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Monday, January 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Local Democrats look to debate for clarity about whom to support for presidential nomination

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN in this July 30, 2019 photo. The two, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, are the frontrunners in a crowded Democratic field that local party officials said they’re still considering before making full-throated endorsements. (Paul Sancya / AP)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., participate in the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN in this July 30, 2019 photo. The two, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, are the frontrunners in a crowded Democratic field that local party officials said they’re still considering before making full-throated endorsements. (Paul Sancya / AP)

Many local Democratic politicians and activists say they are still looking for clarity about whom they will back in their party’s bid to defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

They hope to find some of that clarity Thursday night in Houston, when 10 of the highest-profile candidates seeking the party’s nomination will debate on national television.

Tuesday’s debate follows a series of recent multinight forums where contenders had to compete for limited screen time. That process successfully winnowed out a few hopefuls, including Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington. But 20 candidates are still in the running for the Democratic nomination, and the party hasn’t solidified a front-runner in the minds of many Democratic officials in the Inland Northwest.

“I have not endorsed anybody for president,” said state Sen. Andy Billig, the party’s leader in the Democrat- controlled state Senate. “I’m still listening and learning.”

The candidate who’s generating the most buzz among local elected representatives, past and present, as well as among party officials, is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

City Council President Ben Stuckart, a precinct committee official for the party and also a candidate in this year’s race for Spokane mayor, said his preference is for Warren due to the specificity of her policy plans.

“I think she has the most detailed plans out there,” Stuckart said. “She’s just really impressive on the banking issues.”

Before running for the Senate in 2012, the Oklahoma native was a law professor at Harvard University, specializing in bankruptcies. It was in this capacity that Warren sparred publicly with then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware in a public hearing on Capitol Hill in 2005. Warren criticized a legislative package addressing bankruptcy protections that Biden had helped work through Congress. She also pointed out the eventual vice president’s position in a state where many large corporations were located and sought what she viewed as favorable treatment from federal judges ruling on bankruptcies.

It’s the tenacity in that exchange that would make Warren a strong standard-bearer for the party next November, said Andrew Biviano, a former chair of the Spokane County Democrats and 2016 candidate for Spokane County commissioner.

“The things that the base cares about, she’s always cared about,” Biviano said.

Biviano said he was initially cautious because of Warren’s comments about her Native American heritage, including publicly releasing the results of a DNA test in response to a charge from Trump that she was lying about her ancestry. The move prompted condemnations from members of the Cherokee Nation, with Warren eventually clarifying that she wasn’t claiming to belong to their tribe.

“I think she can attract the Bernie (Sanders)-like crowd, and Hillary (Clinton’s) part of the party,” Biviano said. “She’s a Democrat, she’s a woman and she’s more mainstream.”

Many of Warren’s proposals, including universal child care and cancellation of some student loan debt based on income, would cost billions of dollars over the next decade, said Alex Wood, a former Democratic state representative from Spokane who served in Olympia from 1997 to 2010.

“There’s no way her plans are going to get through any Congress, even a Democratic Congress,” Wood said.

Wood, a former radio broadcaster, said the early debates were more about driving ratings than eliciting specific policy positions from the candidates, and that he wasn’t ready to weigh in on the field yet. In the 2016 election, he preferred Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s seen as one of the front-runners again in the 2020 campaign, along with Warren and Biden.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, who occupies the seat Wood once held, introduced Sanders to the crowd at a rally in Spokane in spring 2016 and endorsed the Vermont lawmaker during the caucus period, prior to Clinton gaining the nomination later that year. Riccelli said he wasn’t backing an individual candidate yet in the 2020 contest, echoing his colleague Billig’s desire to continue to learn about the policy positions of the entire field.

“At this point, I just like the enthusiasm behind all candidates,” Riccelli said, adding that he hoped that enthusiasm would be focused on undoing many of the policies that have been put in place by the Trump administration over the past three years.

Riccelli said he gave some money to Inslee’s campaign for president, in an effort to get the Washington governor’s climate change platform on the debate stage on the national level. Rep. Timm Ormsby, Riccelli’s seatmate, backed Inslee’s bid for president for the same reason, and said Wednesday he hadn’t selected a candidate to back in the crowded Democratic field the governor exited.

“Outside of all the geopolitical things going on right now, it’s the largest existential threat to the planet,” Ormsby said of climate change. “I am thrilled that the leading candidates have picked up the issue.”

Some in the party are worried that a singular focus on issues and grand legislative plans could alienate moderate voters the Democrats will need in 2020 to perform better than three years ago.

Skip Chilberg, who served three terms as Spokane County treasurer and one as a county commissioner in the 1980s and ’90s, said he is concerned that the current field of candidates hold views too extreme for the general election.

“I just don’t see anybody in there that’s going to beat Donald Trump,” Chilberg said. “It’s going to take a centrist, and somebody who can work across the aisle.”

Chilberg said his preference would be Biden, but he was concerned that the primary process would take its toll on the longtime politician.

“He’s getting picked at by everybody else,” Chilberg said. “He’s got a lot of baggage, as everybody who’s been in office does.”

Local party officials said they were encouraged by the number of candidates in the race, and looked forward to continue learning about them before Democrats cast their primary ballots in March. It’ll be the first time Washington Democrats cast votes in a primary that will determine whom the state’s delegation will back at the party’s national convention, when a nominee will officially be selected. That’s scheduled to occur in mid-July 2020 in Milwaukee.

“We have a strong field, and as a result of that, I don’t really need to commit to one person,” said Jim CastroLang, a former chair of the Spokane County Democrats.

“I like different things about each of them,” said Kay Murano, a precinct committee officer and former candidate for the state House of Representatives, adding that she’d like to see the party’s official nominee adopt some of the positions of the others in the race after the field continues to narrow. “I’m just hoping they kind of meld together.”

Karen Mobley, another precinct committee officer and supporter of the arts in Spokane, said she believes the primary process is healthy and that it is OK for Democrats not to have a clear preference with so much time left in the race.

“I don’t think we necessarily know the full spectrum of all the viewpoints,” Mobley said. “I think it’s admirable for people not to choose too early, and allow the candidates to articulate their policy positions.”

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