SURREY, B.C. -- The NDP incumbent in the competitive riding of Surrey-Green Timbers was prepared to defend her record at an all-candidates debate moderated by Red FM on Thursday. But Rachna Singh was stunned by the first question from moderator Harwinder Thind.

“Rachna, your opponents are criticizing that the previous MLA and your friend Sue Hammell still holds the real power, and she is the defacto MLA, while you are just a rubber stamp,” said Thind. “What would you like to say to your critics?”

“Very painful moment for me,” said Singh. “I tried to handle it in the best possible way at that time, but the feelings that were going through my mind were pain and anguish. And one thing that kept coming up to my mind is: not again.”

Singh says her qualifications were constantly questioned and she experienced rampant sexism when she first ran to replace longtime MLA Sue Hammell, who retired in 2017.

“That was done with. I got elected. I did, I think, amazing work as an MLA for my community. And going for this debate for my re-election campaign and being asked this question, I was simply taken aback,” said Singh, who adds it was also insulting to Hammell.

NDP leader John Horgan called it “despicable behaviour” from a reputable media representative.

“Calling her a puppet was reprehensible,” he said. “The misogyny there reeked. It’s unacceptable and inappropriate. Why would women come forward to run when they get treated like that?”

No one from Red FM would agree to an interview. In a statement posted to Twitter, company vice president Bijoy Samuel said the news team developed the questions for the debate and “at no time was gender a consideration in the question and to allege differently is a grave mischaracterization.”

University of Victoria political science and gender studies professor Janni Aragon doesn’t buy that response.

“That’s usually the way people who make these sorts of comments follow up, with some gaslighting, in terms of, ‘Oh no no no, you’re wrong, that wasn’t the intention,’” Aragon said. “Regardless of what the intention was, the outcome is it was a sexist comment.”

Red FM reached out personally to Singh and defended the question, insisting it wasn’t about race or gender.

“If they don’t even have the realization of what they have done, how would you move forward?” she asked, saying this isn’t just about one media outlet, but a deeper issue in society.

Singh believes female candidates, and especially women of colour, are treated differently during election campaigns. A swastika and a vulgar word that’s used to demean women was scrawled on campaign signs for Vernon-Monashee NDP candidate Harwinder Sandhu on Friday.

“It was a misogynist and racist attack, not either or,” Sandhu said. “None of it is acceptable, but when people are attacking me for being a woman and for being a woman of colour, it was double the sadness. And then I was thinking right away about my daughters. Because moments later my 13-year-old daughter found out from school because she received the pictures.”

Sandhu, who has run in previous elections, says sexist and racist attacks are nothing new to her. But she’s been very emotional since the signs were defaced.

“Even today, I had a hard time at work,” said Sandhu, who is a registered nurse. “But I’m not going to let that hold me back, I’m going to find more strength from this act, because every time people try to such acts, in different ways I came out stronger.”

Singh has spoken to Sandhu to show solidarity, and although it breaks her heart, she says it makes her even more determined to win re-election and make a difference in Surrey Green-Timbers.

“These insults made at women should not deter any young women to step forward,” she said.