U.S. Rep. Denny Heck and state Sen. Marko Liias, both Democrats, tackled bipartisanship, coronavirus, public education and the state budget in Washington’s lieutenant governor debate Thursday night, which followed the second and final presidential debate.

While both candidates generally agreed on most issues, Heck, a moderate Democrat who has represented the Olympia area in Congress for the past eight years, worked to remind voters of his “unique depth and breadth of experiences” at the state and federal level. Similarly, Liias, who represents the Lynnwood area in the state Senate, argued that his recent work in Olympia makes him more qualified to bring “bold, transformational change” to the state.

The Washington State Debate Coalition hosted a debate for lieutenant governor between contenders Denny Heck and Marko Liias on Thursday, Oct. 22. Watch live here:

Moderators dedicated the first part of the night to both Democrats’ plan to connect with Republican voters. In response, both drew attention to their belief in the importance of bipartisan work.

Liias, who said he plans to break down barriers by becoming the first openly gay statewide executive, said he believes “one label doesn’t define us.”

“To face the challenges in front of us, we have to be able to bridge that partisan divide,” he said. “And my record in the Senate for the last six years has been working with Democrats and Republicans.”


Heck made a similar point, drawing attention to the COVID-19 crisis, which has affected all Americans regardless of party, he said.

“It’s going to take somebody who is committed to basing our decisions on science and data to be able to combat it,” he said. “And if we want the economy to recover, the only way … is to defeat the virus.”

As moderators moved the discussion toward the state budget, which is projected to be up to $4.4 billion short over the next few years, Liias said we shouldn’t approach the budget conversation with a “cuts approach” and supports closing “abusive big business tax loopholes.”

In response, Heck said his most important value is to protect the vulnerable and he wants to rework the state’s tax system, which is “already the most regressive in the country.”

Both said they would not seek reelection as governor if the current governor left office. They also agreed the state needs to provide students with sufficient devices and technology during the pandemic, and that teachers and staff members must have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) before schools consider welcoming back in-person learning. 

The candidates discussed their willingness to work with the state’s tribes and to represent farm operators on an international stage, and they denounced Boeing for its decision to move its 787 line to South Carolina.


“After 40 years in politics, Congressman Heck has just become too close to the special interests. … I have been a proven bipartisan leader in the Senate,” Liias said in his closing statement. Heck ended the night by reminding Washingtonians to exercise their right to vote.

Heck, who led the primary election, came into Thursday’s debate with a 2-1 advantage over Liias, according to a new poll released by the Northwest Progressive Institute. About 32% of respondents said they were voting for Heck, while 16% said they supported Liias. About 52% said they weren’t sure, the Thursday poll reported.

The institute’s director noted that because no Republicans were in the final race for lieutenant governor, the poll reported a higher number of undecided voters.

Washington’s lieutenant governor, one of nine statewide elected officials, presides over the state Senate when the Legislature is in session and acts as governor when the governor is out of state. In recent years, the role has also included a focus on international relations.

The lieutenant governor would also assume the gubernatorial office if the governor dies or leaves office. Presiding over the Senate, the lieutenant governor settles procedural disputes and breaks ties, and chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, which can kill any piece of legislation.

This election year, there’s a slight chance the winner of this race could become governor as soon as next year if both Gov. Jay Inslee and Joe Biden win their races, and Biden picks Inslee for a role in his administration. Inslee, however, has said he would decline such an offer.

The debate, which was held by the Washington State Debate Coalition and TVW, was moderated by KING 5’s Jessica Janner Castro, KOMO’s Michelle Esteban, Northwest Public Broadcasting’s Scott A. Leadingham and TVW’s Mike McClanahan.

Seattle Times staff reporters David Gutman and Daniel Beekman contributed to this story.