SPOKANE — Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Bill Bryant clashed over the minimum wage, education funding and Bryant’s failure to disavow Donald Trump until this week during their first debate.
Inslee, seeking a second term, painted an optimistic vision of an innovative state making progress in solving its problems. Bryant portrayed a state government in disarray, along with a flagging economy under Inslee’s “rudderless mismanagement.”
“We have made solid progress in the first four years,” Inslee countered during the debate Wednesday at Spokane Falls Community College. The debate was hosted by the Association of Washington Business, Greater Spokane Incorporated and Community Colleges of Spokane.
Among the biggest differences between the two was increasing the minimum wage.
Inslee said increases should be spread across the state, with full-time workers earning enough money to pay for basic necessities. Bryant countered the minimum wage increases should vary by region.
Inslee said he was “fully supportive” of Initiative 1433, the November ballot measure that would raise Washington’s minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by 2020.
Inslee said the wage hike was necessary to help working families make ends meet and boost the economy.
“We need consumers,” Inslee said.
Bryant, a businessman and former Seattle port commissioner, said he could not support a “one-size-fits-all” initiative.
He said wage hikes were necessary but should be tailored by region because businesses in rural areas can’t afford the level of increases in booming Seattle and other urban areas.
But Inslee said there is no place in the state where a family can survive on income of $1,500 a month. “You can’t do it in Spokane, Ellensburg or Washtucna,” Inslee said.
Bryant said he supported a minimum wage of more than $15 an hour when he was a port commissioner, but that did not make sense in parts of the state where growth was not as robust.
Bryant slammed Inslee for what he said was mismanagement of the state’s prison and mental health systems and for failing to address public education funding.
He said Washington had one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates at 5.8 percent, and noted the rate was higher in many rural counties.
Washington also suffered from bad traffic, especially in the Puget Sound region, Bryant said.
Efforts to restore the state’s iconic salmon and steelhead runs were moving backward, Bryant contended.
“You don’t deserve re-election,” Bryant told Inslee, a former long-time congressman. “It’s time for a new governor.”
Inslee replied with a much more positive view of the state, saying lawmakers had recently poured $5.5 billion more into education, had passed a statewide transportation improvement package and that the state enjoyed a strong economy.
But Bryant said much of the job growth was in the “Bainbridge to Bellevue corridor” in the Seattle area. He noted Stevens County, north of Spokane, had 10 percent unemployment.
Bryant blamed excessive government regulations for stifling business growth and said he would order a temporary moratorium on new regulations if elected.
Inslee said unemployment was down in every county of Washington since his election, and he pointed to 250,000 new jobs in the state.
He said he was focused on improving the economy of Eastern Washington, in part because he spent nearly two decades as an attorney in Selah near Yakima.
When it was his turn to ask Bryant a question, Inslee criticized his opponent for failing for months to speak out against Trump, the Republican presidential candidate.
Inslee asked Bryant why he stayed silent when other Republicans upbraided Trump over a series of controversial statements, including recent remarks directed at the Muslim family of a fallen U.S. soldier.
Bryant announced this week that he would not vote for Trump.
Pressed further by Inslee, Bryant said it was a difficult situation. He said Trump has appealed to voters who feel neglected by the mainstream political system.
“I was afraid that if I came out against Donald Trump,” those voters “would think that I abandoned them, too,” Bryant said.
Bryant criticized Inslee for failing to fully fund public education, and he said he wanted to ensure all kids had an equal chance to succeed.
“After four years, there is still no plan,” Bryant said.
But Inslee pointed to billions of dollars in new spending for education, including teacher salary increases.
An Elway Poll released this week showed Inslee leading Bryant 48 percent to 36 percent.