’re in the field you learn the difference between theory and practice,” Bingle said.

In March, Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, who is seeking the same seat in Congress, called Bingle’s visit a “political stunt,” comparing it to a spring break vacation and arguing Bingle should be focused instead on the issues facing the city of Spokane. Later, Baumgartner made his own trip to Yuma, Arizona, at the invitation of Morgan Ortagus, who served as State Department spokeswoman during the administration of former President Donald Trump, and met with border agents, various politicians and Trump-era acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf.

In a news release, Baumgartner argued that President Joe Biden’s administration has failed to secure the border, pointing to degraded or uninstalled sections of the border wall and the destabilizing effect that mass illegal border crossings have on the Mexican government.

He claimed to have overheard four Syrians who had crossed illegally speaking Arabic, a language Baumgartner has some ability to speak, and who said they planned to travel to Washington state after being processed by border agents.

“Other nationalities that night included Ecuadorians, Venezuelans and Chinese,” he wrote in a news release. “It’s worrying that so many people are entering our country without being properly vetted — including many from nations that pose significant national security threats.”

Like Bingle, Baumgartner also highlighted the danger that organized crime and the border crossing itself pose to those seeking a new life in the United States.

Baumgartner argued his trip should not be compared to Bingle’s.

“I was there with an extremely high-level delegation,” Baumgartner said. “I think it was pretty clear from Jonathan Bingle’s social media posts at the time that he was down there for spring break and happened to take some photos near the border.”

Unlike Bingle, Baumgartner was invited to Arizona and visited to learn about the issues on the ground, not as a campaign stunt, he said, though he did acknowledge paying for the trip with campaign funds.

In a recent interview, Bingle said Baumgartner’s comments were offensive, not for his own sake, but for the people with whom he met.

“Sure I wasn’t meeting with Trump’s secretary of whatever, I was meeting with the people who are actually doing the job,” Bingle said. “Michael Baumgartner has been on spring break since he was elected treasurer, I don’t want to hear about spring break while I’m in the trenches every day for the city of Spokane.”

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A third Republican vying for the seat, state Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber implied in a recent news release that Baumgartner was a hypocrite and said his trip was no better than a political stunt.

“As a former Law Enforcement officer and a state Legislator, I understand and have witnessed these policies and will continue to protect my country, community and Spokane families in DC,” Maycumber stated in the release, adding that one doesn’t “need to go to the border to shoot a commercial” to understand the impact on Spokane families.”

She pointed to the slate of endorsements from sheriffs across the district where she is seeking office, which she recently unveiled at a news conference in Spokane.

Republican candidates aren’t the only ones making trips abroad as part of their campaigns. In April, OB-GYN Bernadine Bank, running for the seat as a Democrat, entered Ukraine through the Polish border in mid-April. The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has, like the U.S.-Mexico border, become a political football . Congress passed a $95 billion package on April 23 that provided war aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, which had been stalled since February by growing conservative calls to invest instead in tightening the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a recent interview, Bank noted the roughly 30,000 Ukrainian-Americans in Spokane County, the vast majority of whom are Christian refugees who immigrated to the U.S. to escape religious persecution.

“We have 30,000 Ukrainians in this county alone who have friends and family living through this war day in and day out,” Bank said. “I think it’s important to draw attention to that.”

She visited Lviv and Kyiv, witnessing daily military funeral processions and a program to implant prosthetics for amputee soldiers. Installing a phone app that provides alerts for incoming bombs and other munitions, she shared a recent notice informing residents to immediately proceed to a bomb shelter and instructions if none is nearby.

Bank argued that the U.S. and the West broadly owe Ukraine protection following the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the U.S., Britain and other nations made security guarantees in exchange for the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine and other post-Soviet nations.

“That was part of my trip, to bring that part of history back to people’s minds and to remind them of our obligations and how important it is to keep those promises,” Bank said.

Bank encouraged her opponents to also visit Ukraine, and argued that Bingle and Baumgartner’s trips to the border may have also provided some needed perspective. Bingle said the same of Bank’s trip.

“If she’s going to see the people of Ukraine and see the situation on the ground, I commend her for doing that,” he said.

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