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McMorris Rodgers, Hill debate abortion, election integrity, policing and more during televised debate for 5th Congressional district seat

Oct. 20, 2022 Updated Fri., Oct. 21, 2022 at 6:41 p.m.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Democrat Natasha Hill answer questions during the debate at KSPS studios on Thursday in Spokane.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, left, and Democrat Natasha Hill answer questions during the debate at KSPS studios on Thursday in Spokane. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The two women vying to represent Eastern Washington in Congress next year put each other on the defensive during a televised debate broadcast Thursday in Spokane.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, seeking her 10th term in Congress, attempted to tie her Democratic opponent, Natasha Hill, to what she sees as the failed policies of the Biden administration on public safety and plans for “radical” laws addressing abortion.

Hill, at times turning directly to address McMorris Rodgers, accused the congresswoman of being beholden to donors over the people of Eastern Washington and failing to tamp down election conspiracy theories.

The congresswoman, who after supporting an effort to challenge the 2020 presidential election voted to certify its results following a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, pushed back on the claim that she supported conspiracy theories promoting the idea that President Joe Biden did not win the election.

“It’s a lie to say that I believe in ‘the big lie,’ ” McMorris Rodgers said. “What happened in November 2020 raised a lot of questions. There were election procedures that were changed in state after state without elected representatives making those changes.”

McMorris Rodgers said legislation is needed to “clean up” voter rolls and restore confidence in the system. But Hill said McMorris Rodgers and other Republicans had not provided any evidence to support their claims and undermined confidence in elections by repeating them.

“Even when those were rejected, and didn’t pass muster, we still have Republicans like our current congresswoman that won’t accept that,” Hill said.

Hill defended her statement made during the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer that has become fodder for GOP attack ads against her. In that 2020 statement, Hill said that law enforcement was originally created to protect property, including slaves, and that officers were “complicit in the worst gang this country has ever seen.”

“What we haven’t done is build systems of accountability and discipline into these agencies,” Hill said in the debate.

McMorris Rodgers said Hill’s statement made it difficult to recruit new law enforcement officers.

“It’s impacting morale, and ultimately leading to our communities being less safe,” the congresswoman said.

She repeated her campaign charge that Democrats want to reduce funding for law enforcement, prompting Hill to say, “That is not true,” while McMorris Rodgers continued speaking. Hill also said the statement was made in her “individual capacity” and did not represent her campaign platform.

The candidates also disagreed on abortion policies following the Supreme Court’s overturning of the constitutional right protecting an abortion. When asked if they support restricting abortion on the federal level, McMorris Rodgers noted she has supported bills that bans abortion after 20 weeks with exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

“My goal is to protect as many lives as possible, and to make sure that women and children feel like they are supported at every stage of life,” said McMorris Rodgers, who said in a June interview that she opposes abortion from conception, except in cases in which a mother’s life is at risk.

Hill said she doesn’t support a “one-size-fits-all rule” and she would support codifying the protection in Roe v. Wade as Biden has pledged to introduce after the midterm election. Hill said, in response to a follow-up question, that she would support restrictions on abortion “similar to what we have in this state,” referring to Washington’s protections for an abortion “prior to viability of the fetus.”

Both candidates said they had concerns about current regulations for speech online. McMorris Rodgers has been an outspoken critic of social media platforms, including Facebook, arguing their rules restrict conservative speech and they should be more accountable for their decisions regarding what’s posted and what isn’t.

“It’s clear that big tech has become more focused on controlling political speech or the narrative that they want to promote,” she said. She added that technology platforms should be held accountable for the trafficking of drugs, specifically fentanyl, that occurs under their watch.

Hill said tech firms should be accountable for hate speech that occurs on their platforms. A 1996 federal law gives social media companies wide latitude in determining where those lines are drawn, and Hill said Congress “needs to address that” to ensure hate speech cannot spread online. She also accused the congresswomen of “exploiting family trauma” by running campaign advertisements that feature those in the community who have lost a loved one to fentanyl poisoning while suggesting Congress has had more than a decade to combat the opioid crisis.

“The fact of the matter is that we have record amounts of fentanyl, and fentanyl analogues now – different parts of fentanyl – coming across the border, ultimately from China, and destroying innocent lives,” McMorris Rodgers said. She accused Democrats of blocking legislation that she said would address the problem by classifying fentanyl and its analogues as the most dangerous drugs under federal law, leading to longer prison sentences for those arrested with it.

A question about aid to Ukraine, and comments this week from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that the next Congress might not send a “blank check” to the country to aid its defense in the war against an encroaching Russia, led to charges about inflation and energy costs in the U.S. McMorris Rodgers said she supported Ukraine’s efforts and has voted for aid packages before, but she’s also concerned about spending.

“Perhaps our leader, Kevin McCarthy, may have been referring to the number of blank checks that seem to have been signed by Congress over these past few months,” McMorris Rodgers said.

“We need to unify around these issues,” Hill said in response, “and make sure that we’re focusing on what our long-term commitment is and what it’s going to cost.”

Hill again pointed to McMorris Rodgers’ campaign ads tying high gas prices to the Biden administration.

“We’re also seeing price gouging and record profits by oil companies,” Hill said. “Those are your donors, congresswoman, and I would expect that you can have some influence there.”

McMorris Rodgers said the Biden administration has refused to allow for more energy production on U.S. soil and instead sought supplies from overseas.

“American energy production is so important to our economy, to our standing in the world, and ultimately bringing down gas prices here in the United States for hardworking Americans,” the congresswoman said.

The debate aired 7 p.m. Thursday on KSPS-TV, and is scheduled to rerun Friday at 9 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., Sunday at 10 a.m. and Tuesday at 6 a.m. on the public broadcaster’s “World” channel, 7.2 on digital broadcast.

Ballots for local elections are being mailed this week. Election Day is Nov. 8.

Editor’s note: Kip Hill was a journalist on the panel asking questions of Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Natasha Hill.

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