The first thing Lisa Brown did was listen.
Before she even took any questions at her community forum Saturday in Clarkston, the former state legislator gave the 40 or so people in the audience an opportunity to make statements.
It was, she said, their chance tell her what’s most important in Washington’s 5th Congressional District.
“It’s very helpful for me to hear what issues are top-of-mind for you,” she said.
Brown, 61, served 20 years in the Washington Legislature, including more than a decade as Senate Democratic leader. That was followed by another five years as chancellor of Washington State University’s Spokane campus.
She resigned the latter position last year to run for Congress. She’s challenging 5th District GOP incumbent Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
As chancellor at WSU Spokane, Brown helped get the new Elson Floyd Medical School up and running. It received preliminary accreditation in 2016 and enrolled its first class last August.
She also beefed up the medical research program, she said, and oversaw development of a free community health clinic on campus, where medical residents will be trained.
That experience is actually what prompted her to run for Congress. Brown could see the positive impact these efforts were having on Spokane and local community members – but the exact opposite was happening in Congress.
“They weren’t solving problems,” she said. Instead, they were putting up barriers to health care and ignoring soaring prescription drug costs.
“I want to represent people on the issues they tell me are of most concern to them, and health care is clearly at the top of the list,” Brown said. “Why isn’t Congress taking up this issue (prescription drug costs)? Other countries have figured it out. I believe the government should be using its purchasing power to achieve cost reductions. I also support putting more money into public research, so there isn’t as much need to recoup the cost of private investment.”
She also favors some type of universal coverage, in which a basic level of health care – particularly primary care – is provided for all citizens.
“The right way to provide care isn’t in our emergency rooms,” Brown said. “There should be a basic health plan available to everyone. That’s the direction we moved in Washington.”
The 5th Congressional District covers the eastern quarter of the state, from Canada to the Oregon border. It includes 10 counties in all.
Brown has lived here nearly 40 years. She grew up in Illinois and earned an economics degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. After earning a doctorate in economics at the University of Colorado Boulder, she began teaching at Eastern Washington University. She taught there for 20 years, followed by another 11 years at Gonzaga University.
During her time in the Legislature, she became a champion for various health care initiatives. For example, she found the money to pay for breast and cervical cancer screenings by proposing that the state cut funding for private security at a golf tournament.
“I learned a couple of lessons from that,” Brown said. “First, it wasn’t my idea. It was brought to me by people in the community; I was just able to help. And second, (solving problems) is about priorities. I’d like to take that approach back to Congress.”
The student loan debt crisis is another issue she’d like to work on, Brown said. College students have racked up about $1.5 trillion nationwide, and unlike other types of loans, they can’t be refinanced. She supports removing that restriction, and thinks monthly payments should be tied to an individual’s income, so they aren’t unduly overburdened.
Brown also raised the possibility of paying for two years of post-secondary education or training.
“We’re such a wealthy country, how can we not make that investment,” she said. “Why are we not investing in building the middle class? That’s my economic philosophy. We need to invest in young people and infrastructure, so they can build the communities of the future.”
Besides the 90-minute forum at the Clarkston Quality Inn, Brown also participated in Saturday’s Asotin County Fair parade.
She and McMorris Rodgers will square off in the Aug. 7 primary. However, since the top two candidates move on to the general election, they’ll likely be battling all the way through Nov. 6.
An Elway Research poll earlier this month showed McMorris Rodgers leading Brown by 6 percentage points. A more recent poll suggested the margin was down to 3 percent.
“I’m feeling really good about what’s happening,” Brown said. “We have a lot of momentum. We have over 1,500 volunteers. I’m hearing a desire for change. After 14 years (of McMorris Rodgers), people are willing to give someone else a chance.”