NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

Pinky Vargas, Sharon Shewmake, and Justin Boneau hope to make history in 42nd District

Washington’s 42nd Legislative District spans a significant chunk of Washington’s State’s border neighborhoods, taking in many rural Whatcom County communities as well as a portion of the City of Bellingham.

While Bellingham is the home of Western Washington University (WWU) and considered to be a bastion of progressivism, the 42nd District is represented entirely by Republicans in the Legislature and has been for many years.

The 42nd’s current State Senator is former Trump campaign chair and regime cheerleader Doug Ericksen (a favorite pal of Tim Eyman’s), while its two State Representatives are Luanne Van Werven (Position 1) and Vincent Buys (Position 2).

However, in the recent August Top Two Election, the trio’s Democratic opponents each collectively received more votes than they did — a historic accomplishment.

For State Senate, the two Democrats on the ballot secured 54.01% of the vote, with Bellingham City Councilmember Pinky Vargas advancing to the General Election ballot. Fellow challenger Tim Ballew II has endorsed her for the general.

Democratic challenger Justin Boneau was able to lock down 50.68% of the vote for Position 1, with incumbent Van Werven and another Republican cumulatively earning 49.32% of the vote. And finally, Democratic challenger Sharon Shewmake secured 52.21% of the vote against incumbent Republican Vincent Buys.

Like many districts across Washington, as well as the country, the 42nd is plagued with affordability problems. The cost of living is increasing, with wages remaining stagnant. From housing and healthcare, to childcare and education, the 42nd Legislative District is grappling with many issues.

The district is in need of strong, results-oriented representation in Olympia.

Vargas is one of the Democratic Party’s top prospects, and is campaigning energetically on a host of issues, including caring for our common home, the Earth. She spent yesterday doorbelling the Lummi Nation, undeterred by the rain.

Her opponent, Ericksen, is perhaps the biggest friend that Big Oil has in the Washington State Legislature. Oil companies are among Ericksen’s top donors, and when Ericksen was the Chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee (a position he lost following Manka Dhingra’s special election win last year in the 45th District), he actually tried to advance legislation to prohibit policies to clean up our air and water.

Gun safety is another one of Vargas’ priorities.

“There have been three school shooting threats this week in Whatcom County,” she lamented in a post last week. “Two at Ferndale High School, and one at Nooksack Valley High School. We need responsible gun safety laws. That’s why I am supporting I-1639, for safe schools and safe communities.”

And although the Legislature did make historic progress earlier this year on pay equity, Vargas says there’s more than needs to be done.

“Women deserve equal pay for equal work,” she declared.

“Although the Equal Pay Opportunity Act was passed, the pay gap still exists. At the State Senate, I will advocate for women, and stand up for them. Every time. We must continue to push for equal pay for equal work laws, so that women and men earn the same pay if they do the same job.”

Sharon Shewmake, the Democrat hoping to unseat Representative Buys, is a professor of economics at Western and looks at investing in social services for the district as a win-win for the state and its residents.

“I never thought I’d run for office,” Shewmake explained. “But looking at how our state was making policy decisions alarmed me.”

“Economists and other social scientists have worked out really great ways of achieving these goals […] We need to be using these tools that have really good evidence, and people have literally won Nobel Prizes for studying and developing, and make lives better for Washington State residents.”

Shewmake described the need to make sure funding is distributed equitably — not just to the more populated and affluent schools in Bellingham, but also out to the many rural parts of the district so teachers are motivated to take jobs there.

She also hopes to bring more affordable higher education to the district, potentially through free tuition for the first two years of community college or technical school. (This is an idea many Democratic legislators want to pursue.)

She cited a model the State of Tennessee has used as proof that providing certain types of tuition free school as a positive investment in the community. The state has a program where the first two years of community college and technical school are free. Since the Tennessee program was introduced, there has been a 60% increase in students who completed degree and certificate programs. Fifteen other states have adopted similar programs driven by Tennessee’s results.

“It doesn’t cost as much as you think,” Shewmake told NPI. “Education is one of the best investments we can make in our society.”

Justin Boneau, the Democrat hopeful vying to unseat Representative Van Werven, worries about the cost of childcare in the district. “We actually have the most expensive childcare in the state here,” he explained.

He explained how the majority of the families in the district survive on dual incomes and the lack of childcare options either makes the couples split shifts if their schedules allow, or pay the expensive amount for childcare in the area.

According to a recent Bellingham Herald article, the number of licensed child care providers dropped 25% in Whatcom County in the four years leading up to 2016. The article cited hard and confusing barriers to enter into the childcare facility industry, including opaque regulations and compliance with the state’s minimum wage and benefits requirements (which are important and necessary to protect workers, but which could be better explained to prospective entrepreneurs.)

Boneau said he became aware of the issue when there were high prices and long waitlists when trying to get his four-year-old child into care. “I’m of the mind that we as a state should have a comprehensive, one-through-five-year-old childcare system that’s universal and available to all Washington State residents,” he said.

Shewmake and Boneau agree that the district also needs less barriers preventing enrollment of children in childcare and preschool programs.

Shewmake offered an economic analysis of the issue, stating that the state should invest in preschool for every child whose parents want to send them.

“There are high quality studies where they followed kids who went to preschool versus kids who didn’t, and the difference was the flip of a coin,” she said.

One study followed kids for about forty years and found that for every one dollar invested, we get about six to nine dollars’ worth of benefits back.

“About half of those kids who went to preschool did not need as many social services later on in their life, including incarceration,” said Shewmake. “These differences persist throughout the rest of the kid’s education and the evidence shows how not receiving that early childhood education can potentially negatively impact the rest of their lives, and I think that is unacceptable.”

Besides access to education, both candidates believe the housing crisis is one of the district’s biggest issue. Ever increasing prices of single-family homes — coupled with stagnant wages — have put home ownership out of reach for many families.

Boneau explained that the county had a health assessment done that showed that nearly 60% of Whatcom County households are burdened by the cost of housing, meaning they spend over 30% of their income on housing alone.

“My rent has gone up three times in two years,” said Boneau. “And I know that I’m not alone in this.” He said of the many voters he’s talked to during the campaign, many of them understand and feel the burden of this particular issue.

“I would like to see serious increases in our Washington Housing Trust Fund,” Boneau said. “We need to bring that back to pre-recession levels and then double that to have a big investment in social housing.” And he argues ending a ban on rent regulation at the state level would give tools back to local municipalities to let them best decide how to deal with their hyperlocal housing crisis.

Shewmake also agrees that the state should fully fund the Housing Trust Fund.

She believes the housing crisis is principally a supply problem, and that there is only so much we can do at the state level.

“It has to be local decisions, but I’d like to find ways for us to build denser, more affordable housing in transit-oriented areas,” Shewmake said, noting she lives in a Bellingham neighborhood where her family is able to use public transit and bikes to go most places, a life experience which has informed her views on the subject.

She added that there are ways to build more buildings while preserving the character of neighborhoods in the district.

“It’s really a local conversation we need to be having,” she said.

“I’d also say that healthcare is another big thing that affects households here in the 42nd,” Boneau told NPI. He believes that voters in the district would rather have a single-payer system instead of dealing with insurance companies.

“There [are] a couple versions of a single-payer health system currently in state Legislature, and that is something that would be high on my legislative priorities.”

Shewmake points out that the U.S. spends more per capita than any other country on healthcare and gets worse results. She believes pricing for medical procedures should be transparent and that the for-profit model in insurance companies is not working. “I’d like to see that reformed,” she said.

She is open-minded about the way forward, whether it’s Medicare For All, or whether it’s a nonprofit insurance system, or a public option. Any reform plan that expands coverage would be an improvement on our current, ineffective system, and it would save families money in the end.

“I think it’s a really exciting year,” said Shewmake.

She believes that Democrats have a good chance of flipping the district blue and providing much more effective representation to its residents.

Boneau agreed, saying even independents and Republican voters have been receptive to his progressive message. “These are big issues that affect all Whatcom County households no matter where you’re at ideologically,” he said.

Ballots for Washington’s general election were recently mailed to all in-state residents. They are due back no later than November 6th at 8 PM. Ballots being returned through the United States Postal Service must be postmarked no later than that day. There is no cost to return a ballot through the Postal Service, as all return ballot envelopes this year have prepaid postage.

Please vote and encourage family and friends to vote.

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