Smith and Smith Face Off in Debate Over Who Should Lead the 9th Congressional District

by Aaron Burkhalter

Congressional hopeful Sarah Smith met longtime incumbent Adam Smith for a debate at the Rainier Arts Center Oct. 18 in their bid for the congressional seat representing District 9, which encompasses Southeast Seattle and South King County.

Adam Smith comes with 21 years of experience representing the district, giving him tools to make headway on key progressive issues, even if incrementally. Sarah Smith comes with experience living with the consequences of a post-recession economy, which informs her platform for uncompromising reform.

Sarah Smith narrowly beat out Republican candidate Doug Basler in the August primary, moving her to a general election against another Democrat. This kicked off a left-versus-left race for Congress that has echoes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s race against New York Democrat Joe Crowley, who has been in Congress 19 years.

The candidates met for a live two-hour debate in Columbia City, hosted by KVRU 105.7 FM and the Columbia City Business Association. KVRU will broadcast the debate Oct. 20 at 11 a.m. and Oct. 21 at 1 p.m. The South Seattle Emerald video recorded the entire debate, which can be viewed on the Emerald Facebook page.

Adam Smith is an experienced member of Congress who has long held a secure seat — often securing more than 60 percent of the vote in the general election — representing residents in the 9th Congressional District, which encompassed South King County until 2011 when the district was redrawn to include Southeast Seattle, becoming the only district in Washington with a majority of non-white constituents.

He cites many progressive stances, including supporting Medicare for All and carbon taxes. This campaign for re-election forces him to prove his progressive bonafides in the face of opposition from the left.

“I am progressive,” he said, “but I also have a strong record for fighting for those progressive values.”

Adam Smith argued that he grew up in the district, working and volunteering in community causes since he was 15. He said those community connections help him take the views and concerns of District 9 voters into the other Washington where he can advocate for bills that will support the diverse community.

“My lifelong understanding of this district gets me connected with those people to bring them in and make sure our community represents what it looks like,” Adams said.

Sarah Smith is a millennial in the mold of such progressive candidates as Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, not only working to resist the agendas of conservative politicians but also to hold establishment Democrats accountable for their roles in the slow response to climate change, rising inequity and the 2008 financial crisis.

Sarah Smith supports a national platform of Universal Health Care and a higher minimum wage. She wants politicians who will stand on national platforms that she says supports not only people in the 9th District but those across the United States.

While Sarah Smith does not have any experience in elected office, even on the local level, she says she is the product of decisions made by politicians sitting in Congress for years. She moved (just outside of District 9) to Kent after she could no longer afford Seattle housing prices and even worked for CitiBank during the financial crisis, working on her own, she says, to prevent people from losing their homes to foreclosure. She also pays around $800 a month in student loans, which she argues is less than many other people. She says that Adam Smith’s work compromising rather than pushing for deeper change has consequences.

“I’m a 30-year-old working class woman who knows what it’s like to lose your house,” she said. “We as working people know how that’s going to end up for us, because we have lived on the other side of those compromises.”

The crowd that joined applauded both candidates for passionately held stances, particularly on progressive issues such as universal health care.

People in attendance directed most of their criticism at Adam Smith, who comes with the advantage of experience and disadvantage having to answer to a scrutable voting record. Audience members questioned the campaign donations he has received from private companies, such as Puget Sound Energy, and most strongly against his vote supporting former President George W. Bush’s plan to invade Iraq.

As Adam Smith answered a on his vote, a man in attendance interjected: “You’re fired. You’re fired. I am done with you.” He left the room. Adam Smith said he’s experienced with this and understands that people will yell at him. But he struck a defiant tone.

“If people want to fire me, that’s what Sarah’s here for,” Adam Smith said. “Come and get me.”

Sarah Smith responded that we need representatives who are cognizant of people’s pain.

“They’re going to shout you down,” she said. “Your role is to stand fast to them and ask them, ‘How can I help you?’”

This was the ninth debate between the two candidates, who at turns were warm with each other and then sharply critical of their stances and arguments. While they agreed on many similar progressive values, their differences lay in a question of compromise versus bolder strokes.

Adam Smith said he has the experience to move toward progressive values step-by-step. Sarah Smith argued that incrementalism doesn’t work.

At times, however, the differences came down to a question of whether voters will stay the course with the candidate with experience or go with a new candidate who wants to use her life experience to drive her policy work.

Adam Smith argued that Sarah Smith needed more community experience first.

“You’ve got to lead in your community before you stand in front of everybody and say, ‘Elect me,’” he said.

Sarah Smith countered that life experience counts for a lot, and rebuffed the notion that her age limits her ability to lead.

“Every time a millennial stands up to challenge someone, they say, ‘Wait, not like that,’” she said.

Ballots went out to voters by mail on Oct. 19. They are due Nov. 6.