Candidates for local, state and federal races sparred in Oak Harbor Thursday at the first of a series of political forums geared around the November general election.
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island and Sno-Isle Libraries, the forum was held at the Elks Lodge and was attended by a crowd of more than 100 people, according to Marshall Goldberg, a league member and the evening’s moderator.
“The attendance wasn’t as much as I’d hoped, but I’m prejudiced,” said Goldberg, in an interview after the forum. “I wanted to fill the seats.”
Considering that the forum was held on a Thursday evening and on the night after the first presidential debate, Goldberg said he was satisfied with the turnout overall.
Participating were candidates from a total of six races. The format saw that each was quizzed with questions prepared in advance by league members — questions from the crowd were not permitted — that were tailored to issues concerning each race.
One of the most charged debates of the evening was waged between Second Congressional District candidates Rick Larsen, the Democrat incumbent, and Republican challenger Dan Matthews.
The two battled over hot-button issues ranging from partisan bickering in Washington D.C., the stricken economy and the road to recovery to defense spending, the national debt and health care.
Addressing the Affordable Care Act, Larsen said it lacked quality cost controls in Medicare. One way to lessen the burden on Medicare, he said, is to ensure seniors have easy access to health care early in life.
He also added, just before it was Matthews’ turn to address health care, that claims of Congress taking $716 billion from Medicare to cover other costs are patently false.
“That claim/assertion has been debunked by every credible fact-checker in the United States,” Larsen said.
“Every credible Democrat fact-checker,” Matthews fired back. “In fact, that is the figure that has come out and the Office of Management and Budget said the figure will probably increase.”
Going on the offensive, Matthews said the difference between Larsen and himself was the “all or nothing” approach to health care. It’s “simple inaccurate” to maintain that health issues can only be addressed by the Affordable Care Act, he said.
Matthews went on to attack Larsen’s record, claiming the veteran lawmaker had accomplished very little in his 12 years in office and has yet to rise to “significant levels of leadership.”
“There is very little to his credit,” he said. “That is his record.”
Larsen wasn’t on the ropes for long. He noted that individuals Matthews had cited as holding more ranking positions had, in fact, been there years longer and deserved their seniority.
He said he is the leading Democrat on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee and will be leading the aviation sub-committee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee next year.
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and he claimed he has been part of 5 percent of the “bills of substance” that have passed.
“Five percent isn’t a lot but it is when you’re only one-435th of the entire congress,” Larsen said.
Not all the debates were so fiery. Rather, the discussion between the four candidates seeking positions 1 and 2 in the 10th Legislative District for state House was a cordial affair that saw more friendly smiles than political jabs.
Their 30 minutes on the proverbial hot seat was so easygoing, at one point Tom Riggs, a Camano Democrat running for position 2, cheerily poured a glass of water for Norma Smith, a Clinton Republican seeking reelection to position 1.
Despite their political affiliations, the candidates even found common ground on some issues, such as the need for regulatory reform. They did, however, differ on the extent they believe it’s needed.
Their top priorities were also similar, though they again differed here and there. Riggs said jobs would be his focus if elected while challenger David Hayes, a Republican from Camano, talked about economic viability.
Smith said the economy and private sector job creation is at the top of her list while challenger Aaron Simpson, a Langley Democrat, has his eye on increasing eduction funding.
Another largely tame discussion occurred between the hopefuls for Island County commissioner district 1 and 2. Candidates were hit with a gambit of issues that have become central to the commissioner races.
That included how the candidates would prioritize the budget.
Oak Harbor Republican Jill Johnson was up first and, hitting what seems to have become one the core issues of this election, said law and justice funding should come first. Restoring a professional “tone” to the board was her other top goal, she said.
Next up was Coupeville Republican Jeff Lauderdale and he likewise said he would focus on public safety. He also aims to reduce regulation that he said was stifling growth.
Incumbent Clinton Democrat Helen Price Johnson said she hopes to bring people together to address public health and safety needs, foster a vibrant economy and preserve a quality of life.
Finally, incumbent Oak Harbor Democrat Angie Homola said the job of every commissioner is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the community while balancing the budget.
The last race of the evening was between state Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, and incumbent Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, for the 10th Legislative District Senate seat.
The discussion saw a range of topics discussed, from ideas about how each candidate hopes to solve the funding headaches plaguing the state’s education system to legislation each lawmaker is proud of.
Naturally, the future of Washington State Ferries was also discussed. The candidates were asked how they felt the ferry system, particularly routes on Whidbey Island, would be affected by the results of this election.
Haugen was quick to point out that she believed this “was the real issue you need to deal with” because she is the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. She said she would be writing the transportation budget next year.
She took credit for the replacement of the Steel Electrics, which were retired suddenly in late 2007 for safety reasons. Ferries will remain her top priority, she said.
“I told you before I would take care of the ferries,” Haugen said. “They will not be cut under my leadership.”
Bailey said ferries would not be cut under her leadership either and was equally quick to point out that ferries have been plagued with problems for years. Also, the replacement of the Steel Electrics was anything but smooth. Officials had to scramble to find a design and the first boat didn’t hit the water until 2010.
If Haugen’s position and influence is so great, why haven’t the issues been dealt with, she asked.
“Why are we continually in this problem?” Bailey said. “I think that’s the real question.”
Haugen responded by claiming that if she is unseated in November, her position will not go to Bailey. Rather, she said it would go to a legislator in a district not serviced by the state ferry system.
“My opponent will not be writing the transportation budget,” Haugen said. “And they may promise her (ferries in specific locations) but she won’t get the boats.”
Bailey said she never claimed she would be chairwoman of the committee but again promised that ferries would not be cut under her watch. She also noted that no matter who writes the budget, it still has to be passed by the Legislature.
“It takes 50 votes in the House and 25 votes in the Senate to pass a budget... and a governor willing to sign it,” Bailey said.