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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Loren Culp moves from gun-law dissident to GOP gubernatorial nominee

Culp  (Courtesy)

Loren Culp, the Republican challenger for governor who bested other more experienced campaigners in Tuesday’s primary, can mark the starting point of his run as the day after the 2018 election.

By a substantial margin, Washington voters had just passed Initiative 1639, which puts new restrictions on the sale of semiautomatic rifles. Culp, the police chief of Republic, where the initiative was unpopular, was asked by people he ran into that day whether he would arrest people between 18 and 21 if he saw them with such a firearm.

He said he would not. Later, he put it up on a blog, which attracted state and national attention, got him invited to be on Fox News, and prompted him to write a book, “American Cop,” which has a forward by rock musician and fellow Second Amendment advocate Ted Nugent, and is still a best seller on Amazon. The following year, he was asked to speak at Republican Lincoln Day Dinners around the state. People who agreed with him kept urging him to run for governor.

“I didn’t see anybody else running, or anybody on the horizon I could trust,” he said in a recent interview.

The state Republican Party, which hasn’t occupied the governor’s mansion since 1984, had no well-known candidate to run against incumbent Democrat Jay Inslee. Culp got in the race and on Tuesday easily topped four other Republicans who had more name identification, campaign experience or endorsements from different leaders or segments of the party.

“I didn’t seek an endorsement from any of the establishment. I didn’t seek an endorsement from the Republican Party,” he said.

Over time, his small meet-and-greets turned into rallies with 1,500 or more people, and he hired a campaign manager who worked for Donald Trump, whom he strongly supports.

He has stuck to his core message – that the rule of law applies to everyone equally – with the steadfastness of an Army drill sergeant, which he once was. Government officials should hew to the federal and state constitutions, which is why he said he wouldn’t enforce I-1639 that he contends violates portions of both.

Culp likens enforcing the law against selling semi-automatic rifles to 18- to 21-year-olds to a police officer arresting Rosa Parks for refusing to move from her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, or a police officer in Nazi Germany arresting Jews to send them to concentration camps.

“I don’t think it’s overstating anything,” he said. “It’s showing the same thing that happens when police officers disregard citizens’ rights.”

The constitutionality of I-1639 has been challenged in federal court but has yet to be decided.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Culp has added the emergency orders issued by Inslee to his assessment of what’s constitutional and what’s not.

Asked what he would do if he is elected and the state is still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic in January, Culp’s first step is similar to what Inslee has done: hold press conferences with medical professionals on what the public should do, and work to get the supply chain moving.

He would not shut down businesses and would recommend – but not require – businesses or the public to wear masks.

“You want to wear a mask, wear a mask. You don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask,” he said.

A business has the right to decide whether anyone who enters must wear a mask, and a person who doesn’t want to comply can go somewhere else, he added.

“That’s between them and their customers,” he said.

Asked what he would do if people don’t follow the recommendations and cases mount, Culp said he still wouldn’t issue orders similar to what Inslee has done.

“Does the Constitution say we can infringe on citizens’ rights if there’s a virus?” he replied. “The thing about the rule of law is, it applies to everybody equally.”

The constitutionality of the emergency orders for the pandemic have been challenged in multiple courts, and so far have been upheld. Culp is not swayed.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order to uproot Japanese Americans and place them in concentration camps during World War II, he said. It wasn’t until later that decision was discredited and damages were paid to the internees.

Culp says he would not sign any bills that he believes violate the Constitution or raise taxes. He would appoint department heads who shared his view of making government the servant of the people and reducing costs.

He faces some obstacles to getting that chance. He’s a Trump supporter in a blue state that went strongly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and where the president currently polls poorly.

Even with 36 candidates on the ballot, Inslee has more than 50% of the vote. Culp captured 17.5% of the votes counted by Friday.

He believes Republicans will shift to him because “the vote is between me and Jay Inslee” and he expects to pick up the independents and disaffected Democrats. It’s a formula that has been described before, with little success.

If elected, Culp would be the first resident of Eastern Washington elected governor since Clarence Martin won a second term in 1936. Because of the relative population growth on the two sides of the mountains, it’s rare for an Eastern Washington resident to win a state primary, let alone be elected to statewide office.

But Culp points out he has ties to both sides of the state.

He was born in Jefferson County and lived in Western Washington until his family moved to Republic for his last three years of high school. That’s where he met his future wife, Barbara Clough, and they married when they were both 17. He enlisted in the Army at 19, was a member of the 101st Airborne, rose to the rank of sergeant and was trained as a drill sergeant.

When he retired from the military, the family lived in Thurston County, where he worked in the building trades and eventually started a contracting business he had for about 20 years.

In 2010, a job on the Republic police force opened up. It was a dream he’d always had, because his father was a deputy sheriff. He applied and got the job.

At 49, he was the oldest recruit in the police academy, with most of his class half his age.

“A lot of them called me grandpa,” he said.

Republic had a three-person force when he joined, and that included him.

Because of budget cuts, it’s now a force of one – just him. He used vacation to campaign before the primary, and will go on leave to campaign for the coming months. The city has an agreement with the Ferry County Sheriff’s Office to pay a deputy to fill in when Culp is gone.

He believes his law enforcement experience gives him a better grasp of homelessness, one of the toughest issues facing the state. Homeless people who have drug problems need to be given the choice of getting treatment or going to jail; those who have mental health problems need treatment, and the state needs to rearrange priorities to spend the money to have more treatment facilities without raising taxes.

“We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” he said, echoing a long-held axiom of legislative Republicans.

Although he has appeared at a pair of events for the proposed 51st State of Liberty, a concept pushed by another strict constitutionalist, state Rep. Matt Shea, Culp doesn’t back the idea. (Shea endorsed someone else in the primary.)

Culp said he accepted the invitation to speak at the 51st-state events to sell his book and doesn’t back the idea of splitting the state, even though it could be done constitutionally.

“I’m running for governor of the entire state,” he said.

Editor’s note: Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move from her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama. The early version of this story listed the wrong city, due to a reporter’s error.