In Eastern WA, vaccine messaging matters for political candidates

When it comes to talking about the pandemic on the campaign trail, style matters just as much as substance.

LaDon Linde, left, and Autumn Torres, candidates for Yakima County commissioner. (Campaign photos)

Just as it is in Western Washington, affordable housing is a top issue in local political campaigns in Eastern Washington. Other issues are unique to their local communities, such as water access in Yakima County or responding to population growth in Moses Lake. 

But in some races, the debate over pandemic restrictions, be it school mask requirements or vaccine mandates, command plenty of attention, as well. And as with other issues, there is a wide range of opinions on how to proceed.

Republican LaDon Linde, who is looking to retain his seat on the Yakima County Board of Commissioners after being appointed to the role in November 2020, says the Yakima Health District had “COVID blinders” and did not focus on the other negative impacts of the pandemic, such as lost jobs and reduced education access because of virtual learning. 

At a recent public forum last month, challenger Autumn Torres, who is also a Republican, takes it a few steps further. She expressed her desire to fight on behalf of county residents against mandates and restrictions that she felt were an attack on individual freedoms. 

To illustrate overreach by public health agencies, she cited Public Health — Seattle and King County’s new vaccine requirement. When it goes into effect in the coming weeks, proof of full vaccination will be required to attend many outdoor and indoor recreational activities, including sporting events, theater performances and indoor dining. Torres called it “medical apartheid.” 

Torres said she has a valid concern that a similar requirement could be implemented by the Yakima Health District, the county public health agency. 

“Medical decisions need to be between you and your doctor,” she said during the candidate forum.

While opposition to mask and vaccine mandates at school board and city council meetings has made news, voters in Eastern Washington hold a spectrum of views on tackling the ongoing pandemic. 

Because of that, political candidates in local and county races are taking a variety of approaches in their campaigns to discussing pandemic and public health policies. 

Some local candidates, such as Torres, have run on the promise of pushing back and even resisting COVID-19 restrictions and mandates from Gov. Jay Inslee. Others have pushed for expressing personal disagreement to reform existing policies. 

“A lot of [local government] is routine maintenance of government that is not all that sexy,” said Mark Allen Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington. Local government work usually focuses on roads and housing and sewer systems, issues Smith said are important but not exciting.

“The pandemic [is] what people have been talking about for a year and a half, and you expect candidates to put emphasis there,” he said.

Pushing individual freedoms 

Torres said she brought up the vaccine requirements in King County at the recent candidate forum because she wanted to address the issue now and “not just wait until the problems are at our door.”

“If it’s in one county, it eventually slides” elsewhere, she said. “I’d rather get ahead of it and just say no. We support the individual rights of our citizens and businesses.” 

That’s consistent with the messaging Torres has had throughout her campaign. Her campaign social media shows her at local rallies against mask and vaccine mandates. 

Torres said she is concerned that one’s ability to do many activities, such as dining inside a restaurant, attending a Seahawks game or even retaining one’s job, is tied to one medical decision. 

Torres maintained that she is not against vaccination and that her children have been vaccinated for various diseases. She did not disclose whether she or her children had received the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Autumn Torres, a candidate for Yakima County Commissioner, posts about her attendance at a local rally against vaccine mandates. (via Facebook) 

Torres’ repeated urges for individual freedoms have resonated with voters in Yakima County.

Campaign signs supporting Torres can be found throughout the county — large ones are hung in businesses throughout Yakima County, and smaller ones in front of many homes. Residents have written letters to the editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic and Sunnyside Sun expressing support for her fight against government overreach. Several business organizations have extended endorsements.

Linde, who worked as an administrator at Astria Sunnyside Hospital, said he’d seen firsthand the impact of COVID-19, but seeks a “more balanced approach” to COVID-19 restrictions.

He also believes that public health officials should not neglect the negative impacts of pandemic restrictions on businesses, churches and children, which drove him to run for office. 

While he said he is not a fan of Inslee’s emergency declarations and their effects on schools and businesses, he believes in working with public health agencies and the governor’s office to find ways to keep churches, schools and businesses open. 

Many, including Torres, have painted Linde’s decision to vote against a recent Yakima County Board of Health motion to defy the school state mask mandate as an inability to fight on behalf of Yakima County. Yakima County commissioners hold seats on the health board. 

Linde has explained his vote several times, including on his Facebook page. He said he does not support mandates and believes masking had negative impacts on student learning. But his vote was based on his understanding that the county board of health or the Yakima Health District didn’t have the authority to defy the mandate. The motion, proposed by a fellow commissioner, Amanda McKinney, ultimately failed to pass. 

Instead, Linde motioned to urge Inslee to reverse the masking order and use other measures, such as physical distancing, health assessments and encouraging students to stay home when ill. That motion passed. 

Linde said he felt his proposal was the best way to express disagreement and work toward reform. 

“I also want to work within the legal constraints of the law,” he said. 

While Linde doesn’t support mandates, he has encouraged people to get the vaccine. A billboard in Yakima features a photo of Linde and his statement on why residents should get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Vaccines have been a miracle and a life saver,” he said.

LaDon Linde, who is seeking to retain his Yakima County Commissioner seat, posts about his participation in a Fourth of July parade in Toppenish, in Yakima County. (via Facebook)

Linde’s approach has garnered support from voters who disagree with some of his other political views. 

Wendy Steere and Addy Logsdon are members of Yakima Health First, a Facebook group that advocates supporting the guidance of public health officials and scientists. The group often discusses local candidates and whether they align with group members’ views. This summer, the group held a virtual forum for Yakima City Council candidates in the primary election. 

Steere said she started the group earlier this year because she wanted science to be represented in Yakima County’s public health policies. 

This pandemic isn’t the first time citizens had to meet requirements for safety, Logsdon said. Car seats and seat belts come to mind. 

“We’re a highly government-regulated society,” she said. “We have agreed to it implicitly and with knowledge of it.” 

But Logsdon also understands how certain restrictions could garner resistance. She remembers her father was once opposed to wearing seat belts, though he eventually came around. 

“It came from a place of being scared of being trapped in a car and losing agency for himself,” she said.

Steere said while neither candidate is ideal, Linde’s support of the vaccine indicates support for following the guidance of medical and public health officials.

“I disagree politically with both, but when I decided to start the group, for me, it was about science,” Steere said. “In this case, the answer is simple. One of the candidates —  Linde — has supported vaccinations and has had a billboard urging people to get vaccinated.” 

Yakima County voters, ultimately, may factor equally the style and substance of candidates’ political positions, said Smith, the University of Washington professor. 

Given that the electorate in Eastern Washington is more conservative, he said, a candidate pushing for individual freedoms generally has done well.

But someone more accommodating toward voters who want to “follow the science” could also garner enough support to win, he said. 

“Part of the style is not just about what you’re advocating for, but how you’re advocating for it,” he said.

Brandon Fenton, a city council candidate in Spokane Valley, promises that he'll stand up against vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions. (via Facebook)

Local authority is limited

Seats for the Spokane Valley City Council are nonpartisan, but both incumbent Ben Wick and his challenger, bar owner Brandon Fenton, are Republicans. 

Wick, who was also named mayor in 2020, is seen as part of the more politically moderate faction of the council and even received a recommendation from the Progressive Voters Guide for the general election.  

On his campaign website, Fenton, a self-described Trump Republican, has described Wick as a RINO, a “Republican in name only.” 

Fenton did not return requests for an interview, but his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions is well-known. Last year, there were numerous media reports of Fenton keeping The Black Diamond, his Spokane Valley bar, open in violation of COVID-19 restrictions

On his campaign website, Fenton chastised the city council for doing little for small businesses during the pandemic. 

“I plan to do everything that I can to grow the strength of the council so that we can push back against the overreach of both the federal and state administrations that do not know Spokane Valley and do not have our best interest at heart,” Fenton wrote. 

In contrast, Wick said the pandemic had not been the main focus of his campaign. Instead, he’s focused on highlighting his work in public safety, transportation and economic development. 

While Fenton has campaigned on his belief that the city council didn’t do enough to stand up for businesses or push back on mask mandates, Wick said the reality is that neither he nor the council has the authority to “overrule the governor,” regardless of his view on masks. 

He feels that it’s better to address criticisms with state officials and note the local impacts of COVID-19 policies, namely businesses choosing to set up a few miles over in Idaho, where there are far fewer restrictions. 

“I’m not going to advocate we overthrow the government,” he said. 

Ben Wick, who is seeking re-election to the Spokane Valley City Council, posts about a recent forum, where he highlighted several issues. (via Facebook)

Issues outside of COVID-19 

Wick is not the only candidate focusing on other issues.

Smith, the University of Washington professor, said it reflects a principle of “issue ownership.” 

Democratic candidates, for example, will steer messaging toward health care, while Republican candidates may talk more about fiscal policies. 

But issue ownership could also apply to candidates in local races. “Maybe [candidates] built a record in a certain area where the city has jurisdiction,” Smith said. 

That’s certainly the case in a city council race in Moses Lake, the largest city in Grant County, in Central Washington. 

Incumbent Mike Riggs, who was elected to the council in 2017, believes his work on addressing the city’s population growth resonates with voters. That includes reworking policies to allow for certain construction activities and figuring out ways to build road, water and sewer systems to better support a larger population. 

“The work has to go on,” he said. “The city must continue to prepare [for growth].” 

Riggs, who considers himself an independent, has seen Moses Lake residents voice concerns regarding mask and vaccine mandates and noted that he has disregarded the governor or state Department of Health directives.

But what Inslee and state officials have done is within the law, he said. 

“It’s within the purview to declare an emergency situation, to require certain sacrifices to get us through this,” he said. “I’m a supporter of law and order. There’s got to be peaceful ways to change the law as necessary. Until that’s accomplished, we have to comply; otherwise, there’s chaos.” 

Unlike the races in Yakima County and Spokane Valley races, Riggs is not facing a challenger looking to resist or actively push back on COVID-19 restrictions and mandates, despite robust community opposition in Moses Lake. 

Deanna Martinez has voiced concern about what she believes is excessive emergency powers afforded to Inslee during the pandemic. She was featured in a Northwest News Network story last year highlighting citizens opposed to prolonged business closures. She also believes local communities should have more say in pandemic response. 

“As a local city council member, I [won’t] have any say in that other than send a letter,” she said. “My hope is the legislators would be able to fix the emergency powers at some point, so it gives us a little more local control.”

At the same time, Martinez, a registered nurse, has seen the impact of rising COVID-19 cases on local hospitals, like the one she works at. She is also involved with The Partnership for Food Security, a group working to increase COVID-19 vaccination in the Latino community. 

She also understands those who push for individual freedoms but believes that shouldn’t be the only factor in crafting policy.

“We have a bigger humanitarian viewpoint to consider,” she said. 

COVID-19 hasn’t been a significant part of her campaign. Like Riggs, she is focused is on issues that the city council can address.

“I think that even though [the pandemic] is obviously very apparent in our community, we’re mostly looking at how we’re managing our business growth, our community growth and our infrastructure,” she said. “Those are our priorities.” 

Deanna Martinez, a candidate for city council in Moses Lake, posts in front of a city limits sign highlighting her plans for responding to population growth. (via Facebook)

Public health authority

The COVID-19 pandemic has made public health agencies more prominent,  said the UW’s Smith.

“Before, it was a background function of government,” he said. “It will decline in prominence [over time], but not to where it was before the pandemic.” 

But with awareness comes a mischaracterization of what constitutes public health, said Susan Polan, associate executive director for public affairs and advocacy at the American Public Health Association. Citizens now equate public health with COVID-19 restrictions and mandates.  

But the public health approach with COVID-19 is the same as with other health issues: crafting evidence-based strategies while weighing several difficult choices, she said. Others may prioritize certain decisions, such as reopening businesses, but ultimately, one can’t ignore the public health implications of doing so. 

Wick, the Spokane Valley council member, said he believes most voters don’t realize public health agencies’ massive scope outside of COVID-19.  Wick is a member of the county’s board of health and also serves on the board’s finance committee. The committee recently started to address a $3 million deficit in the 2022 Spokane Regional Health District budget.

Addressing that deficit is crucial for preserving numerous programs outside of COVID-19, such as dealing with the health impacts of domestic violence or outbreaks of other diseases, such as hepatitis. 

Taking away public health agencies’ authority to prevent mask mandates at school may sound appealing to some, Polan said. But that could mean less power to take other actions, such as identifying restaurants that aren’t using proper food preparation and storage practices, Polan said. 

“Public health [agencies] are there 24/7 keeping you healthy. Most of the time, you don’t see it,” she said. 

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