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Shawn Vestal: Arritola, Shea both were in good form for debate

Josh Arritola, left, makes his opening statement as state Rep. Matt Shea listens Monday at a debate in Greenacres. (Jesse Tinsley)

Everybody says they want more civility in politics. But there is nothing quite so bracing as an old-fashioned political fistfight in a room full of people who give a damn.

Josh Arritola and Rep. Matt Shea swung hard at each other Monday night, in what will probably be the sole debate between the two Republican candidates for a 4th District legislative seat. The room was packed and buzzing, and each candidate was well-prepared with specifics and fast on his feet. As with a prize fight, one might have wondered just who was edified by the spectacle, but it was fun as heck to watch.

“You’ve expanded bureaucracy,” Arritola charged at one point – perhaps the worst thing one Republican could say about another – and Shea retorted, “That’s a lie.” Moments later, Arritola backed up his charge by listing the many fees tied to legislation Shea pushed – causing an eruption of boos and cheers in the audience.

The debate was noteworthy because Shea rarely pops his head up in any environment where he might be challenged. It was noteworthy for the attention it attracted from voters – the seats were full a half-hour before it started and people were being turned away because the 150-person venue was at capacity. It was noteworthy because the Arritola-Shea race in the Spokane Valley district encapsulates the national GOP tug-of-war between end-times religious conservatives and the moderate business class. And it was noteworthy because it was the kind of public intraparty disagreement that is rare.

Shea complained about this in his first question to Arritola: “Josh, my question to you is why you ran against a Republican and spent $100,000 – wasted $100,000 – that could have been spent on the other side of the state” against Democrats.

Arritola responded, “Every single dime of my campaign has come from (local) business owners that are done with you” – which Shea rebutted by noting that some of Arritola’s dimes have come from labor unions.

Arritola has pressed Shea for more public debates, and Shea has resisted. Monday night’s event was on Shea’s home field, literally and philosophically – in a Greenacres event center hosted by the North Side Conservative Action Alliance. A prayer opened and closed the event. Before giving the invocation, Randall Yearout – a former Constitution Party candidate – said, “There is evil afoot in America today. I think you all feel that in your heart and in your spirit.”

On the issues, the event was a consensus-palooza. Among the areas of agreement: Human beings do not cause climate change (Shea says human-caused global warming has been “conclusively disproven”). Businesses are fleeing Washington for Idaho. No tax should ever be raised, ever. Regulation is destroying Washington business – Shea called it “regulatory tyranny.” Certain state agencies – Labor and Industries, particularly – should be eliminated. The Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on school funding was an improper overreach. Common Core is awful. Obamacare must go. Etc.

The areas of agreement were predictable and bland. As if to illustrate this, the two Republican candidates for the other District 4 seat, Diana Wilhite and Bob McCaslin Jr., shared the stage with Shea and Arritola – providing low-information, platitudinous civility that stimulated neither the mind nor the blood.

Shea and Arritola, on the other hand, seemed ready to leap at each other.

Shea battered Arritola relentlessly for accepting money from unions – the Washington Education Association and the Service Employees International Union. Arritola retorted by accusing Shea of being “bought and paid for” by Olympia lobbyists, and working harder to serve a general constitutionalist constituency than the 4th District specifically.

Asked if they would also represent Democrats and moderate Republicans, Arritola said he would, noting that Shea has sometimes refused to meet with political opponents. Noting one example of a group of Central Valley teachers snubbed by Shea in Olympia, Arritola said, “You refused to meet with them. You refused to shake their hands on the way out.” Shea said he can work with “just about anybody” but drew a line: “I won’t represent socialism.”

A clear subtext of Arritola’s campaign has been the idea that Shea is an extremist. This is inarguable – unless you’re Shea – but it is virtually never argued out loud by other local Republicans, who tie themselves in knots whispering about Shea while refusing to say boo about him publicly. Arritola repeatedly referred to Shea’s tendency to attend “patriot” events out of the district and his high-profile decision to run “off to Nevada to rally with Cliven Bundy.”

Shea remained unchastened. Regarding his Bundy trip, he said he went because he was invited and because similar issues regarding federal land were cropping up in the Palouse. “There is no way I am apologizing for that at all,” he said. “That’s what true representation is. That’s what true leadership is.”

Arritola claims he has been debating an empty chair during his campaign. He asked Shea if he would agree to a one-on-one debate, in a larger, open forum without such a hard tilt in Shea’s favor. Shea dodged the question by saying he prefers to debate Democrats and socialists.

Of course he does. But in the 4th legislative district, that amounts to avoiding all debate that pertains to the choice before voters. Monday’s dust-up made it clear that more of that, not less, would be good for everyone involved.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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