Similarity and Partisan Fears

Alicia Rule and Luanne Van Werven

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

In a county often characterized by its divisions, the campaigns for Whatcom’s seats in the state House of Representatives show a remarkably unified focus on issues—fighting through pandemic crisis, and then carefully picking through the state’s damaged budget for priorities.

Incumbent Luanne Van Werven and her challenger Alicia Rule share similar backgrounds and mutligenerational histories in Whatcom County. And fundamentally the Republican and Democrat share similar concerns but intend to approach solutions differently.

“When I was first elected I expected to go to Olympia and to come into this, you know, partisan clashing of ideas,” Van Werven reflected. “I think maybe we see what’s going on at the federal level and we assume that’s happening here in the state, too, but the truth is that in Olympia we work together across party lines and we recognize that if we want to advance policies that are good for our communities, for our districts, that we need to work together across the aisle.

“It is a very cooperative bipartisan atmosphere and you know we obviously have our differences when it comes to philosophical issues like the budget—it is probably the biggest example, but that would be the operating budget and so that is the one area where there’s that bright red line about the difference of ideas—but with our capital budget our transportation budget and for most of those bills it is a very cooperative experience and I would just say that the majority of the bills that come off the house floor, come off unanimous, so that is something I’ve really appreciated being in Olympia,” Van Werven said.

Rule’s experience on Blaine City Council has similarly shaped her views, there is much agreement about municipal priorities. But the small things matter, too.

“People care a lot when their potholes are filled and you know sometimes it’s just a matter of something seemingly small like saving six trees in a park,” Rule said, “and those things matter too.”

The deep roots of family in the community inform both Van Werven and Rule.

“Some of the values that they have passed down to us through the generations are, you know, we work hard and when times get tough, we help each other out and we stick together and we don’t leave anyone behind,” Rule said. “And I think those values still generally remain here and it makes, for me, a special place that I want to raise my kids here because of that.”

Where the candidates diverge is in their views of the role state revenues should play in achieving community goals. For Van Werven, that should come in the form of tax relief; for Rule, the government should play a more proactive role in assisting families in a pandemic crisis.

“We do have a budget crisis looming ahead of us,” Van Werven predicted of the impacts of COVID-19 and the shutdown of the economy. “I wish Gov. Inslee would have called us back for a special session and we could have dealt with some of these issues before they got worse. I’m afraid that if we don’t go into a special session that in January when the Legislation goes back we’re going to face some deeper cuts and harder decisions when it comes to our budget. So a budget crisis moving into the next session is going to be our number priority” she said.

Efficiency and the elimination of wasteful spending have also developed into core themes of the Van Werven campaign. For Van Werven, budgetary reform entails an acute focus on routing out ineffective government programming.

“We need to acknowledge that the current state spending far outpaces population growth and cost of living,” Van Werven said. “So from my perspective, I believe we would say this is true across political party boundaries, but we need to scrutinize every part of the budget, we need to fund our priorities, and then we need to make targeted reductions where there is waste.

“I just think at this time taxing our families and our business when they are struggling should not be a consideration,” Van Werven said.

“I think that one of the primary responsibilities of our state Legislature is to provide opportunity,” Rule said. “So it’s really incumbent upon us to provide opportunity for good living-wage jobs and I think we can do that moving forward by investing in infrastructure and ultimately that actually comes back to our economy—our local economy—much better than tax cuts do.”

Rule said that while she was generally satisfied with the state response to COVID-19 and the leadership role the governor played in establishing public health guidelines, more work needs to be done.

“There are certainly some holes,” Rule admitted, “it’s not perfect. We’ve never really in our lifetimes been in a pandemic like this so I do tend to worry a lot about the unemployment gap, people who need unemployment need it now. And so that’s something that needs to be fixed right away. But overall I just appreciate that our governor has put our health first and we have seen other states where that has not been the case. The really missing piece,” she said, “is that we haven’t had the federal response that we need. And without that it’s really challenging for states to act on their own, let alone cities.”

“I think what’s been the hardest of all has been this changing metric, just the changing debate about this,” Van Werven said. “First, it was all about flattening the curve—well, we’re six months beyond that. And then it was about, oh, keeping our hospitals open, making sure that they were available to take an overflow of patients and we handled that very well. And then it became about how many people are dying. And even the CDC, the data through August, indicates the deaths have moved below the threshold for excessive deaths.

“We are just trying to deal with this pandemic,” Van Werven said, “but yet at the same time recognizing that to keep our economy shut down is hurting a whole lot of people. And I think Whatcom County at this point isn’t as dramatically impacted by COVID, so I think we should resume opening into Phase 3 and Phase 4. We can still encourage safety and precautions at every opportunity, especially for our vulnerable population. We understand now who is most impacted.”

Rule sees a role for increased social services to help with recovery.

Behind complaints about economic shutdown, “I’m hearing increasing concerns about mental health needs,” Rule said. “We already knew we had a mental health crisis before COVID even hit and now we are in a position where we can’t even connect together that we are really meant to. We have brain science that humans are meant to be connected, we long for it. And this is really hard on everybody. It’s just hard. It’s necessary, but to acknowledge the fact that it’s hard on everybody is critical to understanding how we move forward while taking care of our mental health.

“Mental health and social services, if we fund them wisely and use our research to base our decisions, can be big money savers,” she said. “If we wait until the point of needing a first responder whether it be, you know, a firefighter, a police officer, or our emergency rooms, those are the absolute most expensive people to send as a response and they are not the right people.”

Commenting on the topic of public safety policy reform, Van Werven observed, “I was privileged to serve a couple of years on the House public safety committee. I was also part of the negotiation for House Bill 3003, and that was a bill where impacted families, law enforcement and legislators came together and we negotiated that bill. That was a model for law enforcement in the area of de-escalation and mental health funding and training,” she said. “And we came a long ways, and then right on the heels of that, the voters passed initiative 940, which increased the police training even more and spending for that. Yes, we can still keep moving in the right direction, but here in the state of Washington I would say we are leaders in the area of police reform.”

Rule believes additional structural changes are required in public safety.

“My career has really been as a social worker,” Rule said. “Anything from working as a school social worker, school counselor, to working in hospice, doing home visits. I’ve worked with the rich, I’ve worked with the poor. I’ve worked on the streets and in homeless shelters. In each of those roles I have heard people’s hardest stories.

“I’ve walked into situations that would be pretty shocking to most people,” Rule said. “Most of the time the police were accompanying me as a colleague and a backup. There have been a few times where they have kept me safe.

“We need the police. We really do,” Rule insisted. “But I have lots of long-term clients that will tell you that when they had their interaction with law enforcement, it was the rock bottom that allowed them to propel into recovery, but it can’t be the only intervention that people have because it’s not effective, and it’s expensive, and it’s killing—literally killing—our Black and Brown community members.”

For Rule, however, the issue goes beyond police reform to establishing a more just and equitable society.

“When we think about mental illness, people can heal, this is not a mystery,” she said. “We have all the information we need to help people get better. But we haven’t been doing a very good job of that. In fact, in Washington we are consistently ranked 48 out of 50 in terms of mental health services.”

On housing security, Rule believes the state can play a larger role in planning for affordable, walkable communities. Van Werven believes state controls should be reduced, and that property tax has a corrosive effect on the costs of rent and housing.

“We face an affordable housing crisis,” Rule said. “Everyone should have the opportunity to live in a safe, affordable home. We can make and keep homes affordable so that regular working-class folks, seniors and families can afford to live in Whatcom County. And we must no longer allow so many Washingtonians to be homeless—dramatically increasing shelter to get people off the streets is a top priority.”

“We need reform in the Growth Management Act,” Van Werven commented. “It is inflexible and very restrictive as far as where we allow building. Reforming it would be a big step forward in providing affordable housing. I have also advocated for reducing the real estate excise tax for multiple housing and then also modifying some of the zoning regulations related to accessory dwelling units,” she said. “But I do think it comes down to how the Growth Management Act restricts where we can provide for our different housing options.”

Overall, we need to think as a community again, Rule believes.

“We need to turn toward each other, we need to reconnect again and we need to remember that we have more in common than we have differences,” Rule said. ”And that some of our differences are beautiful and can be celebrated and that we can actually become closer because of it. I believe that that can happen at every level. That happens as individuals in our neighborhoods but it also can happen in our communities on a larger scale.

“I think it’s very useful at the state level as well,” she said, “that we can work together to face our shared problems and work together to come up with solutions. We’ve almost forgotten that with this really polarized society, but I just don’t believe that we have to continue down that path.”

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