Spokane County Commissioner candidates Josh Kerns and Ted Cummings clashed over unions, the county’s handling of COVID-19 and whether elected officials have a moral responsibility to confront extremism in the course of their first debate Thursday.
During the debate, aired live on KSPS, Kerns, the Republican incumbent, emphasized his efforts to grow jobs and business by supporting the Northeast Public Development Authority, and his votes to use federal COVID-19 aid funding on food banks.
Cummings, a Democrat and Kaiser Aluminum employee, criticized Kerns for his support of requiring unions representing county employees to negotiate in public, and for not calling on controversial Spokane Valley state GOP Rep. Matt Shea to resign.
Shea, who .represents the 4th Legislative District, was accused of domestic terrorism for his role in an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016. He also participated in group chats that discussed surveillance of and violence against political opponents. Shea was expelled from the Republican caucus in December. This spring, he chose not to run for re-election.
Cummings said leaders have an obligation to confront extremism, even when it makes their job more difficult.
“There’s a time and place to draw a line, and this is one of them,” Cummings said. “When we have people in our community that feel threatened by our representatives, that’s outrageous and it needs to stop.”
Kerns said he opposed domestic terrorism, but said it was not his place to call for Shea to resign.
“Not once did I say I support what he is accused of doing,” Kerns said. “I do not support terrorism, I do not support domestic terrorism, I do not support hate, I do not support violence in our streets. I have stood strong in being a unified voice in our community.”
He added that criticizing other elected officials could impact his ability to win grants or transportation projects for the county, and said he doesn’t speak out against other elected officials. He also noted that Cummings did not call for Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby’s resignation when the state representative was charged with a DUI.
“As far as asking an elected official to resign from office, I don’t think that’s my place to do,” he said. “You’ve never seen me attack another elected official in my time as a county commissioner.”
Cummings said Shea’s and Ormsby’s actions aren’t comparable, saying that planning violence or intimidation is different than a DUI, which he said was a mistake anyone can make:
“That’s what you’re elected to do, to lead, and if it means calling out another person, you have a duty to do that if you really want to serve your people.”
The two candidates also disagreed over how the county should interact with the unions that represent its employees. In 2018, Kerns voted to require those unions to meet in open public meetings, arguing it improves transparency. Kerns also argued that open union negotiations were popular with the public, noting the charter amendment Spokane voters passed last year requiring city union negotiations to be public, saying “that resolution that we passed allows for the taxpayers to see how their taxpayer dollars are being used, and bargained with.”
He also accused Cummings and other proponents of private collective bargaining of wanting to negotiate in “dark back rooms with no eyes on them.”
Cummings is against the requirement, saying it compromises the negotiators’ ability to talk frankly. He also called Kern’s comments “Freedom Foundation propaganda.”
Kerns has repeatedly denied an ongoing relationship with the Freedom Foundation, an anti-union advocacy group that advocates policies nearly identical to what the county passed. Kerns has said he only did a video with the group and listened to a presentation they gave to all three commissioners.
Cummings called the requirement an “attack on the working class,” comparing requiring unions to negotiate in public to attempting to bargain in front of a stadium full of people.
“To say we sit in dark rooms and negotiate contracts and negotiate contracts is patently false,” he said. “It’s a way to get things done efficiently.
“What comes out of those rooms is in a contract, and that’s available for everyone to see.”
During the debate, Kerns and Cummings agreed on a few issues. Spokane County is the only local government that provides funding directly to the Spokane Regional Health District. Both Kerns and Cummings said they planned to, or would consider asking other cities to contribute to public health costs in the future.
They also agreed that now was not the right time to build a new jail. Kerns has expressed interest in a new facility in the past and said he would consider putting it on the ballot, but said such a proposal is likely not feasible for the foreseeable future due to the economic hardship caused by the pandemic. Kerns said when there is a new facility, he would like it to have room for more programs and have space to consolidate the county’s two current facilities into one.
Cummings said he wants inmates and those working in the jail to be safe, but said a new jail is likely not where the county should be spending money right now. He argued local officials should be looking into root causes of incarceration.