By Rachel La Corte | Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Loren Culp met in their only debate Wednesday night, disagreeing immediately over the state’s response to the pandemic.
Because of COVID-19, the candidates participated in the televised debate from separate rooms at the Olympia headquarters of TVW, the state’s government affairs channel.
Inslee said his virus mandates that initially shut or restricted many businesses and required masks and social distancing have saved lives.
“Our fundamental duty is saving those lives,” Inslee said.
Culp, a small-town police chief in eastern Washington, has campaigned against Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions like mandatory masks, saying they infringe on people’s constitutional rights.
Inslee said his measures have saved lives at a time when President Donald Trump, who recently contracted the virus, has been downplaying its seriousness.
Culp, who said he had wanted to debate in the same room as Inslee, added if he were governor, he would have put out the information and let people decide what’s best for them regarding the virus.
“I firmly believe in individual freedom and liberty, I believe in safety,” Culp said.
“The problem is when we have one person sitting in the governor’s office telling everyone what they’re going to wear, whether they’re going to go to work or whether they’re not going to go to work, that’s the problem that I’ve had with this.”
Inslee said Culp hasn’t modeled leadership on the seriousness of COVID-19 during his campaign, citing his large rallies of supporters without masks or social distancing.
“It’s too dangerous to have a mini-Trump right now in the middle of this pandemic,” Inslee said. “Our efforts against this pandemic are working. It’s saving lives, and we ought to keep doing it.”
As of this week, there have been more than 91,000 confirmed cases in Washington since the pandemic began, and more than 2,100 people have died.
For most, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, although long-term effects are unknown. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Inslee, who is seeking to become the first incumbent elected to a third term in the state in more than 40 years, faced 35 challengers in the August primary. He received just over 50 percent of the vote, with Culp coming in second with more than 17 percent.
Governors in Washington state aren’t subject to term limits, though most haven’t served more than two terms. The last three-term governor in Washington was Republican Gov. Dan Evans, who served from 1965 until 1977.
Inslee is a former congressman and served as Democratic Governors Association chairman in 2018. His six-month run for president last year focused on climate change, an issue that has been central to his two terms as governor.
Culp criticized Inslee’s comments calling the recent wildfires in the state “climate fires.”
He said that while he doesn’t deny the climate is changing, “these are not climate fires, these are the result of very poor management on the state level.”
Inslee said anyone running for governor needs to have a plan to address climate change.
“We need someone who will not just follow science but will act on it,” Inslee said.
Both candidates were asked about Boeing’s decision to consolidate production of its two-aisle 787 jetliner in South Carolina and shut down the original assembly line for the plane in Everett, and Inslee’s comments that remaining tax breaks for the aerospace giant will need to be revisited.
“The citizens of this state should be treated fairly,” Inslee said.
Culp said Inslee’s mandates and regulations have harmed businesses, and he said he would work to make the state more business-friendly.
“Businesses like Boeing will want to come here and stay here,” he said
Inslee countered that the state’s rankings in reports on where to move or where to do business
“If this is such a terrible business place, why do these businesses keep coming here and growing?” he asked.
On a question about the frequent skirmishes between police and protesters during months of demonstrations against police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Culp said he would have taken a harder stance.
“We all have a right to peacefully assemble and speak our mind,” he said. “When it turns violent … that’s no longer a First Amendment right, it’s a crime.”
Inslee said he sent in the National Guard once it was requested by Seattle.
“You had tens of thousands of people peacefully protesting, tens of thousands marching without breaking windows, without starting fires and, in their midst, these folks came in and caused violence,” he said.
“This violence is unacceptable to all of us, from any source, and it should stop.”
On the state economy, which has seen revenues plummet during the pandemic, Culp said he would start with new programs or pay raises for state workers and look at individual programs for cuts.
Inslee noted that, earlier this year, he vetoed hundreds of millions in spending, and he said they would need to look at some cuts, but he defended his decision to not call a special session to address the budget before January, saying he didn’t want rush to make cuts before knowing the full fiscal picture.
Ballots will be sent to the state’s more than 4.7 million voters next week, and elections officials are expecting record turnout.