Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and his Republican challenger Loren Culp offered starkly different visions for how they would govern Washington in a debate Wednesday night, clashing on issues from how to stop the coronavirus, to the state’s role in climate change, to how to limit crime and gun violence.
On issue after issue, Culp advocated for less government involvement, leaving responsibility to individuals, while Inslee made the case for the government to actively address the problem.
Culp, the police chief of tiny Republic, in Ferry County, repeatedly accused Inslee of overstepping his authority as governor in mandating business closures and mask-wearing to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Inslee, who is seeking a third term, called Culp a “mini-Trump” and repeatedly tied him to the president’s policies, specifically Trump’s push in the courts to have the Affordable Care Act thrown out.
Culp has been hosting rallies across the state with little social distancing and few masks in sight. Wednesday he said he was not personally opposed to masks but didn’t think it was the government’s role to mandate, or even encourage, their use.
“Let the free, individual citizen decide what’s best for their families and their businesses,” he said.
Inslee countered that the measures he’s put in place — restrictions on the operating capacity of restaurants and other businesses and mandated masks for almost all Washingtonians in shared, public spaces — have slowed the virus and saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives.
“Are we going to step up and fight the COVID pandemic or are we going to belittle it, ignore it and, in some sense, surrender to it?” Inslee said. “It’s too dangerous to have a mini-Trump right now, in the middle of this pandemic.”
Because of coronavirus concerns, the debate took place in three separate television studios — one for each candidate and a third for the four moderators.
The difference in experience between the two candidates could hardly be more vast.
Inslee was a part-time city prosecutor, served in the state House for four years, in Congress for two years, as a presidential appointee in the federal government, in Congress (in a district on the other side of the state) for 14 more years and as governor for eight years. Along the way he also lost elections for Congress, for governor and for president of the United States.
Culp has never run for elected office. He served four years in the Army, started a construction business and, at age 49, changed careers to become a police officer in Republic. He is currently the police chief and only officer in the 1,100-person town.
Culp tried to use the difference to his advantage, accusing Inslee of having been in government too long and saying he would act as governor in a “servant role.”
On the state budget, which faces a shortfall in the billions of dollars, Culp has said that taxes should not go up. Pressed on what should be cut, he only said he would look at each program but would begin with cutting “anything that has the word ‘study’ in it.”
Inslee said he couldn’t yet say whether he would propose tax increases to fill the budget hole.
Whoever’s elected, it will represent a rare victory, something that hasn’t happened in Washington in decades. Inslee would be the first Washington governor elected to a third term in 48 years, since Dan Evans in 1972. Culp would be the first Republican elected governor of Washington in 40 years, since John Spellman in 1980, and the first governor elected from Eastern Washington in 88 years.
Inslee based his presidential campaign last year on climate change. Culp all but dismissed climate science. He said that in the 1970s, he remembers talk about how the climate was getting cooler.
“I don’t deny that the climate changes,” he said, adding that climate change had not played a role in the string of wildfires that burned through Washington and the West Coast last month.
Asked what he would do to address climate change, Culp said he loves “clean water, clean air and clean land” and “we need to get bureaucrats out of the way.”
Inslee, who signed into law legislation last year improving energy efficiency in Washington buildings and moving the state to carbon-neutral electricity by 2030, called climate change a “health issue.”
“I don’t know what’s worse, denying climate is caused by carbon, or admitting it and doing nothing about it,” he said. “Chief Culp has proposed zero.”
Inslee, on at least three occasions, noted in his answer that 800,000 people in Washington have health care under the Affordable Care Act, and they’re at risk of losing that because of a Republican-led, and Trump-supported lawsuit.
Answering a question about systemic racism, he noted the staggering wealth gap between white families and Black families and then said, “This world of Donald Trump and Chief Culp means we will not have health care for many people of color.”
Culp, who has said he does not believe there is systemic racism in policing, said he wants everyone in the country to have equal opportunities. And he noted that Democrats have led the state of Washington for decades.
“If the system is racist, who has been in charge of the system in Washington state for the last 35 years?” he said.
Culp, who first gained notice for refusing to enforce a voter-passed initiative that raised the age to buy a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21, said the law was, in his view, unconstitutional. Courts have, so far, disagreed.
“We don’t have a gun violence problem in this state or in this country,” he said. “We have a criminal violence problem. We need to focus on criminals and put them in jail where they belong.”
He faulted Inslee for ordering some inmates released from state prisons, to reduce crowding, in the early days of the pandemic.
“Chief Culp talks about law and order,” Inslee responded. “I don’t understand why he refuses to enforce the constitutional law that protects us from gun violence.”