In one of the most significant races in terms of funds raised for a seat in the Washington State legislature this year, a first time candidate is challenging an incumbent over such issues as mental health, public education and law enforcement.
Democrat Dave Paul is running for his third term as a member of the Washington State House of Representatives for District 10. In the primary election in August, Paul received about 54% of the vote to his Republican opponent Karen Lesetmoe’s 46%.
Paul’s and Lesetmoe’s contest has generated nearly $528,000 in donations between the two of them. With more than $335,000 in donations, Paul has raised more money than any other House candidate.
Paul was first elected in 2018 and has served two terms. One of his top priorities during his time in office has been making education more affordable by helping high school students earn college credits before graduating.
Paul, who is also the director of community relations at Skagit Valley College, helped launch pilot programs to advance this effort, such as a program to help cover Running Start tuition costs for students in need and a program to allow Running Start students to take classes over the summer.
He said he also worked on strengthening career technical education in high schools to support pathways to post high school employment that don’t necessarily rely upon college.
Mental health has been another focus of Paul’s during his tenure. He said he helped secure money in the state’s operating budget for programs in Island County designed to help connect youth with mental health resources and coordinated with community organizations, healthcare providers and youth to determine what kind of programming would be most beneficial to those suffering from mental health issues.
Education and mental health are also high priorities for Lesetmoe, who said she has not been satisfied with the state of public education in Washington over the last few years and ended up sending her three youngest children to private school because of it.
Lesetmoe immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines with her family when she was 6 years old. She spent four years in the Navy, which is what brought her to Whidbey Island. Though she holds no previous experience as an elected official, she said legislation from Olympia that she feels has negatively impacted the 10th District prompted her to run for the position.
One of the issues that sparked her desire to run was the state of public education. She cited data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction that indicated only around 50% of Washington public school students were grade-level proficient in English, and less than 40% were proficient in math.
When kids were sent home from school because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their grades and mental and social health suffered, Lesetmoe said. Though she believes school shut-downs were a necessary precaution at the beginning of the pandemic when there were still so many unknowns surrounding the virus, she said in-person learning should have been made available sooner to families who wanted that option.
Lesetmoe said if elected, she will focus education reform on solutions that don’t necessarily involve “throwing more money” at the school system. Lowering class sizes and increasing transparency and accountability to parents were among her goals.
“There’s a huge disconnect between what the teachers need and what they’re actually getting,” she said.
Law enforcement was another area of import to both candidates. Paul and Lesetmoe each said that public safety emerged as a top concern among residents they’ve met along the campaign trail.
The legislature has drawn criticism from some law enforcement officials and others over bills passed recently that some believe tie enforcement officers’ hands and prevent them from doing their job, such as laws limiting circumstances under which police can use force, pursue people fleeing a scene or question minors.
Lesetmoe called this legislation a failed experiment. She said she would work to repeal these laws and eliminate what she called an anti-police culture that is hindering law enforcement agencies from recruiting and hiring new officials.
“I am a huge advocate for women and children,” she said. “When (police departments) are so understaffed that they no longer have a person to, say, process evidence or collect evidence for rape or domestic violence, there’s a problem.”
Paul said he felt that legislative work done in 2021 responded to Washington residents’ petitions that police receive more and better de-escalation training, though he acknowledged that some ambiguous language in the bills may have been the reason some police officers felt the legislation prevented them from doing their jobs. He said the legislature implemented “corrective legislation” to clarify that wording and that he has helped to connect law enforcement officials with legislators to discuss public safety concerns.
He said law enforcement agencies in the district have done a lot of good work to assist those experiencing mental health crises as well, such as embedding mental health counselors and social workers into their departments so that “jail is not the treatment option” for people in need of help. There is still work to do in terms of implementing a better statewide policy that helps get people into treatment, he said.
“The legislature had a Band-Aid last year, and now we’re going to have to have a more permanent solution that works for law enforcement and for our community,” he said.
Lesetmoe also said that resources need to be available to those struggling with mental health or drug abuse issues, especially in terms of housing accessibility, though she maintained that “there is a fine line between enabling and helping.”
The candidate said there is a difference between families or individuals who find themselves without housing due to sudden job loss or other financial hardship, and those who are chronically homeless due to drug use or adjacent issues. While emergency services and appropriate treatment options must still be available to all, she said, there will always be some who will refuse help. Simply making housing available isn’t a long-term solution for folks in this category.
“Sometimes, there’s just cases where people have to hit rock bottom before they’re compelled to do something,” she said.
Paul said housing affordability is one of the top concerns among constituents, and “the most important issue that the legislature will need to face next year.”
He said he would like to see the legislature take action to streamline the permitting process for the construction of workforce housing and provide more assistance to organizations like Habitat for Humanity that are already working on this issue.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.