Schrier and Rossi staked out contrasting positions on abortion rights, immigration, climate change and more. How to react to the policies of the Donald Trump administration was a frequent undercurrent.
ELLENSBURG — Democrat Kim Schrier attacked Republican rival Dino Rossi as a protector of the rich who would fail to provide a check on the Trump administration, while Rossi portrayed her as a liberal protester who supports higher taxes as the two clashed Wednesday night in their lone debate in Washington’s hotly contested 8th Congressional District race.
Before a crowd of about 700 in a Central Washington University auditorium, Schrier and Rossi also staked out contrasting positions on abortion rights, immigration, climate change and more. How to react to the policies of the Donald Trump administration was a frequent undercurrent.
Schrier, a first-time candidate, referred to herself again and again as “a pediatrician and a mom,” saying that’s a perspective lacking in Congress. Winning a coin toss to speak first, she wasted no time going after Rossi, the former state senator and three-time unsuccessful candidate for governor and U.S. senator.
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“Unfortunately, working for special interests and the wealthiest is exactly what my opponent has been doing as a career politician. He was a Trump delegate, and he will always put the president and his policies above yours,” Schrier said in her opening statement.
She added that her opponent was “the same Dino Rossi who has always opposed a woman’s right to choose.”
Rossi took a softer tack during his opening remarks, relating his often-repeated tale of his family’s immigration from Italy to Black Diamond and his own youth growing up poor and working his way into the real-estate industry.
But as the moderators turned to health care, he quickly went on the attack, criticizing Schrier for seeking “a government takeover” that “will destroy Medicare as we know it.” He pointed to a think tank estimate that said a “Medicare for all” system as proposed by some Democrats would require major tax increases.
Schrier said that was a distortion of the plan she has supported, which calls for a public option allowing people to buy into Medicare plans offered alongside private insurance.
She accused Republicans of sabotaging the Affordable Care Act and its protections for pre-existing conditions, pointing to the Trump administration’s recent decision to no longer defend that protection from legal challenges.
Rossi touted his legislative experience, saying he’s shown he can work with Democrats. He said Schrier has not demonstrated that skill and “has marched in more angry protests in Seattle than parades in the district.”
Asked directly whether he supports the right to legal abortion, Rossi said he has “never run on that issue” but doesn’t believe abortions are appropriate except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. He then pivoted to talking about his record of protecting the mentally ill and other vulnerable people.
Schrier said regardless of whether Rossi wants to focus on the subject, “it is a really important issue for women in this district” at a time when “Roe vs. Wade is threatened and the Supreme Court is going hard right.”
Asked about the threat to jobs of automation, Schrier said while the danger is not yet here, she would be willing to consider options such as a universal basic income, which some have suggested if too many jobs vanish. Rossi said he opposes that concept.
On the Trump administration plans to encourage more burning of coal, Rossi avoided taking a clear position, shifting to an attack on Schrier for allegedly telling a Republican legislator she would support breaching hydroelectric dams to help protect threatened orcas.
Schrier criticized the Trump administration’s climate policies, such as pulling out of the Paris climate accords — and she mocked Rossi for bringing up an environmental award he received more than a decade ago, saying it was “so old it could have its own driver’s license.” She noted the environmental group has endorsed her.
On immigration, Schrier said Rossi’s calls for “a tall fence with a high gate” sounded like Trump’s border wall. She said she supports a stand-alone bill to protect so-called Dreamers brought to the country as children. Rossi said those protections should be tied to money for border security.
Schrier said that the United States needs comprehensive immigration reform and that current provisions for guest workers can lead some to a kind of “indentured servitude.” Rossi responded, “I don’t believe our farmers are abusive” and said the guest worker system should allow migrants to work here “and then go back where they came from.”
Schrier is trying to flip the district for the Democrats for the first time since its creation after the 1980 Census. Regarded as a safe seat for Republicans in recent years, it was thrown up for grabs last September by the retirement announcement from seven-term U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn.
The race is on pace to shatter spending records for a House seat in Washington, with the candidates raising a combined $9.4 million and outside groups pouring in another $9 million. The spending has flooded Facebook feeds and TV screens with foreboding ads portraying the candidates as greedy, corrupt or politically extreme.
The debate was sponsored by the Washington State Debate Coalition, a nonpartisan alliance of media, educational and civic organizations. It was the only scheduled debate or forum with both candidates. Schrier had sought additional debates, but Rossi declined.