Washington voters who like a clear contrast between their candidates should be ecstatic with their governor’s race.
Democratic incumbent Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Loren Culp have vastly different political resumes, campaign styles, approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic and overall views of the state of the state.
Inslee has a long political history, having previously served in the state House, in the U.S. House for two congressional districts and is seeking a third straight term, something accomplished only once before in state history. He also ran unsuccessfully for president before dropping out last summer, and is a constant critic of the current occupant of the White House.
Culp, the police chief of Republic, is running in his first campaign and says he got in the race at the urging of others after gaining attention for statements that he wouldn’t enforce a new voter-approved law that restricts the sale of semiautomatic rifles.
He bested 14 other Republicans of various stripes in the Aug. 4 primary, among them some more experienced campaigners like perennial initiative sponsor Tim Eyman and state Sen. Phil Fortunato. He got about half as many votes as Inslee, but the record number of candidates helped keep the incumbent’s total to just over 50%.
His insurgent campaign has two visible elements, an extensive sign operation around the state and a series of outdoor rallies, though campaign notices for the gathering usually line out the word “rally” and write “protest” above it. The events feature loud music from a rock cover band, short speeches by some other GOP candidates and a longer speech by Culp. They have much of the same fervor – although not the glitz or size – of a rally for President Donald Trump, whom Culp strongly supports.
American flags and some Trump 2020 flags often dot the crowd, which generally eschews face masks and social distancing. Comments from speakers that crime is up while the economy is down and state is careening toward socialism get strong applause. He also has a localized version of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, saying his goal for Washington is “get it back to the way it was in the ‘70s, ’80s and ’90s.”
That’s a much different state than Inslee perceives. His campaign appearances this year have been mostly “virtual” on Facebook Live, Zoom or other platforms which are “less joyous” for a person who says he loves meeting people and shaking hands.
But he gets regular media attention with news conferences usually held twice a week. He also travels to communities on state business or visits places that have recently experienced tragedies, such as the town of Malden after it was mostly destroyed by fire last month.
“I’ve never been so inspired by the people I work for,” Inslee said. “We’re seeing the best of Washington now as we’re pulling together to fight this COVID.”
Inslee cites reports from organizations including Price Waterhouse Coopers, U.S. News and World Report and Oxfam – most of them using prepandemic figures – that rate Washington as a top place for business or for workers. It gets points for having a high minimum wage, a family and medical leave policy, strong college aid programs and a new long-term care program that will be available later this decade.
“We had the best economy going into COVID. We’re going to have the fastest recovery because we are acting on science,” he said.
He wants the state to increase its Capital Budget, which pays for most nontransportation construction projects, as a way to boost jobs; continue to help small business and grow noncollege career education and apprenticeships. But the most important thing for an economic recovery is a COVID-19 recovery, Inslee said.
“The best way to open up Washington is to put on a mask,” he said.
The state had the first known death from COVID-19, but has had good compliance with pandemic restrictions and lately has been among the most successful in controlling the virus, he added.
Culp opposes Inslee’s emergency orders that require masks at stores and other businesses that serve the public. He insists he has nothing against masks – he doesn’t wear one at rallies – but said the decision should be up to the business and the customer.
“It’s a real virus. People die. The president and First Lady have been infected with COVID-19,” he told a crowd at Liberty Lake Friday night. He contends the way Inslee handled the virus “made it even worse.”
A business should be able to choose not to require its employees and customers to wear masks, he said, and customers who don’t approve could go somewhere else. Or it could require masks, and customers who don’t want to wear them could go elsewhere.
As governor he’d give the people the information from experts on what they should do then “let free citizens decide what’s best for them, their businesses and their families.”
Under the constitution, he contends, the state has no authority to require people to wear masks or do many of the other emergency measures it has to fight the pandemic. He’d end them if he is elected.
The fact that state and federal judges have upheld the emergency orders in legal challenges that questioned their constitutionality does not shake Culp’s belief. Judges can make mistakes, he said.
The Constitution is a cornerstone of Culp’s populist government philosophy and his genesis as a candidate. “I am ‘We the People,’” he tells rally crowds, quoting its opening phrase.
His standard man-of-the-people campaign attire is an unbuttoned sport coat, a white untucked shirt, a pair of jeans and boots. He sometimes arrives at rallies in the cab of a semi.
After Initiative 1639, the new limits on the sale and possession of semiautomatic rifles, passed in 2018 with about 59% approval, Culp said he wouldn’t enforce it as Republic police chief. That got him attention on the internet, local news accounts and eventually interviews on FOX News shows. He wrote a book, “American Cop,” laying out his views on the Constitution and law enforcement.
“The Constitution is not taught in law school,” he said at a recent rally. “Most lawyers don’t ever see the Constitution in law school.”
Instead, he said, they read case law.
Gonzaga Law School Dean Jacob Rooksby said students at that school take two courses, for six credit hours, of constitutional law.
They are among the harder courses, with the thickest case books that are regularly updated.
He acknowledged that students don’t start with the preamble and go through the Constitution and amendments line by line. Instead, they study cases that set precedents from the early years of the nation like Marbury v. Madison up to the present day.
Two people can interpret a part of the Constitution differently so reading the arguments of both sides and seeing how the case was decided is “where all the pieces come together,” Rooksby said.
Inslee, who often appears at press conferences wearing a mask, acknowledges that face coverings and other emergency requirements are difficult for people and businesses. But he contends the economy is coming back slowly as the majority of Washington residents are agreeing with him and the majority of expert scientific opinion while “ignoring Trump and my opponent.”
“I’m committed to science and common sense,” he said.
Another key disagreement between the two that has science at its base is climate change and its effect on the wildfires that scorched Washington this summer and in recent years past.
Inslee, who based his unsuccessful presidential run on making the fight against climate change the nation’s top issue, said it’s responsible for hotter drier summers that turn forests into tinder boxes and grasslands to near explosive levels of combustible materials.
Focusing on climate change only kept Inslee in the Democratic presidential scrum for about six months, but it earned him praise from environmental and progressive groups and respect from former rivals. This summer, as fires again gobbled up rural and suburban lands and smoke darkened cities, Inslee said it was a warning of things to come if environmental policies don’t change.
“This is not just about polar bears,” Inslee said. “This is a health issue. This is also an economic issue.”
Investments including wind turbines, greener building materials like cross-laminated timber and solar farms that will reduce carbon pollution are adding jobs around the state, in Eastern Washington as well as the Interstate 5 corridor, he said.
Culp doesn’t dispute that the climate changes over time – “There used to be an ice age, now look at us,” he said – but questions whether that’s caused by human activity and discounts dire reports of warming. In the 1970s, talk of global cooling was “all over the news.”
He is right that speculation about global cooling and even a new ice age were once the subject of multiple news articles and television reports, but that was not the strong consensus of scientists studying climate, which was a relatively new discipline. Some research papers pointed to data that suggested average temperatures were dropping while others pointed to data that suggested they were rising. The popular news media focused on dropping temperatures.
In recent years, the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is the earth is warming. Data from NASA shows some short-term drops in the global temperature index in the 1970s and 1990s. But the overall trend since the 1920s has been warmer temperatures, it said in a report “Nope, the Earth Isn’t Cooling.”
Rather than focus on global warming, Culp said the state should concentrate on forest management, do more preventive maintenance and stop closing roads that provide access for hunters and allow fire crews to get to fires quicker.
Inslee counters that the state budgets he has signed do spend more money for forest management on state lands, but some of this year’s fires have been on rangelands with grass and sage brush.
More of the forest land in Washington is owned and managed by the federal government than the state, and Trump has proposed cutting the U.S. Forest Service budget for several years, he added.
While Inslee has pushed for more housing for the state’s growing homeless population, Culp refers to it as a “so-called homeless crisis” that is really a result of mental illness and drug addiction. His solution is to arrest drug users and give them a tough-love choice of jail or treatment.
A major issue for much of Inslee’s two terms has been education, with the Legislature struggling to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling to provide adequate money for basic education. Between 2017 and 2019 Inslee and legislators negotiated and passed a series of changes to the property tax system to satisfy that ruling.
Culp said he wants the state to create “competition in the education system” to improve it by allowing parents to choose among standard public schools, charter schools, private schools and home-schooling.
“The money should follow the child,” he said.
It’s a line that usually gets cheers at his rallies, but could prompt a quick court challenge as the state Supreme Court has ruled general tax money can be spent only on public schools.
Although Inslee far outdistanced the rest of the crowded primary field, he did it primarily on the strength of huge vote totals in the metropolitan core of the Puget Sound. He collected smaller pluralities in Spokane and other Eastern Washington counties, with Culp a closer second in them and on top in many rural central Washington counties.
In his two previous victories, Inslee managed to top West Side fiscal conservatives in the general election by beating them on their home turf despite losing southwest and Eastern Washington. To do better east of the Cascades this year, he said he plans to talk to voters about the state’s successes on improving health care, the economy and education and possibly mention his years as a resident of central Washington, where he lived before and during his time in the Legislature and his first term in Congress.
Although he’s been on the Republic police force for more than a decade, Culp is presenting himself as someone with ties to both sides of the state. He was born and lived in Western Washington until he was a teenager when his family moved to Republic. He operated a contracting firm in the Olympia area after getting out of the Army.
The ability to claim ties to both sides of a diverse state is one of the few things the candidates have in common.
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