The marquee event at Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theater was the first debate in the Washington governor’s race. But it was the warm-up act that stole the show.
The two candidates vying to replace Rob McKenna as Attorney General took the stage first, and they came out swinging within minutes.
In his opening statement, Republican Reagan Dunn accused Democrat Bob Ferguson of voting to raise taxes on the King County council. The tone was set.
There were a few gasps in the audience as Ferguson revealed that Dunn once had to hire a lawyer to defend against some criminal activity that resulted in probation. Dunn dismissed the incident saying he was 17, doing “donuts in the snow” in a parking lot. And so it went.
Ferguson later accused Dunn of missing the most votes on the King County Council. Dunn responded that he had the second best attendance record of any councilmember. Ferguson shot back, alleging that Dunn may be present when attendance is taken, but that he often leaves before voting. Dunn replied that while Ferguson has the luxury of representing a district in the Seattle metro area, he has to work hard traveling to represent people in unincorporated King County.
By comparison, the governor’s debate that followed was less combative and more predictable. Republican Rob McKenna spoke in support of charter schools and the initiative requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes. Democrat Jay Inslee said charter schools drain resources, and the two-thirds initiative passed by voters is a “distortion” of democracy and majority rule.
So what explains that most observers were surprised to find the Dunn-Ferguson face-off more compelling?
One consideration could be expectations. Dunn and Ferguson are both on the King County Council (they sit side-by-side at meetings and have offices close to each other), and up to now, both have described their relationship as congenial. There was hardly any build-up to their appearance, compared to the high expectations for the governor’s debate.
Another consideration could be the economics of the Attorney General’s campaign versus the race for Governor. By this fall, millions of dollars will flow into the governor’s race, sucking all the oxygen from the room. The candidates for attorney general might have trouble making any headlines by then, which might encourage them to lay all their cards on the table earlier. The debate sponsored by the Association of Washington Business was arguably a key moment for the A.G. race, and both candidates played to win. McKenna and Inslee can afford to play it safe for now, knowing a slew of commercials will execute their sharper attacks this fall.
That said, some observations from our time in Spokane:
Gecko cameo: In a discussion about health care reform, McKenna delivered a line he uses on the stump that he would like to more competition and to “see the Gecko selling health insurance.” Inslee’s comeback: “The problem is the Gecko does not provide insurance to everyone.”
Framing your opponent: McKenna on several occasions refered to Inslee as “Congressman,” linking him to an institution that ranks low in public opinion these days. Inslee refered to “Romney/McKenna,” knowing that Romney isn’t polling well in Washington state against Obama. In the Attorney General race, Ferguson turned and addressed Dunn directly saying his opponent may have criminal experience, but not enough civil experience. For his part, Dunn said Ferguson has only “nibbled around the edges” of the criminal justice system. “You need someone who’s a pro,” Dunn said.
Vague is vogue? Both gubernatorial candidates pledged to find an extra billion dollars for schools in the next budget cycle, but details are few. Both Inslee and McKenna are banking on an economic recovery to boost state revenues. They both talked about closing “loopholes,” even though legislators have found that extremely difficult. Inslee says he will introduce “lean” techniques to improve efficiencies in state government, while increasing preventative care to cut health care costs. But how significant will the short-term savings be from health care and process improvement?
McKenna suggested shifting some administrative expenses into the classroom. A recent state audit found Washington school districts about middle-of-the-pack with other states on how much they spend on non-classroom expenses.
Another vague moment came over transportation and when to send a ballot measure to voters. McKenna said 2013 or 2014; Inslee said he’s not picking a “calendar date.”
Familiarity issue: Inslee and McKenna have been running officially for about a year, but our polls find a number of voters who are still in flux and not yet solidly in one camp or the other. The way one local television station here described the Attorney General debate, “you may not be familiar with the candidates as both of them are from the west side.” It’s a reminder that Dunn and Ferguson do not have much name recognition statewide and polling for the race is more likely to reflect a generic Republican and Democrat face-off.
All in all, the debates hosted by TVW’s Austin Jenkins were a good preview of the campaigns to come. When it was all over, Inslee scored points by sticking around to talk with reporters and the audience, while McKenna’s campaign tried to get their candidate out of the building quickly. And score one point for Dunn on political instinct at the very end, bringing his wife and young son on stage to wave to the crowd.
Then again, reporters will no doubt spend the next few days finding out more about those donuts in the snow.