Larsen, Hennemann face off at voters forum

Candidates debated at the League of Women Voters Forum.

Congressional, senate and county commissioner candidates duked it out Thursday night over a plethora of issues, leaving some competitors with what appeared to be bad blood as Congressional District 2 candidates Marc Hennemann and Rick Larsen walked away without shaking hands.

The candidates debated at the League of Women Voters Forum, held at Universality Unitarian Congregation of Whidbey Island in Freeland. Five different debates were scheduled for the night, with the three state Legislative District 10 seats up for grabs; incumbent Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor was slated to face off against Angie Homola, D-Oak Harbor; incumbent Norma Smith, R-Clinton, was up against Michael Scott, a Libertarian from Camano Island; and incumbent Dave Hayes, R-Camano debated with opponent Doris Brevoort, D-Mount Vernon.

Bailey did not attend due to what an announcement read on her behalf described as a “scheduling conflict,” and Scott failed to turn up like he did at previous forums on South and North Whidbey.

The first debate of the night featured candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives Second Congressional District seat, with incumbent Rick Larsen, a Democrat, squaring off against challenger Marc Hennemann, a Republican, in a heated debate.

In the Congressional District 2 debate, Hennemann and Larsen were completely at odds over how to stimulate economic growth in the district. Larsen said the federal government plays an important role in economic development by investing in young people and ensuring college is affordable.

“Think about building a house,” Larsen said. “The government’s job is to dig the hole and the private market comes in and builds on top of that.”

Hennemann followed up by saying the best thing the government can do is to “get out of living rooms, board rooms and wallets and basically leave us alone.” He advocated for the government to “stop taking our money,” lower the tax rate and let the economy grow on its own.

Hennemann routinely criticized Larsen in most of his answers and topped it off in his closing statement by claiming Larsen doesn’t listen to his constituents. He pointed to Larsen voting for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, despite “80 percent” of his constituents preferring Sanders.

Larsen had said just moments before in his closing statement, that he is here to help and listen to his constituents and would like to “continue the privilege of serving two more years in the house of representatives.”

When their time was up, Hennemann stuck out his hand to shake with Larsen, but the veteran congressman appeared either not to notice or ingored him, shaking the hand of the moderator and then exiting to the audience. Hennemann, who kept his hand in the air for about five seconds, grinned, shrugged his shoulders and exited as well.

In a friendlier debate, Hayes and Brevoort primarily squared off over funding for affordable housing, mental health services and education. While both candidates said they prioritized those issues, and agreed on a few issues, they were at odds with how to fund them.

“As a new representative, I’ll be working with cases to find additional funding streams for Washington state to pay for the services we need,” Brevoort said.

Hayes said continuing to fund public safety matters and mental health services is “something Doris and I agree on.” He added that the state needs to continue to fund low-income housing. However, Hayes struck down HB 1359, which would create the Affordable Housing For All program. He said there needs to be other ways of funding low-income housing.

“We need to get out of the way of the regulatory structure that’s in place,” Hayes said. “We need to make sure what we’re doing is not restrictive to builders.”

Candidates for county commissioner districts 1 and 2 took the stage together. Incumbent Helen Price Johnson, a Clinton Democrat, and Gary Wray, a Coupeville Republican debated for the District 1 position; incumbent Jill Johnson, an Oak Harbor Republican, and John Fowkes, an Oak Harbor Democrat, slugged it out for the District 2 seat.

They debated topics regularly brought up in previous debates, including affordable housing, the opioid crisis, how to ensure economical viability and if the county should raise the property tax rate to pay for services such as legal council.

Regarding economic viability, most candidates supported Naval Air Station Whidbey’s role as one of the county’s largest sources of income. Although Fowkes didn’t explicitly include the naval base, but said economic strength primarily comes down to housing and jobs. Wray and Price Johnson said stewardship is vital to the county’s economy due to income from ecotourism, wineries and farms. All candidates voiced their support for establishing the appropriate infrastructure to attract businesses to the county and pointed to WhidbeyTelecom’s recent fiberoptics installation as a way forward.

“We’re not on the I-5 corridor, so we need to bring different kinds of jobs here,” Wray said. “With the fiberoptics, we can bring low-impact jobs to the island that don’t interfere with ecotourism.”