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Northwest GOP candidates hope to ride tough-on-crime message for success in November

Kristine Drazan
Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Public Broadcasting
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OPB
Oregon governor candidate Kristine Drazan speaks to supporters at an event the week of October 18.

Local Republican candidates see a hyperfocus on crime and public safety as a potential winning strategy in traditionally blue-leaning or swing districts.

They say they’re responding to voters’ discomfort with recent police reforms and Washington and Oregon’s recent decriminalization of some drugs.

Polling data shows that many in the Seattle and Portland area are especially concerned about crime. In rural areas, many politicians have complained of Seattle or Portland-style policies making their communities less safe.

Republicans on the national and local levels are flooding the airwaves, social media and mailboxes blasting Democrats as weak on crime.

Scotty Nicol, a candidate running to represent Spokane in the Washington State Legislature, is following that same strategy.

“I think they want what I'm offering, which is a positive working relationship with our police officers and our sheriff,” he said.

Nicol is looking to unseat Representative Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat, who was first elected a decade ago. Spokane’s legislative district has been dominated by progressives for years. But Nicol said he’s hoping his focus on public safety will appeal to moderates who are uncomfortable with drug decriminalization.

“Do you think it is OK for somebody to shoot up heroin on our streets, or to be dealing or doing fentanyl,” Nicol said, “those are easy questions that we can answer quickly.”

He, like many conservative candidates, is pushing for harsher drug penalties, like making possession of fentanyl a felony.

Public safety has also stayed at the forefront of campaigns of national Republicans, including Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

“Democrats in Washington are threatening our way of life, a push to defund the police. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is fighting every day to stop them,” one of her recent ads warns.

On social media, McMorris Rodgers has also compared fentanyl to a weapon of mass destruction and said she believes Congress should address fentanyl trafficking.

The Washington State Republican Party has attacked McMorris Rodgers’ Democratic opponent Natasha Hill, who is an attorney and activist, for comments she previously made about defunding the police during racial justice protests in 2020.

CMRNH MAILER 10-14 RW .JPG
A mailer sent out to Spokane residents. Washington Republicans have criticized Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers opponent Natasha Hill on public safety.

Oregon gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan pushes a similar point in a recent ad.

“I'm Christine Drazan. When I'm governor the days of treating police like criminals and criminals like victims will end,” she said. “And if Portland politicians won't enforce the law, as governor I will.”

U.S. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy sees public safety as a potential path toward retaking seats in Congress. McCarthy visited Oregon last month to stump for several Republicans on the ballot.

Claims that Democrats are defunding the police are largely false. Many police departments and sheriff’s offices in both the Pacific Northwest, and nationally, have applied for federal pandemic relief money since 2020, and got what they asked for.

Washington, like the country as a whole, has seen an increase in violent crime in 2020 and in 2021, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Experts, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting and criminal justice think tank, have urged the public to be cautious when interpreting those numbers. It notes that crime increased in both Republican and Democrat controlled cities during the pandemic, despite different policies. It also noted that the increase in crime during the last several years is still lower than what the country saw in the 1990s.

In Washington, drug decriminalization started with Shannon Blake in Spokane. Police arrested Blake when she was wearing a pair of thrifted jeans from a friend. She told police she didn’t know there was a small bag of meth hidden in the pocket of the jeans.

Her case led the Washington Supreme Court to strike down the state’s drug possession law, and the Legislature to pass a temporary fix making possession a misdemeanor with a referral to services. Next legislative session, lawmakers plan to approve a permanent solution to how the state should approach possession convictions.

In Oregon, drug possession was decriminalized by voters through a ballot initiative. Republicans have contended the initiative was confusing, and the state botched implementation. People caught possessing drugs are ticketed. They can get the $100 ticket waived if they call a recovery line and receive a health assessment.

Washington has passed, and modified, several police reform laws since the racial justice protests in 2020. They include more restrictions on when officers are allowed to use physical or deadly force and requiring more de-escalation tactics.

Lawmakers also placed limits on police vehicle pursuits. Police must believe the person is impaired or has committed a violent crime.

Many Washington Republicans are campaigning to roll back those reforms.

Some Democrats, such as Emily Randall, a state senator seeking reelection in the Bremerton area, said they care about public safety just as much as Republicans, and are trying to understand what police are experiencing.

“But I've also been on three ride alongs with local law enforcement agencies, had lots of conversations with chiefs and sheriffs,” Randall said. “The last ride along I went on was a full, 12-hour shift.”

Randall is in a tight race against Republican State Representative Jesse Young. She said she understands voters’ concerns about decriminalizing drugs.

“Solutions for our community safety look like healthcare solutions, too,” she said. “They look like insuring that we're investing enough in our mental health and addiction system so that people are able to get the treatment they need when they need it.”

She said she’s hoping for a nuanced approach to police reform.

Some Republicans in Oregon, such as Salem-area legislative candidate Kevin Mannix, hope voters see this election as a chance to rework drug criminalization in the state.

He called the drug decriminalization initiative, Oregon Measure 110, “unsalvageable,” and supports efforts to repeal it.

Mannix authored an initiative in the 1990s, which created mandatory minimum sentences for violent crime. He argues voters wanted more funding, and options for treatment, but are uncomfortable with how decriminalization has rolled out.

He supports making drug possession a misdemeanor and dramatically increasing investment in treatment.

“My more liberal colleagues tend to be a bit too weak, my conservative colleagues tend to be a bit too cheap,” Mannix said. “We need to say we need to strengthen this, but also let’s spend some tax dollars.”

Rhetoric used by politicians and police departments now has several parallels to the rhetoric of the 1970s, when then-President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs

Researcher Katherine Beckett, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied the connection between U.S. politics and criminal justice, said there’s now a few key differences.

Voters’ feelings about drug penalties may be more complicated than politicians think, she said.

“I think we've seen this new differentiation between users, who are often portrayed as victims,” Beckett said, “sometimes victims of pharmaceutical companies, sometimes victims of predatory dealers.”

She said addiction is more nuanced than the rhetoric seen in political campaigns, and making police the gateway to treatment likely won’t help the people who need it most.

“Relying on coercive treatments through drug court is expensive,” she said. “It only works for a subset of the population and it kind of prevents us from exploring more humane, and more effective alternatives, and investing in those alternatives.”

If Republicans win Oregon’s governor mansion in November, Drazan’s first task is likely working to repeal the voter initiative that decriminalized drugs. In Washington, Republicans are facing longer odds to win the Legislature, but many are still hoping police reforms and drug penalties will be addressed during the next legislative session.

This story is part of a collaboration among public radio stations in the Northwest News Network covering the 2022 election season.