Going into the November general election, 22-year Democratic incumbent Rep. Adam Smith of Washington’s 9th Congressional District — which spans from Bellevue and south Seattle down through Mercer Island, Renton, Tukwila, Kent, Federal Way and Tacoma — is facing a challenge from the contemporary left: Sarah Smith, a 30-year-old self-described Democratic socialist.
And at a debate forum hosted Sept. 19 by the Federal Way Mirror at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, the two candidates made their pitch to voters on why they were best suited for the job.
Republican Doug Basler also ran in the Aug. 7 primary election, but he was eventually edged out by Sarah Smith by more than 3,000 votes, putting her in second place with 26 percent of the vote and advancing her to the general election. Rep. Smith, meanwhile, took the lion’s share of the district, with just under 50 percent of the vote in the August primary.
Sarah Smith, a former volunteer for the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, has backing from left-leaning organizations like the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Washington State Progressive Caucus — as well as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another under-30 Democratic socialist who bested a longtime Democratic incumbent congressman in New York City earlier this year. Sarah Smith has run on a platform consisting of a wealth of progressive policy planks: a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage, abolishing the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and universal medicare.
One of her top priorities is getting money out of politics. For example, she calls for making it illegal for candidates to take donations from lobbyists and preventing politicians from fundraising during working hours.
“I believe the greatest threat to our country is the influence of corporate greed and money in our political system,” she said at the Sept. 19 forum. “Right now our voices are completely drowned out of the political system.”
Her specific criticisms of Rep. Smith have largely consisted of his willingness to take campaign donations from big corporations — especially firms in the defense industry — and several of his foreign-policy related votes, such as his vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2001 and a more recent vote against an amendment that would have banned the U.S. from selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
Rep. Smith has vigorously contested the narrative that he’s a faux-progressive. While he has said that his vote for the Iraq war was a mistake, Smith points to his sponsorship of a bill that would ban mandatory detention for undocumented immigrants and another that would nationalize health insurance across the country.
Rep. Smith also notes his early endorsement of the successful $15 minimum wage ballot initiative in SeaTac, and his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as evidence of both his lefty credentials and ability to bring home the bacon for his district. His endorsement list reads like a who’s who of regional progressive heavyweights and influential interest groups, such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and a slew of assorted labor unions and Democratic organizations.
“My record is clear: I’ve voted against corporations. I’ve voted against every tax cut,” he said at the forum. “In order to be effective in politics, you have to be persistent, make changes where you can, work with a variety of people — not just snap your fingers and expect to change problems,” he added in a dig at Sarah Smith’s platform.
The candidates were largely in agreement on many issues, such as empowering labor unions by opposing right-to-work laws, reducing defense spending by closing military bases, and reversing the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling. However, the candidates politely diverged in a few key areas at the Sept. 19 forum.
On health care, Sarah Smith blasted the private health insurance market and called for a single-payer healthcare system, whereas Rep. Smith promoted the notion of “universal access” to health care.
“We need single-payer. It’s the only way we’re going to link our health care with our hospitals and prevent [the insurance] industry from taking advantage of it,” Sarah Smith said.
Rep. Smith said that while single-payer is a “good place to start,” it doesn’t have to be the only solution considered for reforming the American health care system, pointing to Germany’s system, which utilizes both private and public health insurance to cover its population.
On the impact of the Sea-Tac International Airport expansion and the resulting noise and air pollution in adjacent cities, Rep. Smith said that he is sponsoring a bill requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to include community member input in policy discussions concerning the airport and said he has worked to get better insulation at facilities in the Highline School District to protect people from harmful particulate matter.
“I’m going to do a ton of work to try and correct what’s happening at the airport. It’s going to be the number one thing I’m working on,” he said.
In contrast, Sarah Smith argued that the district’s representative should pursue sweeping investment in sustainable transportation infrastructure.
“By investing in infrastructure, in a green new deal, we set ourselves up to kill a lot of birds with one stone,” she said.
When it came to term limits on members of Congress, the candidates also clashed. Sarah Smith said that she supported term limits because it allows for a broader range of people to represent districts, while Rep. Smith argued that term limits would push out competent politicians who have held their positions for a long time.
“Most of the people who oppose me in this election are strong supporters of Bernie Sanders. And I’m a supporter of Bernie Sanders. And he’s been in Congress a long time,” Rep. Smith said. “If you’re good at your job, get re-elected. If you aren’t, you don’t.”
In the past, Congressman Smith has criticized Sarah Smith for technically not living in the 9th District, whereas he was born and raised there. In her defense, Sarah Smith has argued that her house is blocks away from the district boundary in Kent, and that she used to live in the district before her landlord sold the home she was renting.
At the Sept. 19 forum, Rep. Smith took aim at Sarah again over her alleged lack of ties to the district. He called her record of working on local-level issues in the community “really light,” and claimed she didn’t vote on a Feb. 2018 property levy to fund the Kent School District.
“You did not vote [on] the school levy in 2018. It passed by 10 votes. So how can the people of this district trust you to care about them when you didn’t even vote in a crucial school levy?” he said.
Sarah Smith denied the allegation, saying that she voted no on the levy because state lawmakers had already allocated additional funding for school districts at the end of the last legislative session.
At this stage, it appears to be an uphill battle for Sarah Smith. While she did make it to the general election, she also brought in 39,000 votes to Rep. Smith’s 70,000 in the August primary, while the other 36,000 votes went to Basler, the Republican challenger.
Presumably, Basler’s voters won’t be enthusiastic about flocking to either an incumbent Democrat or a Democratic socialist and may stay home, meaning that the Smiths would strictly be fighting over the voters who voted for Democrats. Republicans in the district arguably might vote for Rep. Smith to prevent a Democratic socialist from getting to Congress, however. To close the margin, Sarah Smith will have to significantly chip away at the Democratic voters who went for Rep. Smith.