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Democrats running to represent Eastern Washington in Congress make their case on debate stage

The three Democrats running for CMR’s Congressional seat, from left, Carmela Conroy, Ann Marie Danimus and Bernadine Bank, share a laugh to begin the Democratic Congressional Debate Friday, March 22, 2024, at the Pence Union Building on EWU campus in Cheney.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Democrats seeking to represent Eastern Washington in Congress by flipping a seat held by outgoing Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, made one of their first pitches directly to the voting public Friday during a debate hosted by the Eastern Washington University Student Democrats.

As the race begins to heat up ahead of the August primary election, it was an early opportunity for the candidates to convince people who lean Democratic to support their campaigns.

While Republicans have been pouring into the race to replace their conservative colleague, several of whom consider McMorris Rodgers as a mentor, the Democratic field has remained unchanged for months, with no new candidates publicly announcing a run. Carmela Conroy and Ann Marie Danimus have been actively campaigning since last year; Dr. Bernadine Bank announced in January.

Candidates responded to questions submitted by various student organizations, professors and others from EWU, ranging from Israel’s siege of Gaza, abortion rights, gun control, the U.S.-Mexico border and equal protections for Black, Indigenous and disabled Americans.

There were relatively few substantive disagreements on Friday’s debate stage acknowledged by the three candidates, with each using their allotted rebuttal time to add to their initial responses and in some cases build off of the comments of the other candidates. Each agreed that the right to an abortion should be protected by Congress, called for tighter gun controls and supported higher taxes on the wealthy.

During what could have been the most pointed argument of the afternoon, when Danimus said she didn’t trust the U.S. Department of State to successfully broker peace between Israel and Palestine, Conroy, a former diplomat with the State Department, declined to respond.

Bank used her experience as a physician specialized in women’s and veterans health to highlight and personalize the health care challenges facing Americans, particularly in light of the end of federal abortion access protections. Though she left Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in the fallout from a flawed computer system, she argued that the fallout from the end of abortion rights has rippled throughout the medical field, pointing to clinics shuttering and doctors leaving neighboring Idaho in the wake of that state’s strict abortion laws.

“Each woman needs the freedom to decide if and when they want to start a family,” Bank said. “This is a very personal decision and no one should be asked to be making this choice for women.”

“The decline of women’s health is the biggest human rights concern of our times,” she added.

Conroy positioned herself as the candidate with the deepest knowledge of how the government functioned, speaking to her experience working under presidents of both political parties while arguing that today’s Republican Party had been corrupted by former President Donald Trump, who she called a cult leader.

“There are extremists in the Republican Party who only want things to work if it works for them specifically,” she said. “They only want it if they personally are going to be able to pocket the benefit.”

While Conroy often had policy proposals to respond to crises, with nearly every question, she also reiterated that the broader answer was electing more Democrats.

Danimus framed many of the problems facing Americans, such as gun violence and racial disparities in medical outcomes, as symptoms of income inequality and the influence of money in politics.

“What is keeping us from the American Dream, I don’t believe, per se, is the extremists, it’s the people that are in it for the money that allow the extremists to do what they do so they can stay in power,” Danimus said.

She noted repeatedly that she had pledged not to take donations from corporate PACs. She revealed her past significant health struggles and said she was running to not only alleviate the struggles of others, but because she had a vision of prosperity for all Americans.

Wading into an issue that has divided even members of their own party, the Democratic candidates were asked whether they would request a review of possible human rights violations by Israel, including an end to U.S. security assistance.

More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed and millions displaced during the siege of Gaza following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel.

Bank called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration “no longer tenable,” and said she would support putting qualifications on any further aid to that country. She added that she has called for an immediate ceasefire contingent on the release of hostages taken by Hamas, an organization she accused of “terrorist tactics,” during the Oct. 7 attack.

Conroy argued that an end to the war was being stymied by both Netanyahu and Hamas, who she said wanted to “commit genocide on each other” and had rejected a possible two-state solution. But rather than call for a review of possible human rights violations by the Israeli government, Conroy said she would support resuming financial support for a U.N. refugee agency and would focus on efforts of the State Department and CIA to pursue diplomacy in the region.

Danimus took a different tack, saying she would support not only a review of human rights violations by the Israeli military, but the U.S. military.

“We carpet -bombed Cambodia and Laos,” she said. “We started a 20-year illegal war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

She argued that the U.S. inflamed the conflict by selling weapons to Israel as well as to countries she alleges are funneling arms to Hamas, including Turkey.

Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has politically supported Hamas, and Israel has claimed to have intercepted arms being shipped into Palestine from that country.

“I don’t 100% trust the State Department to be making decisions that are in the best interest of humanitarian efforts,” Danimus said.

Eastern Washington University’s Student Democrats formed as a campus group last year, noted group President Steven McCray, a junior. Friday’s debate was the organization’s first official event.

The candidates each thanked the group for hosting the congressional debate.

Conroy noted that she would be making a donation to help the group hold future events, joking that it would be the only donation she would ask for that afternoon, a quip about the event’s ban on requesting campaign donations.