Crime and public safety are top of mind for candidates running for a House seat representing a legislative district that significantly shifted through redistricting.
The 6th Legislative District at one time was the only swing district in Eastern Washington. But after two rounds of redistricting after the 2010 and 2020 Censuses, results from the August primary suggests it leans strongly Republican.
Incumbent state Rep. Jenny Graham, a Republican, is facing Michaela Kelso, a Democrat who lives in Deer Park. In the August primary, Kelso finished with just under 39% of the vote, behind Graham, who finished with just over 61%.
The 6th covers most of northwest Spokane County, including Medical Lake, Airway Heights and Deer Park. It also includes parts of the city of Spokane, including the Indian Trails and Hillyard neighborhoods. Parts of the South Hill and Cheney were pushed out of the 6th during the latest redistricting approved last year.
Graham was first elected in 2018, and since taking office has made victim advocacy and public safety some of her top priorities. She faced criticism in 2020 after sharing conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine on Facebook and then left an explicit voicemail threatening an Inlander reporter.
Graham has again made public safety a top priority in this campaign. She said she is running to continue the work she started around creating safe and clean neighborhoods and being a strong voice for crime victims and their families.
“There’s definitely a need if you look at what’s going on in Washington state right now with all of the crime,” Graham said. “I’m trying to bring it back to the middle where we have balance in our justice system.”
Kelso grew up in Germany before joining the U.S. Army, where she served until 2018. She became active in the 7th Legislative District Democrats until this past year when redistricting moved her into the 6th Legislative District.
She said her experience in the military has helped her become a patient person who wants to work and listen to both sides.
Kelso’s top issues include education and housing.
“I feel that I’m much better suited to the position than the current officeholder,” she said.
Graham currently serves on the civil rights and judiciary; public safety; rules; and state government and tribal relations committees.
Regarding public safety, Graham criticized a number of bills that have been discussed in recent years in the Legislature, including several police reform bills passed in 2020. Those bills banned chokeholds and military equipment, limited the use of vehicle pursuits and police dogs, and outlined a process for when officers can use force.
Opponents of the bills say they have led to rising crime rates in Washington as police feel they cannot do their jobs. Supporters of the bills say law enforcement is exaggerating the amount they are limited by the bills.
She criticized the Legislature for not hearing a number of public safety bills that she sponsored. One of them would have removed eligibility for early release for people who commit violent crimes with a firearm.
Kelso said she does not know whether the new police reform bills are the sole reason for rising crime rates in Washington. She said the recent uptick could be due to a number of things, including the effect of the pandemic and isolation on people’s mental health.
“Just to say it’s police reform puts blinders on,” she said. “You can’t look at this stuff in a vacuum.”
She said in general she supports most of the police reform laws passed in recent years.
Graham also criticized the Legislature for their response to the State of Washington v. Blake Supreme Court decision, which said the state’s drug possession law was unconstitutional. Prior to the ruling, a person found guilty of simple possession could be sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 under state law.
In an attempt to address the ruling, lawmakers passed a bill during the 2021 session that made possession a simple misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. For the first two offenses, those possessing drugs would be diverted to treatment instead of jail.
But the law also says that the Legislature must come up with a long-term plan to address the state’s possession law by 2023 or all prosecutions for simple drug possession would be eliminated in Washington.
The Legislature is likely to take up the issue again this upcoming session.
Graham said she already has been a part of conversations surrounding the next steps but that there is a lot that needs to be done on the issue during a very limited session.
“There’s so many great aspects of that, but there’s great things that I believe I have the ability to do,” she said.
Graham said she does not support fully decriminalizing possession because she has heard from people who suffer from substance abuse that going to jail has helped them. She said she would support legislation that would increase penalties for people who manufacture and distribute drugs. She also said she wants to see more funding for mental health and substance abuse services to support people who need treatment.
Kelso said she is not in favor of decriminalizing all drugs but is definitely in favor of having alternatives to incarceration. She said she supports penalties for people dealing drugs, unless they are being forced to.
She said she wants to defer to mental health experts or substance abuse experts for their ideas for treatment programs.
Other issues on the minds of the candidates include housing and education.
Kelso called education in the United States “a mess.” She said the quality of a child’s education depends more on their ZIP code than their actual ability.
“It’s not equitable or even equal across the state or across the nation,” she said.
If elected, Kelso said she will work to ensure that schools are well-funded and that educators are getting proper wages.
On education, Graham wrote on her Facebook page that she believes parents should have a choice in where they send their children to school. She co-sponsored a bill in the Legislature last year that would have set up a family empowerment scholarship program to give families more schooling choices. It would have allowed parents to use the scholarship for home schooling or private institutions. The bill did not get a hearing.
On housing, Kelso said she wants to see more construction of multifamily homes, more medium density and mixed-use areas and less urban sprawl. On her campaign website, she said if necessary, municipalities should be able to implement rent controls to ensure residents aren’t priced out of their homes.
Graham said the state is going in “this crazy merry-go-round” where they are wanting to increase affordable housing but making it more difficult to get permits and adding in regulations and fees when buying or building a house. Specifically, she criticized the state Building Code Council’s decision to mandate heat pumps in new construction and the Legislature’s passing of new climate bills, such as the cap-and-trade program, that she said would add costs to homeowners.
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