Having served largely unopposed in northeastern Washington’s legislative district for over a decade, Rep. Joel Kretz faces two Democratic challengers and one independent in his predominantly red district.
Defeating Kretz, R-Wauconda, would be no small feat, as the legislator has held on to his position in the 7th Legislative District for 14 years without serious political challenge. But his opponents seem to think the challenge is a risk worth taking.
Mike Bell, a Democrat and retired accountant and business owner, said his professional experience would be to the benefit of legislative work in Olympia.
He strongly criticized Kretz for what he sees as a dependence on corporate campaign funding, and has himself pledged to not accept contributions from similar sources.
“I’ll take whatever that money is, and I’ll donate it. But it won’t be benefiting me,” he said.
Crystal Oliver, co-owner of Washington’s Finest Cannabis, said her experience on various regulatory boards gives her the necessary background to represent small businesses and farmers as a legislator. She said she wants to push back against special interest groups that she says are undermining the needs of constituents.
“Like a lot of Eastern Washington residents, I’ve grown tired of the influence big money has,” Oliver said. “We need representation that has our best interest at heart that isn’t heavily influenced by large corporations.”
Christine Ives, an independent and former paralegal who worked for the Colville Confederated Tribes, thinks her legal experience and work for the tribes could help her as a legislator. She said she’s more interested in fixing problems on an issue-by-issue basis than sticking to one-party narrative.
Kretz said he’s been a consistent advocate for the needs and concerns of his constituents.
“I spent 14 years representing this district,” he said. “I think I have a pretty good feel for the concerns and what’s important to (my constituents).”
He denied favoring large campaign contributors over his constituents, saying complaints about corporate interests are just “the standard political line from the left.”
Whether or not Kretz favors money over his constituents, he certainly has more of it. So far, Kretz has raised $54,226.38, according to the Public Disclosure Commission website.
Based on information from the PDC, Kretz accepted roughly a third of his campaign contributions from political action committees, another third from businesses and the rest from individuals or “other.”
As of the last report, Mike Bell had raised $17,302.65, Crystal Oliver $7,852.40, and Christine Ives had not raised any campaign funds.
Bell and Oliver both raised the majority of their campaign money from individual donations, and each received $720.40 from their party.
Bell received $500 from a Spokane plumbers and steamfitters union PAC, another $500 from the Washington Education Association PAC and $4,190 in “other.” Oliver received $1,000 from business donations and $595 in “other.”
Kretz is fighting a legal battle over failing to file a Public Disclosure Commission report on time.
He works to represent the people in his district, he said, many of whom are small-business owners. Others are ranchers who can’t afford to donate to his campaign, he said.
“Why would I focus on big businesses when there’s none in my district?” Kretz said.
Kretz pointed to his efforts to support firefighters and protect landowners in Eastern Washington by helping to pass legislation in 2015 allowing fire suppression on public or private land without fear of being sued later.
His county was hit hard by fires in 2014 and 2015, and his bill helped improve fire response in his community, he said.
Kretz also said he’s been a champion for rural communities, and has protected them from unfair taxes, maintained telemedicine options and improved education.
But Bell said Kretz isn’t accomplishing many of the goals the incumbent in the past has said are most important.
“He’s mentioned his highest priority is restoring economic opportunity,” Bell said. “Unemployment in the 7th District is going up, not down.”
One major issue for Bell, the candidate said, is education funding. He said the state failed to meet an “exceptionally low bar” in reference to the Legislature’s struggle to meet the state Supreme Court’s decision requiring a boost in education funding.
Bell also wants to make college more affordable and to increase support for rural hospitals, he said. Bell criticized Kretz after Kretz allegedly threatened funding for WSU’s medical school over controversial findings by a wolf researcher, the then-director of the WSU large carnivore conservation lab.
Bell called the WSU medical school “one of the best achievements” in the past 50 years.
“Our representative was jeopardizing the initial funding for the project,” he said.
Oliver said helping small businesses succeed is her top priority.
The 34-year-old said her work on regulatory committees, involvement in law reform and experience as a small-business owner gives her a strong understanding of the needs of her constituents, and how to address them.
“I want to make it easier for people to have an impact in the regulations and laws that impact them,” she said.
Oliver said through her professional experience she’s seen how regulations can have unintended consequences on local markets and business owners.
“I came to appreciate what an impact the decisions by these agencies have on my day-to-day life,” she said.
She supports more government transparency and increased accountability for politicians, she said.
“My philosophy has been to do as much good as I can, and I know I can do a lot of good in Olympia,” she said. “I’ve spent the last five years navigating the regulatory environment.”
Christine Ives, the independent candidate, said she wants to address school safety. She said she supports the right to own guns, but said there should be more thorough screening processes for gun buyers.
“We don’t want to take away rights, but we want to be safe,” she said. “I’d like to see some sort of evaluation (for those buying guns).”
Ives also wants to improve health care and mental health care as part of her push for school safety.
“A lot of the shootings have been because of mental health issues,” she said.
She wants to address economic and educational inequality, help recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals obtain citizenship, create jobs and work to protect the environment.
The former paralegal said she thinks the best way to serve the 7th District is to stop focusing on party politics.
“I want to reflect what the people’s needs and wants are,” she said. “If we stop that jockeying for power and look at each issue on its own, we can can get back to the people.”