Attendees packed state Sen. Doug Ericksen’s town hall Saturday, pressing the Ferndale Republican on issues including his temporary job in Washington D.C., Whatcom County job-growth and funding for social services.
The town hall, in Meridian High School’s auditorium, attracted a crowd of hundreds that included both supporters of the senator and his critics. The seats filled well before the 10 a.m. event began, and staff removed a temporary wall to accommodate more standing room. Other attendees were turned away at the door after the room reached capacity.
The two-hour event came on the heels of a failed attempt to recall Ericksen, with those behind the effort saying he can’t do his job as a state senator alongside a temporary job at the Environmental Protection Agency for President Donald Trump’s transition team.
A Whatcom Superior Court judge on Thursday denied the recall, saying its backers did not cite sufficient grounds to allow for the recall to continue.
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Michael Shepard, a Bellingham resident who helped organize the recall effort, said he helped log hundreds of requests for the town hall, adding he thought it made a difference.
“I think we were successful in activating interest in the community,” he said after the event.
Ericksen began the meeting by outlining his latest priorities in Olympia, which included job growth in his 42nd District, the area’s agriculture industry and statewide education funding. The latter, he added, has topped the list as lawmakers work to meet a state Supreme Court ruling to fully fund public schools.
An early question was critical of Ericksen’s ties to Tony Heller, a blogger who has said reports of human-caused climate change are exaggerated and that the government has manipulated climate data. In early February, Ericksen let Heller testify before the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, which Ericksen chairs.
“Just like today, I believe that all voices need to be heard,” Ericksen said in the beginning of his response, drawing applause. As he elaborated, others booed, defying one of the meeting’s ground rules, which also banned umbrellas and signs.
In addressing a question about bringing back manufacturing jobs to Whatcom County, Ericksen said he was committed to doing just that but added that he didn’t want to overreach in those efforts.
“As a state senator, I don’t want to come in and micromanage each decision they make with regard to industry that they can get to come to the port,” he said, referring to the Port of Bellingham and the decisions it makes about its properties.
The question that drew the loudest response from attendees came from Emma Ritchie, 16, a Bellingham High School junior and member of the local Planned Parenthood teen council.
The council, she said, had made an annual trip to Olympia the last three years to meet with Ericksen. The senator wasn’t available during any of those trips, and, when Ritchie asked why, her question was met with applause, cheers and a standing ovation from many who were seated.
Ericksen said his absences simply came down to scheduling conflicts, which drew another round of boos.
“I really felt like he just missed my question, so that was frustrating,” Ritchie said after the town hall. “The main thing I got was that he’s a busy man and he doesn’t have time to meet with us, which I really think it should be a priority to meet with some of the most marginalized people in his community.”
Another question centered on the state’s tax system, its effects on the poor and how it funds social services. Ericksen said growing Washington’s economy was the key to increasing funding, which again garnered applause and cheers. He added that state spending has increased by 25 percent over the last four years, with 75 percent of that increase going to K-12 education.
The other portion of that increase went to other government services, Ericksen said, adding that tax increases weren’t necessary. When pressed about whether that meant services can avoid being cut, Ericksen demurred.
“Does that mean every single program will see the same amount of increase (in funding)? No, and it shouldn’t,” he said. “We are going to go through and see which programs are working and which programs aren’t working through the budgetary process to make those investments.”
Ericksen ended the town hall right on time, at noon, and, in his closing remarks, called it a “model example” of how people with different political affiliations could still have productive discussions.
Karl Uppiano, 61, of Ferndale, said he leans politically conservative or libertarian, and said he supported Ericksen’s policies more often than not. He characterized most of the questions as “leftist talking points.”
“I thought the questions were fairly one-sided, and I thought Ericksen handled them rather well,” Uppiano said after the town hall. “He didn’t answer all the questions directly, but I think that’s probably best for peacekeeping.”
Carolyn Anderson, 73, of Blaine, who called herself an “avid supporter” of Ericksen, agreed.
“He had the grace and kindness to respect their question and to answer it to the best of his ability, and some of the questions are not easy questions – they’re college courses,” Anderson said. “I’m very proud of the man that he is, the integrity he has and the hard work he puts in for all the constituents.”