If Rep. Adam Smith didn't come off as a condescending prick who feels like he's entitled to the Congressional seat he's held for the last 22 years, he would have a much easier time in his race against first-time candidate Sarah Smith—at least at arts centers full of Sarah Smith supporters.
"He's such a smart ass," whispered someone behind me in the auditorium of the Rainer Arts Center in Columbia City, the setting for the latest candidate forum in Washington's 9th District. Moderator Crystal Fincher of KVRU, who sponsored the event along with the Columbia City Business Association, kept the two passionate candidates from biting each other's heads off as best she could in a volatile and at times extremely weird public discussion.
You can watch the entire TWO HOUR exchange on Facebook, courtesy of the South Seattle Emerald.
The event was organized and run by people of color, but the crowd was majority white. The small number of people I spoke with before and after the event said they voted for Sarah Smith in the primary and will vote for her again in the general. That said, both candidates drew about equal applause throughout the evening, with Sarah Smith winning by a couple yelps.
The two candidates opened up by rehearsing their progressive bona fides. Sarah Smith's general argument is that she's a millennial woman who has suffered hardship, which translates to meaningful lived experience on which she will draw if elected to Congress.
She describes herself as a member of "a generation of people who understand that incrementalism doesn't work," who is tired of "burying friends" who fought in the Iraq War, which Adam Smith voted for. (The Congressman has said he regretted his vote for the war.)
She characterizes her opponent as a hawk who has been bought off by corporations, but she has a hard time proving the latter claim. And I couldn't help but note her hawk hypocrisy, however digital. At one point during the conversation, she admitted to serving as a "main tank" in the World of Warcraft before all the expansion packs came out. I've never played World of Warcraft, but I understand that the "main tank" does not promote diplomatic solutions in the game. SOME DOVE.
Adam Smith generally argues that he's been an effective, progressive member of Congress with a long record of accomplishment. Though he's an older white guy representing a majority-minority district, he says he meets regularly with members of the Somali, Ethiopian, Korean, Chinese-American, and Indian-American communities. He adds that he aggressively recruits people of color in his district offices, and he backs people of color and women running for office. He provides receipts on all of that. And while he acknowledges that Sarah Smith has had meaningful life experiences, he cites his own hard knocks and criticizes her spotty record of direct service to the community.
The crowd was calm for the most part as the two sparred over approximately 482 topics, but there were a couple of sudden, volcanic moments worth talking about.
After Sarah Smith had repeated the phrase "I buried friends in that war" for maybe the fourth time of the evening, a man in the audience began clapping loudly. (1:10 in the video above.)
"Bro you're fired, you are fired! I'm tired of burying my kids! You're fired," the man yelled to Adam Smith.
"You have your vote, sir," Adam Smith replied.
The shouting man gathered his jacket and headed for the exit, screaming over his shoulder the whole way: "I am done with you."
Adam Smith didn't alter his demeanor under fire. He responded well under pressure, saying he wasn't going to retire based on his vote for the war in Iraq. He thinks he's represented the district very well, and he acknowledges that people are mad that he took that vote 16 years ago, but says he's had to live with the consequences of his votes and that's part of what makes a good leader. "I grew up in this district, I have fought for the people of this district, I have helped people… I am proud of the record I have in this district. If people want to fire me, well, that's what Sarah's here for, come and get me. Let's have a representative democracy," he said.
Sarah Smith's response was good but confusing. She said we need to recognize people's "pain points" and not pretend the vote didn't happen—but Adam Smith wasn't pretending the vote didn't happen. He had just spent the last 5 minutes explaining his vote and his regrets about it. She said the only way to prevent that pain is to stop going to war with "a new country every time I wake up," which is… not exactly true, and not something Adam Smith has control over. But the better part of her answer was responsive to the feeling in the room developing around Adam Smith's prickly disposition: "When someone is angry, or upset, or furious, they are going to shout you down. Your role is to stand fast for them. Your role is to ask how can I help you?" she said.
In another moment, Sarah Smith said she tried to help people avoid foreclosure while working at Citibank. Adam Smith said Citibank was foreclosing on people while Democrats were trying to save people from foreclosure, and then a big fight broke out over the implication that Sarah Smith was somehow responsible for her employer's business model.
It seemed like Adam Smith just misinterpreted Sarah Smith's comment about how she was trying to spin her work at Citibank as a good thing, but Sarah smartly jumped on his misstep and used it to launch into her story about that time she went out of her way to help a nurse who was facing foreclosure. It was one of those moments that fed into the narrative of Adam Smith as a big bad incumbent and Sarah Smith as the insurgent voice of the people silenced by a capitalist neolib, which are good moments for her to try to create.
But a majority of the exchanges between the two candidates followed a similar pattern. Adam Smith would answer a question on an issue, and then Sarah Smith would passionately rephrase his answer. Or Sarah Smith would answer a question on an issue, and then Adam Smith would point to legislation he's backed or passed to address that issue, which would trigger Sarah Smith to say that the legislation doesn't go far enough.
Their responses to an audience member's question about climate change perfectly reflected this dynamic. When asked how the candidates would fight against climate change, Adam said we needed a carbon tax, "massive investment in new technology" to use energy better and to create alternative sources, and provisions within those measures to protect the poor, who are vulnerable to an inevitable rise in fuel costs. He then listed progressive bills he's signed onto—including a carbon tax proposal by Rep. John Larson—and reminded the audience he voted for a Cap and Trade bill in 2009, which he described as "not perfect," but which did go some way in bolstering the argument that he didn't suddenly just get wise on climate change.
"I think there's a heck of a lot more we should do," Sarah Smith countered. She then listed three climate change bills Adam Smith hadn't signed onto, and then insinuated that he hadn't done so because he's "the top recipient of PAC money over all the Senators in the state of Washington," which is misleading and untrue. He's not a Senator, and, as Adam Smith explained, donations to individual candidates from PACs are limited to $10,000. PACs give that amount to many candidates in Washington, so he's not alone in being "the top recipient."
Adam Smith went on to say that he has not signed onto those three climate bills Sarah Smith mentioned "because they don't do anything for poor people, they don't put any money aside to help poor people make that transition," which he thinks is necessary to gain broader support for climate change legislation. "To say that it's because I'm bought off when I'm out there supporting a carbon tax… all those companies hate that, so it's just—this notion that I'm bought off by corporations is a bald faced lie and it goes completely against my record in Congress."
Sarah fired back using one of the few arrows in her quiver, arguing there that "we have to do more than just a carbon tax," and then saying she also wants climate change legislation to include money for poor people, which the legislation she supports doesn't do, so, then, wait—what the fuck are we arguing about?
These sorts of back-and-forths were frustrating and felt like huge wastes of time.
Alex, a Sarah Smith supporter I met outside of the event, summed up the evening pretty succinctly. "I don't think either of them won the debate," he said. "The questions didn't address sufficient points of difference between them. He was more prepared to address her positions, but she was more sympathetic."
We'll see if that sympathy is enough to push her over the edge in the coming weeks.