With the Aug. 6 primary just around the corner, the League of Women Voters of the San Juans invited four of the five candidates vying for the 40th District state Senate seat to participate in a forum and answer voters’ questions. Candidate Greta Aitken was unable to attend the forum held at the San Juan Grange on June 8.
“For all other positions to be filled in November, there will be no primary because there are only one or two declared candidates for each position,” forum organizers said in a press release. The 40th District includes San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, currently holds the position. Running against Lovelett is Aitken, D-Burlington, who is an interpreter and social worker; Carrie Blackwood, D-Bellingham, a labor lawyer and professor at Western Washington University; and Daniel Miller, R-San Juan, a landscaper, who ran for the seat in 2016. Among the issues addressed were the ferry systems, public education, affordable housing, gun violence, the endangered Southern resident orcas and Chinook salmon.
Lovelett serves on the transportation committee and stated she supports hybridizing the ferries.
“There are a lot of ideas about how we can make ferries more effective,” Lovelett said. One of her main desires, she noted, is to ensure that regular riders — islanders — don’t bear the brunt of cost increases.
Blackwood said she believes ferries should be treated as a highway, fixing and replacing vessels done in a timely manner, just as the state repairs and maintains the roadways.
“I do understand the critical nature of being able to get home and off-island. Ferries need to be reliable,” Blackwood said.
Miller noted that he was the only candidate who depends on ferries as he lives on San Juan Island. The rising costs of ferries impact both islanders and tourists, thus the island economy, he explained.
“There are a lot of shenanigans and waste in Olympia and I want to take a look at that,” Miller said.
Each candidate spoke about the problems surrounding Washington’s current education system.
“Washington implemented a stop-gap solution,” Blackwood said. Funding for Washington schools has been an issue for years, with one of the more recent changes altering how district levies are implemented. “It was actually more harmful to schools, and now we have to unwind that.”
Blackwood added that she has been talking to school superintendents around the state and that they have brilliant solutions.
As a mother herself, one of Lovelett’s priorities, she said, has been working on legislation to untangle schools’ financial shortfalls.
“There is a disparity between reality and how San Juan County is viewed, tax-wise,” Lovelett said. San Juan County, she explained has high property taxes, but how those taxes are applied to the student body is skewed she explained.
Washington, Lovelett continued, is still trying to catch up with revenue lost during the recession, but the tax structure she said, needs to be changed. Lovelett also noted that there will be a forum July 25, and school district superintendents have all been invited.
“It’s a complex issue,” Miller said, noting that his sister works for the Lummi Nation School.
“Some school districts have a shortfall, but there has to be money there,” he continued.
Miller explained that citizens can’t continue absorbing higher taxes. People are at the breaking point financially, he said. Rather than a tax increase, Miller said he would instead take a close look at the state budget.
Affordable housing and income disparity were also brought up in the panel discussion.
Miller said Homes for Islanders and sweat equity programs — when homeowners help to build their own homes — are a good model for affordable housing projects. Blackwood noted that having a diversity of housing options benefits the community and ensures that all citizens’ lodging needs are being met.
Lovelett explained that affordable housing is an issue not just in San Juan County but across the state and nation. Development projects with the recently passed excise tax will help, she said, but getting to the root of the issue, providing good paying jobs and closing the income gap is also vital.
Gun violence was also discussed, with one attendee asking if the government could tell individuals that not everyone is a member of a militia and therefore should not be armed.
“I think the well-regulated aspect of the Second Amendment is often overlooked,” Lovelett responded. “We cannot continue to couch inaction on gun violence with ‘We are not going to overturn the Second Amendment.’”
She added that she will always support gun reform. She previously had marched with students in Anacortes during the March for Our Lives, as well as attended a vigil for victims of gun violence in school.
Lovelett supported a firearm buyback program in March, Senate Bill 5954, that provided $150,000 to buy guns back from anyone wanting to get their gun out of circulation.
“That funding was spent in one day,” she said.
Blackwood noted that she believed both conservative and liberal extremists were starting to arm themselves.
“So it’s time to talk about how we are going to protect our communities,” she said.
Miller explained that while he acknowledges guns can be dangerous, he supports the Second Amendment and does not believe in bans or buyback programs, including assault rifles.
“Assault rifles are used for hunting bear and elk,” he said.
When asked about the Southern resident orcas, Lovelett said she advocated that Be Whale Wise guidelines be taught in Washington’s boater safety classes. She has also been working on legislation to clean up and repair Washington’s watersheds for the sake of Chinook and the health of all fish. Hatcheries may be another way to get food to the whales, so that is also being looked at, she said.
Miller brought up government waste and said the issue is complex, and he would like to have congressional hearings to tackle the issues.
“It’s going to be a heavy lift,” Blackwood said. “The type of science we are relying on is old, and we have to take action quickly.”
Saving the Southern residents will take conserving all of Washington’s water systems, she explained, which means tough conversations with all segments of society.
“We have to have a hard conversation and make some tough sacrifices,” Blackwood said. Although Blackwood did not detail what those sacrifices might be during the panel discussion. Issues to preserve Chinook salmon could include water conservation to ensure rivers are not drained, or energy conservation to keep pressure off dams.
In closing, Miller said he would like to promote the 40th District’s array of agricultural products, like berries, wines and cheeses. He also mentioned he has concerns about certain medications that have been reported to cause Alzheimer’s.
“We need to study those and have a hearing on that,” he said.
In her closing statement, Blackwood noted that one of her assets as a mediator is bringing people together.
“Liz and I agree on a lot of issues,” she said. “What I would like you to consider is how to build and implement a strategy to be effective.”
Lovelett noted that she has been in public service for many years and cited her work on housing, the environment and climate change during her closing.