OLYMPIA — Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican Loren Culp clashed on COVID restrictions, climate change and gun rights Wednesday in their only televised debate before the Nov. 3 election.
With ballots going in the mail next week, the hourlong match-up provided many voters with an introduction to Culp and revealed the stark difference between his political beliefs, policy approaches and leadership style and those of Inslee.
Though the pandemic kept them from sharing a stage — the men spoke from separate studios at TVW headquarters in Olympia — it didn’t deter the challenger from blasting the two-term incumbent’s handling of the state’s response to the coronavirus as too heavy-handed with a mask mandate and limits on the pace at which he allows counties to reopen their economies and people to regain a degree of normalcy in their daily lives.
“The problem is when you have one person in the governor’s office telling everyone what they’re going to wear,” he said. “I will be a governor that understands the servant role of state government. We need someone to represent ‘We the People’ and stand up for citizen rights.”
Inslee defended his steering the state through the uncharted waters of the pandemic. He acknowledged the limits on social gatherings and businesses are “hard on people” but it is keeping the infection rate down.
“This is working. This is working big time,” he said, noting his decisions are based on science. “We are saving lives.”
Inslee, in a return of rhetorical fire, equated Culp’s disdain for wearing a mask and abiding by physical distance rules with views espouses by President Donald Trump and said “it is too dangerous having a mini-Trump” in charge in the middle of the pandemic.
Inslee, 69, is seeking a third consecutive term, a feat accomplished by only one previous governor, Dan Evans, a Republican, from 1965-77. Anthony Langlie, also a Republican, did serve three terms total but not consecutively.
Inslee’s political career started with two terms in the state House in the late ‘80s, followed by two tours and 16 years in Congress, and the past eight years as Washington’s chief executive.
Culp, 59, the police chief of Republic, a small city in Ferry County, is making his first bid for elected office. He is trying to become the state’s first Republican governor since the 1980s.
Culp bounded into the state and national limelight when he said he wouldn’t enforce gun regulations of Initiative 1639, a measure approved by voters in 2018. On the campaign trail, where he holds rallies attracting hundreds of maskless supporters, he vows to respect individual freedoms and erase the restrictions on business and social activities put in place by Inslee to slow the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus.
Several questions Wednesday dealt with issues of civil unrest in Seattle, police reform and gun rights.
Inslee defended his response to the violent protests in Seattle and questioned Culp’s claim to be a law-and-order candidate when he would not enforce the initiative.
Culp, who called Inslee “soft on crime,” said the state does not have a gun violence problem.
“We have a criminal violence problem,” he said, criticizing the governor for releasing more than 1,000 inmates early to deal with coronavirus in state prisons. He said, without detail, that there were other responses the governor could have taken.
The bedrock of Culp’s philosophy is the Constitution and he’s penned a book, “American Cop,” in which he expounds on the foundational document and law enforcement.
“We need someone to represent ‘We the People’ and stand up for citizen rights,” he said.
Inslee’s written a book too, “Apollo’s Fire,” which is his road map for building a clean energy economy.
The two differed on whether a changing climate has made for more damaging wildfires.
“The governor calls these climate fires. I don’t deny climate changes. These are not climate fires,” Culp said. A lack of forest management is the main contributing factor, he said.
Inslee disagreed and said it is dangerous to have someone run for governor who has “zero policies to defeat climate change.”
Ballots will be mailed by Oct. 16.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos.