PORT ORCHARD — With results from the primary election showing impending close races in the general election, the candidates seeking to become the 26th Legislative District’s two state representatives did their best to outline their positions during a fast-paced candidate forum earlier this month in Port Orchard sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Kitsap.
For the incumbents — Jesse L. Young and Michelle Caldier, both Republicans — that meant reporting out the accomplishments they achieved during the past two years. And for the challengers — Democrats Connie FitzPatrick and Joy Stanford — their task was to put forward new ideas and approaches to issues facing residents in the 26th Legislative District, an expanse that flows from Kitsap County into portions of Pierce and Mason counties.
Young, who is seeking a return as the district’s Position 1 representative, used his opening remarks to remind audience members of pledges he made to voters in the 2016 election.
The House member said he had pledged to stop toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. “What everyone said was impossible to do, we finally finalized this year to refinance that bridge so that tolls will never go up,” Young said.
“It’s a pleasure to keep those promises to you because it makes me feel like I’m doing something. The other thing I pledged was to keep a strong stand on taxes and be fiscally responsible. I’ve kept that pledge.”
He also touted his bipartisanship in the Legislature, citing his work leading efforts on “stopping corporate stealing of your personally identifiable information” and in “leading on the preeminent environmental packages that we passed the last four years.”
FitzPatrick said her life’s work as a mother, wife, Navy veteran, schools volunteer and small-business owner has provided her with a broad perspective of the district’s needs from Olympia. The Democrat emphasized that her priority in the Legislature would be to change the voter supermajority approval threshold of 60 percent needed to pass school bond measures (school district levies require a simple majority of voters to approve).
Caldier, who is the 26th District’s Position 2 state representative, said she’s been a part of “some great successes” during her time in the Legislature.
“We’ve fixed how we fund K-12 education,” she said of the McCleary funding compromise, “we’ve stopped the tolls from rising on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. And I was key to reforming the state foster care system … I’ve been recognized for my bipartisanship and my ability to work across the aisle.”
Her opponent, Democrat Stanford, said she has heard from district residents while doorbelling that education is uppermost on their minds.
“We have overcrowding problems in Port Orchard and in Gig Harbor,” she said, and plans to take a stand against the supermajority requirement, as FitzPatrick also has promised.
“We have issues that need to be resolved now. Many of our families here are in a mental health crisis. We need to work on better integration of behavioral substance abuse in our health care system so that we can decriminalize folks that are suffering from mental illness.”
Stanford added that she believes seniors, students and working families are burdened by underrepresentation in state government.
All four candidates said they recognize that homelessness has impacted many areas of the 26th Legislative District.
Young, who said he was homeless for a time as a teenager in Tacoma, called it endemic to Kitsap County. He did note, however, that it’s an issue that hasn’t necessarily fallen between the current political divide of the two political parties.
“This is an issue that doesn’t, believe it or not, divide along Republican and Democrat lines,” he said. “You are looking at one of the few legislators in over two decades that has ever voted with Democrats when it comes to homelessness and low-income issues.
“I know what it feels like to be homeless. This issue is more than a talking point to me. This is why I’ve been consistently endorsed by both landlords and the low-income housing alliance.”
The legislator said the answer to the problem is that some of the building regulations in the state need to be pulled back.
“The way that we are organized in the Growth Management Act is literally making it impossible for builders [in the district] to build low-income housing.”
He told audience members that if those regulations were curtailed, “you will see a massive explosion of housing that will be low-income that we can actively start to make available to people instead of forcing people into smaller and smaller units.”
Stanford said families and students make up the highest percentage of homeless people in Kitsap County.
“I think by increasing the opportunities for education and jobs, bringing back paid internships where folks can get paid while they’re learning, expanding the trade schools that we have,” she said, more people will be able to rise from their homeless status and find stable housing.
Homelessness isn’t just a crisis in Kitsap County or surrounding areas, FitzPatrick said, it extends across the state. And the crisis, she said, is complex and not easily solved.
“It has taken a while to grow it into a crisis, so it may take a while to address it,” she said. “I feel it can be addressed by more funding and better access to mental health so that folks who are teetering on the edge of maybe a job loss that would lead to homelessness can have the help that they need.”
FitzPatrick also said she believes one element toward a solution includes increasing training programs that would lead to better jobs.
Caldier said that those living in Port Orchard have seen rental rates here rise by hundreds of dollars, mostly due to the lack of available rental inventory to keep up with the demand.
“We have more people moving here and we do not have the capacity,” she said. “The biggest reason why we don’t is because of the Growth Management Act. It has hindered development.”
Caldier said the GMA needs to be fixed and reformed so that more people can be accommodated with new housing starts. She noted that the inequity in housing availability for certain demographic groups also needs to be addressed.
“One of the biggest things I’ve been working on is to create a system [that would help] foreign exchange students. For me, I have extra room and I’d be happy to have that open to college students. If we can increase capacity at least for that group, we can solve some of the homelessness problems.”
The candidates also answered an audience question about traffic congestion in the area, particularly on SR 16 and 3.
For Stanford, the answer is getting people out of their cars.
“I was one of those folks who was on 16 a lot,” she said of her five-year commute from Gig Harbor to Seattle for work.
“It was horrendous and it’s gotten worse every year,” Stanford said, noting her commute time increased by 20 to 30 minutes over five years.
“I believe that expanding the bus service, making more buses available for folks to where they need to go, more parking lots for those who want to use public transportation, vanpools — let’s get folks out of their cars.”
Caldier differed on her approach to mitigating traffic congestion for commuters:
“We need to add another lane [on SR 16]. We have way too much congestion going through there and we need to add another lane all the way up through Gorst.”
The state representative said she takes the bus on a regular basis and often finds herself the only passenger.
“Just simply adding more buses isn’t the best usage of taxpayer dollars. However, I would support improving the infrastructure and increasing the number of worker-driver buses on the road during the heavy shipyard hours. That’s our biggest problem — the commuters going to and from the shipyard. We also need to be thoughtful when improving infrastructure with public transportation.”
FitzPatrick also said she has sat many hours idled in traffic.
“Transportation is a headache,” she said. “We need to start with mass transit … we have existing foot ferry service from Port Orchard to Bremerton that could relieve some of the clogging that does exist in that bottleneck in Gorst. We could have a better transit system with the Park-and-Ride taking folks that are parking there with a regular bus for commuters to have easy access onto and off of those ferries at night.
“I think that taking those cars off the road would be a great first step in relieving a lot of that pressure.”
Young said he has been working on congestion solutions for constituents in the district.
“Now that I’ve solved the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, I’ll be moving to expand the access and throughput throughout the Highway 16 corridor and we will add another lane,” he said.
“You’re going to see additional access down in the Key Peninsula and a major transportation package I passed in 2015. There’s a Belfair bypass coming so we will be tieing into the southern end of that to relieve congestion in Gorst.”