In the wake of George Floyd's death, Spokane attorney Natasha Hill stood up to decry what she saw as a rotten law enforcement system, going back to the very beginning.
"Police were created to return people escaping from slavery back to slave masters," the Inlander reported Hill, a Black woman, saying at a June 2020 rally. "If you have joined the ranks, you should know your history and be prepared. You are complicit in the worst gang this country has ever seen. State-sanctioned, funded. That is why we are here, to support the message of Black Lives Matter, that the police need to be defunded."
But two years later, a lot of Democrats are running away from that message. Last year, even Seattle voters punished some of their defund-the-police candidates, instead choosing moderate Democrats — or even Republicans. President Joe Biden dedicated a line in his State of the Union address to specifically repudiating that message.
And yet, today, Hill is one of the two Democrats running to challenge Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. And while she dug into the nuances of her position — she does not want to abolish the police entirely, to be clear — she didn't retreat from any of them.
Hill has the endorsement of Lisa Brown, the politician who faced off against McMorris Rogers in 2018. She also has the endorsement of Sen. Majority Leader Andy Billig, Council members Betsy Wilkerson and Zack Zappone, former Council President Ben Stuckart, and both of Spokane's Democratic state representatives.
"Natasha has swept almost all of the sole endorsements that the left-leaning organizations are doling out," acknowledges her opponent, Ann Marie Danimus, owner of a local marketing firm.
But Danimus says that of the 500 voters she's spoken with in the past week and a half, 497 supported her.
"I don't know how that's going to shake out in the primary, but the liberal organizations are embracing her," Danimus says. "And the people, it would seem, are embracing me."
If it was unlikely for a Democrat to win the 5th District before, it looks nearly impossible in 2022. Pundits and polls say Democrats are facing a Deep Impact-sized red tidal wave.
But that doesn't mean this race is irrelevant: It's a moment for Democrats to define and critique the Republican incumbent, McMorris Rodgers. Both candidates hammer McMorris Rodgers for fanning the flames of "Stop the Steal" and for stoking doubts about the election right up to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. (McMorris Rodgers did vote to certify the election after the riot.)
And, just as importantly, it's an opportunity for Democrats to define themselves, to assert who they are and what they stand for.
PROGRESSIVE VS. PRAGMATISTIt's a bit too simple to call Hill the radical in the race and Danimus the moderate. Hill calls herself a "progressive," not, say, a Democratic Socialist, and says she recognizes that Eastern Washington is a lot more conservative than the west side.
Danimus has been an activist too, when she was 12 years old she was rallying for nuclear disarmament and had joined Greenpeace. She expresses a suspicion of big corporations and says she's "not taking a penny of corporate money" in the race.
"I think they want some disruption, right?" Hill says of voters. "Because the status quo isn't working for enough folks."
Call it the Bernie Sanders theory: Voters are yearning for someone to deliver dramatic change.
Yet at one moment of profound disruption — 2020 — Democratic primary voters chose Biden, who campaigned on a platform of more moderate pragmatism and who did beat Trump.
"I'm a pragmatist," Danimus says. "Pragmatism, by people who are more in the extreme left, is viewed as a betrayal of progressive values."
On the other hand, whether because of inflation, crime or the pullout from Afghanistan, Biden's approval rating in office has been plummeting.
Danimus argues that the problem isn't just substance — it's messaging. Democrats' weak messaging, she says, is getting beat by a brutally savvy Republican framing that lets them sell "salt to slugs."
THIRD RAILS, FIFTH DISTRICTTo Danimus, better messaging doesn't mean softer messaging. "I don't pussyfoot," she says. "I don't pull punches. That's part of the reason that my message is resonating with voters."
Neither Danimus nor Hill hesitates to discuss some of the thorniest issues in American politics. Hill, for example, is unabashedly supportive of reparations — some form of compensation to Black people today for the long legacy of slavery.
"This isn't about equality, this is about equity," Hill says.
In other words, a person living under a bridge and a person living in a mansion may legally have the same "opportunity" — but the outcomes certainly won't be equitable.
By "defund the police," Hill says, she didn't mean get rid of policing. There are good police officers, she says, being reprimanded for doing the right thing. She says the problem is the system. She believes fixing policing takes more than nibbling around the edges — it takes wholesale reinvention, including pulling back on some areas of police responsibility, and using that money to fund other kinds of responses, like mental health professionals.
"Throwing more money at this institution — law enforcement — has not made our community safer," Hill says.
Sen. Billig says that, while he certainly doesn't agree with the idea of defunding police, he was impressed with Hill while working with her as one of the Democrats' representatives on the commission tasked with drawing new county commissioner districts last year.
"I was impressed with how sharp she was, and what a good negotiator she was in getting a fair outcome in a collaborative way," Billig says. "Natasha is someone who can get results."
Danimus, meanwhile, argues that the "Defund the Police" slogan alone is disastrous.
"'Defunding' is the worst marketing I've ever heard in my life, and that comes from 25 years of marketing experience," Danimus says.
Yes, policing suffers from racism, but the issue is far broader, she says,
"More African Americans die because of substandard care in hospitals than they do at the hands of police," Danimus says.
She says she's incredibly supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. She condemns the examples of rioting in 2020, blaming White radicals "screwing it up for Black people and other people of color."
She savages what she sees as left-wing "White superheroes wearing the cloak of 'wokism'" calling every action racist "like the little boy who cried wolf."
She argues that Democrats need to extend more grace to people who don't always know the right words to say. Calling people racist doesn't necessarily persuade them — or get them to vote for you.
"You have to give people a golden bridge on which to retreat," Danimus says. "And then you open the door to more understanding."
But Hill argues that the responsibility is on those who struggle to adjust to the changing times to get out of their bubble and educate themselves.
"Welcome to being a lower-class kid who grew up in poverty," Hill says. "I've had to navigate your systems my whole life and had to learn your language. You didn't have to learn mine."
WEALTH AND HEALTHBoth candidates draw on their personal story: Hill went from growing up in poverty in Hillyard to become an attorney — but she ended up with $150,000 of student loan debt as a result. So when it comes to the question of whether Biden should forgive student loan debt, she doesn't hesitate: "Absolutely he should.
"I never should have been in the position to accumulate six-figure debt between 21 and 24 going to law school," she adds.
She was naive, she says — but she also graduated into a massive economic crisis that the government and the finance industry caused. The banks got bailed out, she says. Why shouldn't we?
And when it comes to skyrocketing inflation, she sees it as a symptom of greed, of allowing corporations to make record profits during the pandemic.
"By valuing money over people, we get unsafe, unhealthy communities," Hill says.
It's one reason she says her biggest priority is strengthening unions and protecting workers from retaliation.
Danimus, who ran as an independent for the Legislature in the 4th District in 2019, is medically disabled. So when it comes to debates around health care, Danimus can talk about having to get transplants for both her kidney and her pancreas, and about getting surgeries while living in an RV park after she left an abusive ex.
"My medical story resonates with a tremendous amount of people in this district," she says. Imagine if small businesses didn't have to worry about providing insurance for their employees, she says.
When it comes to inflation, she's critical of the government for just stimulating demand instead of making investments.
"We have, as a country, failed to invest in inner cities and in rural areas," Danimus says. "We have abandoned manufacturing. We have abandoned family farms."
She argues she's a "quarterback" with a specific game plan to address them — like shifting agricultural subsidies away from the biggest corporations and toward smaller farmers.
"I'm not necessarily reaching across the aisle, I'm reaching across the street," Danimus says. "Democrats only talking to Democrats is not going to heal the divide." ♦