OLYMPIA, Oct. 2.—Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee duked it out Tuesday night for the third debate of this year’s gubernatorial race, and it was the darndest thing. McKenna kept attacking the record of Inslee’s party in Olympia. And Inslee kept attacking the record of McKenna’s party in Washington, D.C.
That might seem even-steven, except that the two of them are running for a state office – in this Washington, not the other one. And for anyone who understands that there is a difference between the Legislature and the United States Congress, Tuesday night’s debate in Yakima became a mighty difficult thing to follow. McKenna attacked the performance of the Democrats who have controlled the governor’s mansion in this state for the last 28 years, shortchanging education while playing to the public-employee unions, and he suggested that Inslee will do more of the same.
But rather than arguing he’ll be different or even challenging the premise, whenever McKenna threw one of his punches, Inslee changed the subject – to the record of Republicans in Congress and recent gaffes by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Inslee even attacked McKenna for embracing a school-financing plan that is advocated by prominent statehouse Democrats as well as Republicans. The debate was a big switch from the two previous matchups in Spokane and Vancouver, where the two candidates appeared evenly matched and kept their sparring to state issues. The debate set the stage for what might be a decisive showdown Oct. 11, when Seattle television stations are planning to preempt network programming and blanket the airwaves.
Nationalizing the Race
There weren’t any big new ideas this time around – no bold policy proposals, no striking new visions. What stood out was the way former Congressman Inslee attempted to link Attorney General McKenna to generic national Democratic-Party talking points. On a question about immigration, Inslee said “the sad fact is that one of the parties has decided to use immigration and the fear of immigration as a wedge issue rather than trying to solve the issues.” Inslee added, “the Republican Party locked up in Washington, D.C. and refused to help us move forward with immigration reform.” McKenna responded that Inslee had 15 years in Congress to do something about it, and if it was such a big concern of his he might have stayed there.
Then came health care reform. Inslee said McKenna opposes expansion of Medicaid programs for the lower income population because he believes as Romney does that 47 percent of the populace sucks at the government teat. But McKenna hasn’t said that, or anything like it. Instead he argues that the state ought to seek a relaxation of some Medicaid rules in return for expanding the program. McKenna made that point a few times and Inslee barrelled on as if he hadn’t, leading the frustrated Republican to remark, “It is so much easier to debate someone when you make up their answer and then try to debate that instead of listening to what [your opponent] just said.”
Attacks Hunter’s Plan
The clash reached its lowest point during the traditional Q&A time, when candidates are allowed to ask one another questions. McKenna noted that when Inslee was a state representative in 1992, the state faced a situation similar to next year’s shortfall of a billion or more. In 1992 lawmakers cut education and programs for the elderly and children at the same time they raised taxes and gave a pay raise to state employees. Inslee voted yes on the deal, one of many such decisions over the last quarter century that have dramatically reduced education’s share of state spending. McKenna’s question: Why should anyone feel confident Inslee would do anything different in 2013?
But rather talking about his party’s record, Inslee instead attacked McKenna for supporting a “levy swap” plan that would supplant local voter-approved levies with the state property tax levy. The complicated proposal is supported by both Republicans and Democrats, including House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, as a way of satisfying a recent Supreme Court ruling requiring stable funding for K-12 schools. The plan wouldn’t raise more money overall, but it would raise tax bills in some areas, reduce them in others. Thus came Inslee’s response: “I am a little bit surprised by that question by a person who has proposed tax increases for hundreds of thousands of people on their property taxes already.”
It is a charge Inslee began airing in attack ads last week, also without noting that the most prominent advocate for the idea in the Legislature is his own party’s budget chief. Inslee appeared to attack all who support the plan. “That may be something for Olympia politicians to help them on paper, but it does not help the students in school,” he said. “This is a gimmick that doesn’t help move us forward.” Inslee instead touted his solution, a jobs plan he says would put so many people back to work during the next two years that tax revenues will boom and will eliminate any need for a tax increase. His plan involves incentives for green-energy and high-tech businesses. “I’m focused like a laser beam on jobs,” Inslee said. The hitch is that the candidate has yet to provide an estimate for the number of jobs he would create, the amount of money he expects to generate and the time it will take to see any return.
Same Old Ways
McKenna has been touting a rather different no-tax plan, which would cap non-education expenditures and shunt most growth in existing tax revenues to schools as the economy rebounds. In his summation McKenna offered his clearest statement yet of the theme he has been sounding since primary night, when he took the gloves off and began attacking Inslee as the agent of same-old same-old. “What you have is a clear choice in this election,” he said. “You can choose the path of the status quo, which Mr. Inslee represents, and not only that, which the people who are supporting him represent. So if you’re happy with having one of the highest unemployment rates in America, which is where we find ourselves now… if you think it is satisfactory to be under a court order to adequately and uniformly fund our schools, if you think our growing achievement gap is a good thing and that having higher education priced out of sight is acceptable, if you believe that endless deficits and endless demand for tax increases should continue, then by all means you have your candidate. But if you believe it is time for a new direction in Washington …that funds our schools first, not as an afterthought, that restores its share of the budget, I ask for your vote.”
Inslee’s last lines? He promised to move forward on abortion rights, environmental protection, gay marriage, health care reform and environmental protection. “What I would ask for your vote on is to make sure that we do what we have always done in our state, and that is to move forward. …We can do better. I ask you to check it out on jayinslee.com. I would ask for your vote.”