In their first general-election debate, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and GOP challenger Bill Bryant painted broadly different pictures of Washington state.
SPOKANE — In their first debate of the election season, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and GOP challenger Bill Bryant Wednesday offered vastly different views of Washington state and its progress during the past four years.
Seeking to build his case against Inslee, Bryant, a businessman and former Port of Seattle commissioner, painted a dark portrait of a “rudderless” state government and a flagging economy beyond the Puget Sound area.
He attacked the Democratic governor for the traffic problems on Interstate 405, the mistaken early release of thousands of prisoners and the state’s troubled mental-health system.
Bryant said that growing up he learned to always leave a campsite better off than how it was found. “Unfortunately, after four years, Gov. Inslee has trashed Washington’s campsite,” he said.
Inslee, a former congressman, fired back throughout the hourlong exchange with a sunnier view of the state.
He cited a transportation-improvement package and billions more in education funding enacted in recent years, along with lower unemployment and a strong economy, as reasons for optimism.
“We are fully entitled to that level of confidence,” Inslee said, adding later: “We are building a state like no other anywhere on planet Earth.”
The exchanges between the candidates seesawed between political issues and larger philosophical differences, but neither candidate delved deeply into specific policy proposals.
Nowhere was that more apparent than with the question of how to boost state spending on K-12 education, as required by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision in 2012.
Tackling that order is widely expected to be the most difficult task next year for elected officials.
Meanwhile, the state is being held in contempt of court for failing so far to provide a full funding plan.
That plan is expected to end the use of local school district property-tax levies to pay for basic education costs. Projections for a solution come with an estimated price tag of $3.5 billion every two years — meaning a host of politically uncomfortable choices.
Bryant accused Inslee of failing to lead the state to a solution in his first term.
“After four years, there is still no plan,” Bryant said.
After the debate, the challenger proposed that he and Inslee hold a debate focused solely on education funding.
Inslee countered by touting the billions of dollars he and lawmakers have poured into education in recent years, including for K-12 education, early learning and college tuition.
Continuing his efforts to tie Bryant to Donald Trump, Inslee criticized Bryant for belatedly distancing himself from the Republican presidential nominee.
After months of deflecting questions about Trump, Bryant announced this week he’d support neither Trump nor Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Bryant defended his silence by saying he didn’t want to estrange alienated voters who may flock to the controversial presidential candidate.
The governor also pressed Bryant on why he doesn’t support a ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by 2020.
Bryant said he backs raising the minimum wage, but not the “one size fits all” initiative. He supports allowing regional wage differences to avoid hurting businesses in some parts of the state.
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,” he said.
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 pointed to 250,000 new jobs.
He sought to avoid discussing problems at the state Department of Corrections — which recently fixed a long-running mistake that allowed thousands of prisoners to be freed early — or the state’s troubled mental-health system. He did, however, vow not to cut mental-health funding next year as lawmakers pour more money into K-12 education.
For his part, Bryant said he would appoint a secretary to the state Department of Social and Health Services — which oversees mental- health and foster-care services — who would focus on accountability.
Hosted by the Association of Washington Business, the debate came after Inslee racked up a double-digit lead over Bryant in the August primary, followed by a similar lead in a state poll released earlier this week.
In an undercard debate earlier in the day, Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman squared off against Democratic challenger Tina Podlodowski.