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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Challenger to longtime incumbent Rep. Joe Schmick focuses on health care

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Longtime state Rep. Joe Schmick, a Republican, has drawn two Democratic challengers this year for his seat representing southeastern Washington.

Pam Kohlmeier, a licensed physician and an attorney endorsed by the Spokane County Democrats, is focusing her campaign on the need for better rural health care and mental health services. The second challenger, Arianna Arends, declined to be interviewed.

The 9th Legislative District includes Asotin, Columbia, Garfield, Franklin, Lincoln, Adams, Whitman and southern Spokane counties. Schmick, a farmer and small business owner, has served in the state House of Representatives since 2007.

“I still believe I have something to offer to voters and the people of the 9th District,” he said.

Schmick said he’s running again for the same reason he first ran decades ago: to serve the many rural communities in the district.

“I saw a lot of my smaller communities suffering, and I wanted to do something about it,” he said. “I worked very hard to be accessible and open to meeting people. It’s a big district.”

Schmick, who lives in Colfax, serves on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee and said he has been working to improve health care.

He said he’s particularly concerned about the suicide rate among farmers and has been pushing to offer them customized counseling through the 988 system using local people.

“They want to talk to somebody local who is familiar with agriculture in this state,” he said. “We need to get more suicide prevention training to rural communities.”

He also serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Schmick said he’s also been pushing for the hiring of more police officers.

“We need well-trained police officers,” he said, noting the area is understaffed per capita.

He calls fentanyl a “scourge of society” and said it needs to be taken off the streets.

“It’s clogging up our jails,” he said. “We need to get these people helped.”

Schmick has often run for his seat unopposed in the past, including in the 2022 election, but said he welcomes his challengers.

“I look forward to the debate,” he said.

Kohlmeier grew up in the Midwest, mostly in small towns in Iowa and Ohio. Her family was living in a small town with no hospital when her mother had a medical emergency and died before she could get to the nearest hospital. The experience fueled Kohlmeier’s passion for rural medicine, and she became a doctor. She specialized in emergency room care for 15 years.

She and her husband, who is a cardiologist, moved to Spokane 18 years ago because they wanted to be able to practice medicine in a place where the focus was on helping patients, not on making money.

She said her interest in law was sparked after she faced a frivolous lawsuit early in her medical career. She continued working as an emergency room doctor for several more years, including at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, but left Sacred Heart in 2012. She attended Gonzaga Law School and became a licensed attorney in 2018. She currently works as a policy manager and hearings examiner for the Washington Medical Commission. While she is still a licensed doctor, she allowed her board certification to lapse and is not practicing.

Kohlmeier believes Schmick hasn’t been focused enough on improving mental health care.

“I think he hasn’t done enough to support the mental health needs in the community,” she said. “In 17 years, if he had a plan, he would have done it by now.”

Mental health care is particularly important to Kohlmeier. In 2022, her adult child, Katie, died by suicide. They identified as a transgender nonbinary person and often struggled in school.

“That’s part of why I’m doing this,” she said. “Access to mental health services is so hard right now. We struggled to get Katie the help that they needed. I want to try to help so no other mom goes through what I’m going through.”

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she volunteered in the community for more than 2,000 hours and helped create crisis standards of care.

“My commitment to Eastern Washington is there,” she said. “We need a physician in our state political system, and I will do all I can to improve access to care.”