Ellensburg Democrat Jesse Hegstrom Oakey describes himself as a man who grew up bridging a number of very different worlds.
A Washington resident of nine years, Hegstrom Oakey grew up with liberal parents in Utah County, Utah, which has one of the most conservative voting records in the nation. Fluent in Chinese, Hegstrom Oakey said he also learned how to speak the languages of both Democrats and Republicans at an early age. His mother a professor at Brigham Young University and his father a teacher with Utah’s public schools, Hegstrom Oakey was himself home schooled. His mother is Mormon and his father Unitarian. He’s the middle child of five brothers.
“I think to the extent that the East-West divide exists — and it’s played up by politicians trying to score cheap points — but to the extent that it actually exists, I can understand both sides,” Hegstrom Oakey said.
Though he now holds a degree in Political Science from Central Washington University, Hegstrom Oakey originally moved to Ellensburg to study Chinese. He won a scholarship to study abroad in Qingdao, China, a region famous for its beer and architecture, only to discover when he returned to Washington that his major had been axed by CWU.
Hegstrom Oakey said it was the 2012 debates for the Republican nomination that drew him into the world of political science, after listening to the candidates answer questions about contraception in a way that Hegstrom Oakey said showed they didn’t understand what they were talking about.
Hegstrom Oakey said he became fascinated at the tendencies of both parties to parrot talking points over and over again without attempting to understand the issues better, and that it was his own desire to better understand policy decisions that drew him into the world of political science.
If elected to the state legislature in November, Hegstrom Oakey would be the youngest person in history to serve the state’s 13th Legislative District.
Getting involved in politics
At the beginning of the year, Hegstrom Oakey said he had no idea that he was going to run for office. It was the Kittitas County Democrats that recruited him to run, he said, an idea that at first seemed ridiculous.
But after considering it, Oakey said he felt compelled to run. First, he was bothered that no Democrat had run for the position in 14 years.
“It’s not good for democracy, for voters having choices, and it’s bad for incumbents who don’t have to stand up and say what they think,” Hegstrom Oakey said. “An essential function of a democracy is that voters have a choice.”
More than just running to run, Hegstrom Oakey said that he thinks his experience bridging starkly different cultures positions him to be a Democrat who can represent a majority-Republican district.
“I grew up surrounded by conservatives; I believe in a lot of the same issues,” Hegstrom Oakey said. “Yeah I’m a Democrat because I believe in a lot of things that Democrats stand for, but I also stand for things like the Second Amendment. We have a Second Amendment, and I think it’s entirely incumbent on elected officials to respect that.”
To improve the economic outlook for the region, Hegstrom Oakey said the region needs to invest in vocational training, and pointed at Grant County’s diverse economy and infrastructure as something that should be expanded upon.
“We have a very diverse economy here, and I think that we absolutely can find ways to help that grow — I don’t exactly what that means or what that looks like, but I’m definitely willing to find out,” Hegstrom Oakey said.
Student Mental Health
Following a string of student suicides in the Columbia Basin, including those of two Moses Lake girls 11 and 13 years old, many in the community have wondered what can be done to improve mental health in schools.
Mental health problems seem to be on the rise for a couple of reasons, Hegstrom Oakey said, including an increasing likelihood that mental illnesses are diagnosed, but he also said the trend is connected to a shift in the nation’s culture and economic outlook.
Hegstrom Oakey pointed to animal studies that indicate that strong communities tend to prevent behaviors like drug abuse, and questioned whether school district budgets put enough emphasis on extracurricular activities.
“People do well when they feel like there are things to do, when they feel like there’s a community to engage with, and we’re seeing that social fabric fall away,” Hegstrom Oakey said.
Hegstrom Oakey also pointed at sexual harassment in schools as a potential stressor for school-age girls.
For young adults, Hegstrom Oakey said that economic barriers need to be removed and vocational training needs to be promoted to give new workers more options.
Though the state legislature recently fulfilled the state Supreme Court McCleary decision, which said the state was previously not meeting its constitutional duty to fund public education fully, teacher salary negotiations appear to have blown another hole in long-term budgets. If this isn’t rectified in the coming legislative session, schools are facing massive deficits in years to come.
Hegstrom Oakey argues that the legislature need to ensure that money slated for education gets to where it’s supposed to, whether its earmarked for teacher salaries or for school supplies.
“It becomes complicated because it’s not entirely clear who should be in charge of what,” Hegstrom Oakey said.
While Hegstrom Oakey said that the state needs to decide to prioritize fully funding education and paying teachers a fair salary, he also emphasized it needs to be a balance of better funding some programs and cutting others.
“I don’t want to just raise taxes,” Hegstrom Oakey said. “Ultimately it’s the people’s money because it’s the people’s government. The legislature has this responsibility then, I think, to then take that money and say, ‘OK, how do we spend this money well, how can we spend it to get the most bang for our buck, how can we spend this on the right things?’”