A noon forum organized by the Chamber of Commerce in a county Trump carried by 14 points should be hostile territory for a Democrat. But when Carolyn Long walked into a room at the back of The Oak Tree restaurant in Woodland, WA, a crowd of about 300 people clapped and chanted her name. "Caro-lyn! Caro-lyn! Caro-lyn!"
I heard no such chanting for incumbent Republican Jaime Herrera Buetler, who's seeking her fifth term in a surprisingly tight race against Long in Washington's 3rd Congressional District. That's not to say Herrera Buetler didn't have some any support in the room—she did—but they weren't so vocal.
Darlene Johnson, treasurer at the Woodland Chamber of Commerce, told me the chamber regularly holds forums with politicians and candidates during election years. "We feel you need to be informed when you vote," she said.
The meeting normally draws 40 to 60 people, but this forum with Long and Herrera Beutler was their biggest one to date. The 120-seat room filled to capacity and several people stood in the back. To deal with the overflow, organizers piped audio into an adjoining bar, where a little under a hundred people sat and listened in.
Shortly before the forum began, students from two sections of Shari Conditt's AP Government class at Woodland High School poured in. Conditt said she brought her students so they could "see what democracy looks like in action."
"It's not something they just read about in a text, it's something they can participate in. It starts with being educated on issues and meeting candidates," she said.
Kiersten and DeLany are both 17, and they both said they were "actually interested" in the forum, not just the field trip. Neither had done any research on the candidates or the issues, but they were pumped to participate and hear from both sides. "This will be my first election!" Delany said. "This is the start of my interest, and I'll probably do background research later."
Moments earlier Herrera Beutler had gladhanded the group. I asked if the students knew who she was, and one of the students said, "She didn't introduce herself to us, but it was Jaime Herrera Beutler. She was just like, 'You should know me.'" The group laughed.
Cory Elliott, a union carpenter who lives in Centralia, WA, said he wanted to see if Herrera Beutler had changed her tune on the Davis-Bacon Act, which ensures that construction workers toiling away on government projects make the local prevailing wage. "We have about 45 Davis-Bacon Republicans, and Jaime Herrera Beutler is not one of them," he said.
Another carpenter, David Hahm, was eager to see the two candidates speak. "This is the first year in a long time where [Herrera Beutler] actually has a viable opponent that can give her a challenge. That's why I think she's here. She feels the pressure, and she's kinda concerned," he said.
After some mulling about, the forum got underway. Johnson served as moderator. She asked both candidates to pick a number between 1 and 10 to determine who would start the debate. Long picked 1 and Herrera Beutler picked 10. “We’ve got opposites here,” Johnson said. She wasn't lying.
Herrera Beutler led with a short list of bills she's sponsored during her eight years in the House, which include a forest management bill, a law that allows parents to bring baby formula onto planes, and her most recent effort to allow the killing of sea lions to save the Chinook salmon population. Some of those are good bills that make sense! But then she started trying to paint Long as a tax-raising Democrat who wants to bankrupt the country with a Medicare for All plan. That didn't make so much sense.
In her introduction, Long came out guns blazing, saying Herrera Beutler had already "told multiple lies" about her positions on the issues. Long said she doesn't support Medicare for All—she just wants to shore up the Affordable Care Act and introduce a public option for rural areas. “Facts matter, integrity matters," Long kept saying every time the Congresswoman accused her of supporting Medicare for All.
Like many Republicans seem to be doing this cycle, Herrera Beutler framed Long's opposition to Trump's tax cuts as an endorsement of "raising taxes" on Americans. Long countered by saying she wanted to make the "individual tax cuts" in the law permanent. She also called the bill "the most fiscally irresponsible bill" she'd ever seen, and argued that we were borrowing money from her daughter's generation to pay for cuts that disproportionally benefit the wealthy.
The audience asked a mix of questions covering local and national issues, and both candidates more or less answered the way you'd expect them to.
Long said she wouldn't vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh because of his position on presidential power. She referred to Christine Blasey Ford's sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh as "startling," and added that she hopes the allegations see their "day in the public eye." Herrera Buetler said she was "leaning yes" on Kavanaugh, called Ford's allegations "serious," and said "both the accuser and the accused deserve to have their stories heard out."
Long had a more robust answer to a question about how to address homelessness in the district, ticking off plans to increase access to affordable housing, mental health services, veterans services, and to meaningfully address the opioid crisis.
Surprise! Herrera Beutler doesn't support the carbon tax. Legit surprise: Long said she doesn't know how she'll vote on the Washington State initiative. “I haven’t taken a position on it because we’re still studying how it will affect southwest Washington," she said. The line drew knowing laughs and murmurs from the audience—people could tell she was dodging.
Carpenter David Hahm, pictured above, asked his question about whether the candidates would repeal Davis-Bacon. Long said she'd be a "champion of unions" and she "very much disagreed" with Republican attempts to repeal the act. The Congresswoman generally evaded the question and threw shade at “forced unionization.”
Both candidates held their ground, but the moderator, Johnson, stole the show. No matter who was clapping for whom, Johnson was having none of it. She commanded the room, policing applause coming from Long and Herrera Beutler supporters, shutting down a speaker from Camas who took too long to pose a question, and cutting off candidates when they ran over time. She was a dream, and I want her to moderate all Q&As for every event anywhere forever. A guy sitting next to me in the crowd leaned into me and whispered, "Can you tell she runs a trucking company?" I could.
Unfortunately, there will only be two more forums before election day, and Johnson isn't moderating either of them. To add insult to injury, though there will be forums, there won't be any actual debates in this race. According to the The Columbian, The League of Women Voters had to cancel their offer to host a debate between the two candidates because Herrera Beutler did not respond. The Columbian and The Daily News also invited both candidates to participate in a debate, but the Congresswoman turned them down.
But, after watching this forum in Woodland, Herrera Beutler's avoidance of public meetings is understandable. If I'd just watched a room full of people chanting my opponent's name in a county I carried by 9 points in the August primary, I'd be talking up the advantages of telephone town halls, too.