Five candidates vying for the West Plains’ three open seats answered Eastern Washington University students’ questions on social policy and criminal justice reform in a public forum Wednesday.
The forum included state Senate candidate Jessa Lewis, the former director of the Eastern Washington division of nonprofit Healthcare for All; and three-term state representative and former Spokane Police Department Officer Jeff Holy. State House candidates included local business owners Dave Wilson and Jenny Graham, as well as Rep. Mike Volz, the only incumbent in the 6th District.
The forum, which was hosted by the EWU College of Social Sciences and the School of Social Work, focused on the intersection of race and the criminal justice system, as well as early childhood intervention. Graham, in her opening statement and when answering student questions, shared her own family’s experience with food insecurity and run-ins with the criminal justice system. She also talked about her work to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sex predators.
Wilson, her opponent, touted his small-town background, 30 years living in Eastern Washington and lessons he learned as a business consultant. He said his focus would be housing and health care.
Volz said he sees access to education as his priority in the Legislature, and would work to properly fund all schools and remove barriers to graduation and college; barriers, he said, like standardized testing.
His opponent, Director of the Spokane Low Income Housing Consortium Kay Murano, was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict, but sent a brief video explaining her platform.
Lewis told students she was once a young, single mother who needed to use state programs to get by, which changed her perspective on government. She said the issues she’s struggled with in her own family, as well as her student debt, have helped her understand why health insurance and social services are urgently needed by her constituents.
“It’s because of the social safety net and … government that works that I’m standing here before you today,” she said.
Holy said he hoped to bring opportunities to the district, so that once students at Eastern and other area colleges graduate, they don’t have to leave Spokane to find jobs. He also touted the Legislature’s past efforts to freeze tuition.
Samantha Evans, a Master’s in Social Work candidate, asked the panel what policies they would support that would address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. She said she was impressed by Wilson’s and Lewis’ responses to her questions, but appreciated all the candidates pulling from both their personal and policy experiences.
When answering Evans’ and other social science students’ questions, most of the candidates emphasized education as an early intervention. Wilson said he would like to see early childhood education fully funded, and he and Holy said they would like to see more arrestees diverted from prison and jail into other programs.
“It’s not incarceration that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s the conviction. It disqualifies you from everything in your life … far beyond your sentencing.”
Volz said he has met with local police departments and the Sheriff’s Office and discussed more education for law enforcement officers. He said a more diverse police department could help racial disparity in arrests and incarcerations in Washington. He would also like to see more community engagement by police officers, he said.
Lewis said she has worked on Initiative 940, which would require mental health training and a good faith test when deadly force is applied by police officers, but is more supportive of the version of a similar bill in the Legislature requiring de-escalation training. She said her experience at the Standing Rock protests and her daughter, who is mixed-race, have helped her understand why many groups have lost trust in law enforcement.