When 19th Legislative District Rep. Joel McEntire, R-Cathlamet, decided to run for the state House in 2020, he wasn’t a newcomer to politics.
McEntire was the chair of the Wahkiakum County Republican Party, but he had no intentions of running for office, he said.
“I had always been an activist, but Republican leadership in the House kind of zeroed in on me and asked if I wanted to run,” McEntire said.
McEntire said he was motivated to run out of a desire for government accountability and to hold the government within its “constitutional boundaries.”
Like McEntire, Democratic challenger Cara Cusack isn’t new to politics.
“My father was a lobbyist for VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), so I grew up in D.C.,” Cusack said. “I saw all of the dirty side of politics growing. … (I) grew up going to Republican and Democratic conventions.”
Beyond their shared experience with politics before launching their campaigns, both candidates have spent their careers serving others.
McEntire served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 11 years and was deployed twice. He has a bachelor’s degree in ecology and a master’s degree in mathematics education. Before serving in the Legislature, McEntire worked as a science teacher in public schools and as a counselor for graduate students. While he no longer teaches, McEntire continues to serve in the Marine Corps reserves.
Cusack is the director of operations for Aspiritech, a company that helps children on the autism spectrum find employment. As a mom of nine kids and a grandmother to 10 grandchildren, Cusack said she has the experience to come up with solutions that everyone can buy into. According to Cusack, her campaign was “very last minute” and not planned ahead of time. She told The Chronicle she decided to enter the race after her 11-year-old son asked her, “Why do you need someone else to be your voice, you have one?”
Cusack said voters should choose her over McEntire because she would vote on every bill.
“My opponent has dozens of bills he didn’t even bother to vote on,” Cusack said.
Cusack further claimed McEntire “doesn’t have any pull with the Democratic Party that’s in control.” According to Cusack, McEntire has claimed that he gives his bills to Democratic colleagues in the Legislature.
“What I hear is ‘my name is so toxic I can’t get my name on any bill,’” Cusack said.
McEntire doesn’t agree with Cusack’s characterization of him as someone who can’t work with his colleagues across the aisle.
“That’s what she’s supposed to say. She doesn't know what she’s talking about but you have to say something. … I mean I don't blame her for trying, but you gotta say something,” McEntire said.
McEntire pointed to House Bill 1775, which would reform school construction financing. The bill features Democratic cosponsors as evidence of his ability to work with Democrats in the Legislature, he said.
“(HB 1775 is) probably my biggest accomplishment, even though it didn’t pass. It was a very heavy lift for a short session. It seeks to reorganize how we fund the construction and modernization of schools,” McEntire said. “That’s the bill that’s taken the most of my efforts and most of my work.”
As for his biggest disappointment during his past two years in the Legislature, McEntire told The Chronicle he wished legislators could have met in person, something that was thwarted by the pandemic.
“I’ve never been in my actual office or sat in my actual desk. It’s cut constituents off that would normally have been able to come to Olympia,” McEntire said.
McEntire and Cusack provided different answers to questions that covered a variety of policy topics, ranging from guns to housing affordability.
On the issue of gun control, McEntire said he wants to fight against gun laws that he believes infringe on people’s constitutional rights.
“I can speak to the rights we have not only in our federal Constitution but in our state Constitution. … I see laws coming out of the Legislature the past decade that have been blatant violations of our constitutional rights,” McEntire said. “I believe that the Second Amendment … is inspired (and) I will never apologize for that stance.”
Cusack believes steps need to be taken to address what she calls an “epidemic” of mass shootings. She made it clear that she doesn’t want to ban firearms.
“Do I want to take anybody’s guns away? No,” Cusack said. “I’m a gun carrier. I have my concealed carry. I grew up on a horse and cattle ranch in Texas.”
Cusack said she would like to see new restrictions placed on who can buy guns and wants to increase the minimum age to purchase firearms, though current Washington state law already prohibits those under the age of 21 from purchasing guns.
“People with violent criminal records shouldn’t be able to get a gun,” Cusack said. “An 18-year-old shouldn't be able to buy an AR-15.”
In a follow up question, Cusack made it clear that she doesn’t think people of legal age should be prevented from purchasing semi-automatic guns like the AR-15.
When it comes to abortion, McEntire said he doesn’t have a position on when in a pregnancy abortion should be illegal.
“(My position is) more nuanced than that. I believe the ability to have an abortion should have more restrictions. I can say I don’t believe in third term abortions. … It’s just a very tough issue. I don't have set timelines … like at a heartbeat or when they feel pain or things like that,” McEntire said. “I just know in my heart that abortion is wrong.”
Regardless of which restrictions he favors or opposes, McEntire told The Chronicle he thinks laws on abortion should be decided by the voters.
“I’d like the voters of Washington state to set those guidelines. I think the people should be able to set those guidelines,” McEntire said.
Cusack identifies as “100% pro-choice” on the issue of abortion, calling it “a matter of a woman’s health,” which should not be regulated. However, Cusack’s stance on the legality of abortion isn’t absolute. When asked by The Chronicle if she believes state law should be changed to legalize abortion after the point of fetal viability when a patient’s life or health isn’t at risk, Cusack said she doesn’t believe abortion should be legalized after the point of viability.
“I would not take it to that extreme,” Cusack said.
To address worsening housing affordability in the 19th District, McEntire said he would like to see environmental regulation relaxed. He argued the current regulations have made building “extremely expensive.”
Cusack said she would like to see accessory dwelling units, which are sometimes called “granny flats,” legalized across the state. She would also like to see restrictions put in place on the number of housing units a commercial investor is allowed to purchase.
“I want to see some limits on that. … I want to see a three day waiting list when a house comes on the market so that families have a little bit more of an advantage,” Cusack said.
Cusack added she would like to see a fee imposed on landlords who consistently raise rents over a certain percentage every year. She said the fees could go to programs that provide down payment assistance.
Zoning and Other Issues
On the issue of zoning, Cusack opposes legislation that would prevent localities from zoning areas for single family home residences, a position she shares with McEntire, though she said she would support a bill that encourages more relaxed zoning laws.
Both candidates were also asked about a variety of issues specific to them.
McEntire, whose district has incorporated a larger share of western Lewis County as a result of redistricting, was asked what he would say to his new constituents to earn their votes.
“I would say if they love the idea of an accountable government, a responsible tax base … and a government that’s within the constitutional grounds, I can promise that I’ll fight in the Legislature to keep those virtues,” McEntire said. “I have a great connection with Lewis County. My grandparents were egg and chicken farmers in Winlock and Toledo. I’ll fight just as hard for my Lewis County constituents as constituents that were in my district before.”
When asked if the disproven claims stating the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former president Donald Trump, McEntire rejected the idea that voter fraud changed the result of the election.
“I believe that there was fraud and cheating, definitely, but I don’t think there was significant cheating to change the result,” McEntire said. “Fraud takes place in every election and anyone who denies that is naive.”
Cusack, who said the 19th District needs a “Democrat willing to fight for jobs like the ones being lost at the Naselle Youth Camp,” told The Chronicle reversing the decision to close the camp is one of the first priorities she would address if she is elected. She claimed her status as a Democrat could have made a difference to prevent the camp’s closure in the first place.
“For one, I would have had a seat at the table to negotiate. Right now (Rep. Jim) Walsh and McEntire have a reputation. We’re the red headed step child of Washington,” Cusack told The Chronicle earlier this month. “The LD 19th … we don’t have any representation so we just kind of get dismissed.”
Cusack was also asked by The Chronicle if she supported term limits for the Legislature.
“Yes, I think four years is enough. I think that also cuts down on the potential for corruption. … More representation from people who are like us,” Cusack said. “I think across the board, two terms is good.”
Asked if she would pledge to leave office after a certain number of terms, Cusack said she would base that decision on whether she could enact term limits.
“If I got a policy in there for term limits, I probably would only for two terms,” Cusack said.
Cusack has also stated she would like to make Washington state a safe haven for transgender people, though she told The Chronicle she isn’t sure what specific policies she’d like to see enacted.
“Similar to what we're working on doing for women in anti-abortion states, providing some sort of funding mechanism in Washington, whether that’s working with various companies getting volunteers together or raising taxes, I don’t know,” Cusack said. “But I do think we should be providing some sort of pathway … especially in neighboring states.”
While McEntire and Cusack disagree on a variety of issues, there is one area where they share similarities.
“Joel and I both agree that our school funding system is messed up. … We got to figure that out,” Cusack said.
She later added, “We owe every child an equal education and right now that’s just not the way it is. Our school funding is based on the income of that area. We got schools … that can’t even afford a school nurse. We got to come up with a funding system that is equal across the board.”
The general election is Nov. 8 and ballots have already been mailed. The 19th District includes a larger portion of Lewis County since recent redistricting, including most areas west of Interstate 5 outside of Centralia and Chehalis.