Contentious crowd fuels hostile Inslee-Watkins debate

Incumbent Jay Inslee (left) and challenger James Watkins offered their points of view during the heated debate. Islander Fred Scheffler (center) moderated the event. - Brad Camp/For the Review
Incumbent Jay Inslee (left) and challenger James Watkins offered their points of view during the heated debate. Islander Fred Scheffler (center) moderated the event.
— image credit: Brad Camp/For the Review

It took just 16 minutes into Monday night’s debate between Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger James Watkins before audience members erupted in anger and started pointing fingers.

The tension was palpable in the island’s American Legion Hall as a partisan crowd packed the room, many standing in the back and creeping up the aisles, to listen to the two candidates duke it out for two hours. Inslee has represented the 1st Congressional District since 1999 and the 4th district from 1992-1994. Watkins, a former Microsoft employee and FDIC troubleshooter, is a business development consultant.

Despite the moderator’s repeated request to withhold applause and comment, the boisterous crowd let its opinions be known and added to an intensely charged atmosphere between the candidates.

“It could have gone a lot better if my opponent wouldn’t have brought in a lot of hecklers from off the island,” Inslee said the next day. “I think we could have had a little more civility.”

Inslee stopped the debate at one point to ask for more time on the clock after a loud audience interruption and the moderator’s request to keep a more civilized tone. The island resident said he didn’t recognize the people spouting off as his neighbors, and thanked his supporters for not interrupting his opponent.

Watkins said Inslee only complains when the crowd is against him.

“I think it went great. [Inslee] was expecting a packed house on Bainbridge that would support him,” said Watkins.

Just a few minutes into the debate the mood went sour when Watkins prodded Inslee for a direct answer as to whether or not he will run for governor in 2012. Inslee wouldn’t say, which led to a burst of emotion from the crowd and set a hostile tone for the debate.

The only area both candidates could agree on is that voters are frustrated and have an underlying anxiety about job creation in the state.

Inslee said access to capital for small business is the largest hurdle on the path to economic recovery. He said 75 percent of job growth will come from small businesses, and argued the bank bailout bill helped Wall Street and neglected the local community banks. He wants to see the greed on Wall Street reigned in and optimism and hope restored to folks on America’s Main Street.

“We have had success in avoiding another Great Depression and stopping the slide of the 600,000 jobs we were losing a month from the previous president’s term,” Inslee said. “But we have a long way to go to really ramp up the job-creation engine. I think for all of us, restoring a sense of confidence and optimism will ensure we put some spring back in our step. Giving small business access to capital is one thing we can do.”

Watkins says government is the largest impediment blocking recovery.

“What small businesses want more than anything is a stable government. They have to know tomorrow what is happening with health care, the tax rate and energy regulations,” said Watkins. “Until fear, uncertainty and doubt are cleared up, business will sit on the sidelines.”

He said many small businesses are sitting on cash, but are afraid of the federal government’s next move. Watkins said the country “needs to remove greedy folks in Congress who spend on our behalf,” and that over-spending is plaguing the country.

Watkins supports extending the Bush-era tax cuts and said any repeal would put the country into a double-dip recession.

Inslee would like to see the tax cuts extended for the middle class and all those who make under $400,000 a year, but extending to those above that income level would be fiscally reckless and would blow a $700 billion hole in the budget deficit.

On health care reform, Watkins said he would like to see insurance companies compete and citizens given the option for catastrophic health insurance only.

When Inslee said it was regretful the Republican Party never lifted a finger to help create reform, Watkins quipped back that Democrats locked the door of committee meetings and the country would have been better off had the Democrats done nothing than the reform they passed.

Inslee said Republicans were given years to act and did nothing. He thinks the overhaul of the health care system can be improved because it’s a bill with imperfections, but still a step in the right direction. He stated a need to reduce health care expenditures, which he cited as the largest growth of federal spending in the country.

Jay Inslee

What message do you want to give voters when filling out their ballot?

“Our country today needs leaders who have a vision of solution rather than complaint. Complaints are a dime a dozen, but they won’t solve our nations problems. I’m willing to seek those solutions in a bi-partisan fashion.”

James Watkins

What message do you want to give voters when filling out their ballot?

“I think the main thing I’m trying to get across is I’m the only guy who has help cut spending and created thousands of private sector jobs. We need that common sense in D.C. instead of career politicians, because we’ve already seen what they can do.”

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