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State Rep. Jenny Graham battles for 6th LD seat against Democrat Tom McGarry amid national attention

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 11, 2020

Graham, left, and McGarry.
Graham, left, and McGarry.

Controversy surrounding state Rep. Jenny Graham has attracted tremendous attention in Spokane County and beyond, but the November election will test how – if at all – that has resonated with voters in her district.

Graham, the incumbent Republican, hopes to fend off a challenge from Democrat Tom McGarry in a race for a House seat in the 6th Legislative District. It leans Republican, but is the closest thing to a swing district that exists in Eastern Washington. Graham won the seat in 2018 by less than a percentage point.

McGarry has positioned himself as a politically moderate Democrat with a polar opposite demeanor to Graham. Graham is an emphatic advocate for the victims of crimes and their families, and an opponent of tax increases.

First elected to represent District 6 in 2018, Graham has shared doubts about a COVID-19 vaccine on Facebook and left an explicit and threatening voicemail for an Inlander reporter.

McGarry, a real estate attorney and Spokane County Fire District 9 Commissioner, has run a balanced campaign almost as much about who he’s not as who he is. The newcomer to state politics has criticized Graham’s response to the pandemic and describes himself as a “serious candidate for serious times.”

Graham shared a post on Facebook in June that implied Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, endorsed accelerating development of a COVID-19 vaccine without a clinical trial. The social media company flagged the post as untrue.

In September, Graham once again came under scrutiny after leaving Inlander reporter Daniel Walters a profane voicemail in August, stating “It’s on! If you think for one minute you’re going to pull this crap and you’re going to walk away from it, you’re nuts!” Her expletives gained worldwide attention, including from the Washington Post.

The message was in response to Walters’ reporting that Graham frequently, and inadvertently, uses social media to share links to websites that spread conspiracy theories.

Graham has taken to Facebook to defend herself and shine a light on human trafficking, stating it “happens to every day people living their lives until trafficking turns lives upside down.” Service providers for victims of human trafficking say while the issue is real, conspiracy theories like Q- Anon that have gained traction are counterproductive.

But it remains to be seen if voters will rebuke her for either controversy, and it’s unclear what lessons, if any, to take away from the primary election results.

McGarry finished a distant second behind Graham in the August primary election, earning 29% of the vote to Graham’s 55%. But McGarry was one of two Democrats on the ballot in the primary – fellow first-time candidate Christian M. McLachlan won 16% of the vote – while Graham was the lone Republican.

McGarry is confident heading into the general election. He believes his primary results were an indicator of success that has brought additional attention to his race and a number of new volunteers to his campaign, he told The Spokesman-Review in an interview last week.

His message has remained unchanged since the lead-up to the primary.

“I still think that serious times require serious people,” McGarry said, aiming to contrast his leadership style with Graham’s.

Graham declined to speak to The Spokesman-Review for this story unless it retracted previous reporting that characterized the voicemail she left Walters as “threatening.” The newspaper declined to issue a retraction.

In the primary, Graham largely avoided engaging in a back-and-forth with the McGarry campaign.

We have a lot of things that are happening right now that are so very important. My goal is not to divide people, my goal is honestly to bring us together,” Graham told The Spokesman-Review in July.

In that interview, Graham acknowledged COVID-19 is real but likened it to closing roads in response to traffic fatalities, a comparison health experts, including Fauci, have said is false. She also expressed concerns about the impact restrictions have had on businesses and mental health due to isolation and job loss.

“There are people that have died and that is so very, very, very sad. Even one death is too many, but we can say that about anything,” Graham said in July.

Graham said she was personally willing to wear a mask if it meant the economy could get up and running again, but she also lamented “mask shaming.”

She has signed onto letters drafted by her Republican colleagues that called for Gov. Jay Inslee to convene a special session, which he has turned aside.

McGarry believes the response to COVID-19 should be directed by health experts. In Spokane County’s case, that means following the lead of Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz to determine whether or not the county should be allowed to move to Phase 3of Inslee’s reopening plan.

He has declined to criticize Inslee’s response to the pandemic and supported the statewide mask mandate, saying it’s one of the clearest ways to stop the spread, along with “following the science” and hand-washing.

When it reconvenes, the legislature will be forced to reckon with a state budget shortfall that is expected to exceed $1 billion.

McGarry believes there will have to be spending cuts, but said education funding should be protected. The state should also look to raise revenue by closing tax loopholes, McGarry added.

“If we’re going to tax, we need to tax out-of-state corporations and billionaires that have enjoyed a lot of tax breaks,” McGarry said.

It’s unclear what Graham would support cutting from the state budget, if anything, but she has been a vocal critic of tax increases in the past.

The Legislature also is expected to address calls for police reform, and myriad proposals are likely to be up for debate.

Regarding police reform, McGarry said the doctrine of qualified immunity needs to be revisited and there need to be ways of ensuring employee accountability.

“What that’s going to look like, I’m not exactly sure,” McGarry said.

In addressing the wildfires that ravaged the state this year, McGarry identified the cause as “climate change, but it’s also a century or more of actual neglect of forest lands.”

Citing his experience as a fire commissioner, McGarry said the state risks losing its forest for future generations and harming the air quality if it does not properly manage forests.

McGarry, a real estate attorney, expects Inslee will extend his moratorium on evictions before it expires later this month.

“I’m troubled by it because I know a lot of people who are small business people, and they require the income that they get from their rentals to pay their bills, to pay their taxes,” McGarry said.

Graham is a staunch advocate for the victims of crimes, often harkening to her experience following the killing of her sister, Debra “Debbie” Estes, by the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, in 1982.

She has fought a proposed bill that would eliminate the death penalty in Washington. Although it’s effectively barred by the state Supreme Court in its current form, as well as a moratorium signed by Inslee, the death penalty remains embedded in state law and could technically be implemented in a way that abides by the court’s ruling.

Graham has fought similar legislative efforts that would give inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole a chance to have their punishment revisited. She excoriated Inslee for moving to release nonviolent inmates from state prisons to prevent the spread of COVID-19, arguing victims were not adequately notified.

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