It was billed as a discussion titled "The State of Our Democracy: Bridging the Political Divide in WA." But the exchange between the state's GOP and Democratic Party chairs Wednesday night was more of a bridge to nowhere.
Tina Podlodowski called the Republican Party's claims to represent Washington residents "a joke" and accused its chair of being bound up in historic racism, misogyny and homophobia.
Caleb Heimlich accused Podlodowski of talking endlessly about Donald Trump and national politics to distract from local issues, and said that rural Washington is turning even farther away from Democrats.
Presented by Town Hall Seattle & Seattle CityClub, the hourlong virtual videoconference Civic Cocktail event quickly descended into interruptions and blame-casting and accusations over the former president, the integrity of elections, whether the two major parties really represent the people, the nature of truth and the definition of good-faith bipartisanship.
And it got personal, with Podlodowski claiming Democrats have historic majorities in the Legislature and the most diverse Legislature as proof that their party better represents people.
"It's a joke, Caleb, when you start to talk about how you represent everyone in Washington, you don't," said Podlodowski. "The historical misogyny, the historical racism, the historic homophobia — including yourself — the work that you've done.
"You talk about your three kids? I'm an out, proud, married lesbian with three kids," she continued. "You have opposed my adopting my kids, you have opposed my marriage and the Republican Party in their platform still does the same thing ... the Republican Party is completely out of step."
Heimlich called those comments "not fair" and pointed out that the Democratic Party does not, in fact, have historic majorities in Olympia. While Democrats have the most diverse caucuses ever, they have had larger majorities in several other eras, including under the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.
"Tina's going to claim to pass judgment on what I believe, what I think and what apparently every Republican thinks," said Heimlich. "Which is not fair."
He pointed to the loss of two of the last remaining rural Democratic state lawmakers in November.
"They are consolidating more and more in King County and urban areas, and ignoring the concerns of rural Washingtonians," Heimlich said of Democrats.
The debate follows a year of widespread demonstrations over COVID-19 restrictions and the killings of people of color by police, and protests by some conservatives convinced of widespread election fraud in Washington and nationally.
That disbelief culminated Jan. 6 as Trump supporters undertook a violent storming at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the election results from being certified, and in Olympia, an incursion onto the lawn of Gov. Jay Inslee's residence.
Despite all that, the hourlong session in verbal combat seemed to take moderator Joni Balter — who tried to reign in the debate — by surprise.
"I thought we were going to have a much softer kind of conversation," said Balter toward the end of the debate.
It was not to be.
Podlodowski called on Heimlich and Republicans to commit to abide by the results of elections, to be truthful about those elections, and to make sure all citizens can participate in elections.
"The GOP, the Republicans, currently fail at all three of these things," Podlodowski said. "And until they commit to those principles, functional bipartisanship is impossible."
She called on Heimlich to acknowledge that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the election, and then criticized Heimlich when he didn't say it as robustly as she liked.
"Joe Biden is the president, he won the election," Heimlich responded the second time he was asked.
Heimlich noted times where Democrats have objected to election results, including the effort by Rep Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, after Trump's election in 2016. He pointed to his defense of Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman's administration of the elections here in Washington amid protests by some in his own party, including the GOP's losing candidate for governor, Loren Culp.
Heimlich noted that Wyman, a rare statewide elected Republican on the West Coast, won reelection last year — and in 2016 when she beat Podlodowski for the seat.
And Heimlich took issue with having to agree with Podlodowski as a precondition of bipartisanship.
"If the Democrats' viewpoint is that you have to abandon all of your principles, you have to give up on the people that voted for you and their concerns, in order to come together, then our country is never going to come together," said Heimlich.
When asked by Balter, Heimlich said he wasn't interested in seeing Trump run for president again.
"My personal opinion is I would rather see somebody else in 2024," said Heimlich, adding later: "I think that for the party, we would be more successful with a different candidate."
Balter made an attempt to get the two to say something nice about each other, in the interest of "bipartisanship and a little friendliness."
Podlodowski said Heimlich had done a good job leading his party, "but again I do believe we're in a place where we just don't have a values match."
Heimlich said of Podlodowski, "I think she's been a pretty impressive fundraiser for the state Democratic Party."