On Syrian refugees, Inslee challenger Bill Bryant treads carefully

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Bill Bryant

When it comes to the question of accepting Syrian refugees, gubernatorial candidate and Port of Seattle commissioner Bill Bryant walks a fine line. The man he hopes to topple next November, Gov. Jay Inslee, has grabbed headlines in recent days and appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition after forcefully stating his welcome for Syrian refugees.

As the presumed Republican challenger to Inslee, Bryant represents a party that has become synonymous in recent days with skepticism – or flat-out rejection – of Syrian resettlement to the United States. All but one of the 30 governors who’ve resisted resettlement are Republican. Republican state Representative Jay Rodne of Snoqualmie wrote online Wednesday, “Islam is incompatible with western civilization!” calling Islam “barbarian medievalism.” His comments, as well as the stances of the 30 governors reportedly refusing to accept refugees for now, have been called prejudiced and fear mongering.

Bryant’s approach is more cautious. He clearly understands that he is in the position of being grouped in with his Republican colleagues, a line he attempted to blur over the phone Thursday morning. “It’s not just Republican governors,” he said. “It’s Democrats, too.” When asked about sharing a party with Rodne, Bryant said he wasn’t interested in talking about those comments nor speaking about being the face of the Republican Party in Washington.

For Bryant to stand a chance in next year’s elections, he has to make some in-roads in the more liberal Western Washington, particularly in King County. The response to Inslee’s remarks in the governor’s stronghold counties appears to be overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the Seattle Times editorial board, which endorsed 2012 Republican candidate Rob McKenna, on Thursday praised Inslee’s remarks. “Though the federal government decides where refugees are ultimately resettled,” wrote the Times, “Inslee’s stand should encourage other governors and politicians to be more rational.”

Bryant's position is that the country and Washington state should “move forward with compassion and prudence.” When asked if that means he would be open to accepting refugees if his parameters for safety were met, he said yes.

But that’s not to say he’s in agreement with Inslee. In fact, Bryant has latched onto Inslee’s comments and is openly attacking him for being imprudent. “He’s a D.C. congressman,” said Bryant, referring to Inslee's position before he ran for governor. At that time, Inslee said he wanted to get away from the intense partisanship in Congress, but Republicans — and some independents and Democrats — have questioned whether he has let party divisions get in the way of governance in Olympia at times. Inslee’s comments, said Bryant, are headline grabbers “masquerading as leadership. He does not understand the complexity of being governor.”

The Democratic governor of New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan, has spoken strongly against taking refugees. Bryant seeks to aligns himself more with Democratic Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon and John Hickenlooper of Colorado (who has since shown confidence in the federal screening of immigrants and said he would not fight resettlement of refugees in Colorado), as well as U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, all of whom he sees as taking a cautious approach. “To rush would be a big mistake,” he said. For Bryant, the priority is to push the feds to strengthen its screening process, something that the United States House of Representatives voted for shortly after the phone interview.

When asked about concerns that delay could make the refugee problem worse, Bryant stuck to his idea that the country should proceed with “compassion and prudence.”

Coloring this whole issue have been glances back at what many see as parallel issues: the resettlement of the Vietnamese in Washington, the internment of Japanese Americans and Americans’ apparent discomfort with accepting Eastern European Jews in the late 1930s.

Inslee has weighed in on the first, as evidence for what Washington could or should do now. "We have been and will continue to be a state that embraces compassion and eschews fear mongering,’ said Inslee, “as evidenced so well by Republican Gov. Dan Evans' welcoming of Vietnamese refugees here in the 1970s."

Bryant was quick to take issue with those remarks. “This is not at all similar to Vietnam,” he said, arguing that there was less, if any, threat of terrorism compared with today.

Bryant also disputed Inslee’s comparison with the interning of Japanese Americans: “I cannot understand the comparison to American citizens who had their civil rights taken away.”

Asked about any parallels to pre-World War II surveys that suggested only 20 percent of Americans wanted to allow resettlement of Jewish refugees persecuted by Germany, Bryant said he didn’t want to speak to public opinion polls.

For Inslee’s office, the point is a larger one than just historical likeness. “We have a lot of people making a lot of arguments,” said Inslee spokesperson Jaime Smith. “Ultimately, the governor has said this is an issue of the character of our country and we should make decisions out of compassion, not fear.”

As a Port commissioner, Bryant says he spends a lot of time thinking about the safety of Washington’s borders and says he doesn’t see any immediate threat. “There is no justification for fear-mongering or bigotry,” he said. But arms wide open to Syrian refugees? Not yet.

Update, 11/19/2015 10:00 p.m.: Kate Brown has also said Oregon will "clearly" accept refugees.

This story was originally posted on Nov. 18.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.