LANGLEY — The economy was the 800-pound empty-pockets gorilla in the room as nearly 100 enthusiastic voters gathered for a candidates’ forum at South Whidbey High School on Wednesday night.
The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Whidbey Island, and featured the incumbent and challenger in the races for Congress, state legislature and county offices.
And as Election Day comes closer, emotions run high, but moderator Barbara Seitle, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, kept everyone in check.
“This is a forum on the issues,” she said. “So don’t go in for mud-slinging.”
The candidates answered written questions from the audience and questions submitted earlier by e-mail. The questions were sandwiched between brief opening and closing remarks from each candidate.
Questions covered taxes, education, the environment, offshore drilling, healthcare, ferries, alternative energy, sex education in schools, abortion, elections, campaign financing, farming, the PUD proposal and county commissioner Phil Bakke’s “no new taxes” pledge.
Bakke, a Republican and former county planning director who was appointed to the county commission about a year ago, is running against challenger Helen Price Johnson in the Position 1 race.
He insisted his support for a 1-percent increase in the property tax doesn’t violate the pledge, because that’s an increase in an existing tax, not a new tax.
He said the county isn’t in bad fiscal shape compared to other counties, because it has spent responsibly, and has even set money aside for hard times.
“We still need to suck it up when we can and make do,” he added.
Price Johnson, a Democrat and a business owner, community activist and member of the South Whidbey School District board, agreed that times are tough, but she promised to work “to get everyone involved to find ways to save money.”
“We need to change the culture of county government,” she said. “I would bring a fresh set of eyes, a breath of fresh air.”
Asked if being the owner of a building company that might someday bid on a county project constitutes a conflict of interest, she answered with Joe Biden efficiency: “No.”
Bakke, Price Johnson — and everyone else who was asked about it — said they hadn’t made up their minds about the proposed formation of a local public utility district to take over from Puget Sound Energy.
But they all promised to support the will of the voters, and said passage of the measure at least was one way to get the necessary answers.
Candidates in the 2nd Congressional District race led off the evening.
“It’s very important to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots,” said Republican Rick Bart, retired Snohomish County sheriff seeking to unseat Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat. “I’m all for lowering taxes in this country,” Bart said.
As for the bailout: “It’s a world crisis,” Bart said. “And we’ve handed the keys to the U.S. Treasury over to the private sector.”
Larsen, the incumbent, said he voted both times for the bailout bill, as imperfect as it is. But his decision differed from what his constituency had to say about it.
He said letters to his office on the subject ran 50-50: “no,” and “hell no.”
“I understand the anger and frustration,” he added. “But it was necessary, and necessary now. We need tough and progressive action to get us out of this.”
Larsen used a baseball analogy to describe the unique optimism of Americans, which he said will serve them well in this situation. “For America, there’s always next year,” he said.
Bart, in reply, went into his windup.
“It’s time for a relief pitcher, folks,” he said.
The candidates for the 10th Legislative District senate race continued their war of words over the state of the ferry system. From the beginning, the race has centered around the transportation issue.
“The level of service with the toy boat is not acceptable,” said Republican challenger Linda Haddon, referring to the current Keystone-Port Townsend ferry. “We need a real ferry. I know how to make things happen.”
Incumbent Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen again stressed her position as chairman of the Transportation Committee.
“We are making a difference,” she said.
“I’m not a one-issue candidate,” she added.
Both agreed that the state, with its projected $3 billion deficit, is going to take a hit.
“We’re going to be going through a very difficult time,” Haugen said. “We’ll look for cuts by going program by program by program. But there’s very little flexibility in the state budget.”
Haddon said she would work to curtail tax-and-spend policies, and added that she believes in term limits. She said of her opponent that, on most of the issues, “our hair color is the only similarity.”
Among the standard questions about the economy, the environment and healthcare, candidates in the 10th Legislative District Position 2 race got one on sex education in schools.
Both Democratic challenger Patricia Terry and incumbent Republican Barbara Bailey said they were in favor of it.
Terry, a registered nurse, said it came down to “how to prevent accidents,” and what’s needed is a medically accurate, science-based program.
Bailey said the way sex education is taught is important, and it should be decided at the local level.
“Maybe abstinence is not a bad idea,” she added.
Another hot-button issue in the race is health-insurance reform.
“We need to make changes in our insurance codes,” Bailey said, in order to provide for the
650,000 people in the state, most between the ages of 19 and 34, who have no insurance.
“We’ve got to design a program that will work,” she added.
Terry pointed out that the U.S. is ranked 39th in the world in providing healthcare.
“We need real healthcare for all,” she said. “If insurance leads to healthcare for all, that’s fine. So far that’s not happening.”
In the 10th Legislative District Position 1 contest, incumbent Republican Norma Smith and Democratic challenger Tim Knue fielded a question about WASL.
The annual Washington Assessment of Student Learning measures student progress in reading, math, writing and science, and its passage is a condition of high school graduation.
“Some of the time it works, and some of the time it doesn’t,” Smith said, adding that the biggest problem in state education is the 25-percent dropout rate.
Knue, a retired teacher, said the WASL can often have a cause-and-effect aspect that can be “a limit to learning,” as when some students go ahead and fail the test “so they can get at the alternatives.”
Smith, who was appointed to the Legislature in January after Chris Strow resigned, said that she “hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped.”
“I will listen and learn in order to lead for common-sense solutions,” Knue promised.
The Position 1 candidates also tackled the abortion question.
“I thoroughly believe in a women’s right to privacy,” Knue said. But he added that abortion should be as rare as possible.
“I’m a pro-life person,” Smith said.
Among the questions for the candidates for Island County Auditor was one on the efficiency and secrecy of the mail-in ballot system.
“The future seems to be going toward mail-in ballots,” said Republican Jim Palmer, a write-in candidate who secured enough votes in the primary to get on the ballot. “I sure don’t want to go back to chads.”
Sheilah Crider, the Republican incumbent appointee who assumed the office in January, said the mail-in system is so fail-safe that “there’s total privacy and total secrecy.”
She said she’s “a working auditor” and her office is open and transparent.
But Palmer insisted that he could do a better job.
“The voters wanted a choice when they wrote me in. Now the vote is in your hands, as it should be,” he said.
The League of Women Voters of South Whidbey Island will also present an issues forum on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland. It starts at 7 p.m. and will cover state and local ballot measures.
Issues to be discussed include Initiative 985, the “Transportation Measure”; I-1000, “Death With Dignity”; and I-1020, “Care Worker Certification.” Local proposals include the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District’s new community recreation center, the Port of South Whidbey’s proposal to expand the Langley marina, and the creation of a Whidbey Island public utilities district.
This forum also will be moderated by Seitle, and questions are welcome beforehand or on the night.