IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

To get to D.C., a Democrat runs away from it

In Washington’s Third Congressional District, the Republican candidate has spent her career in government; the Democratic candidate is the one touting his private-sector experience
Image: Denny Heck
Democratic congressional hopeful Denny Heck campaigns at Cheese Days in Toledo, Wash.Denny Heck for Congress

This year, Republicans are running against big government; Democrats are defending the policies of Congress and President Barack Obama.

But in Washington’s Third Congressional District, the Republican candidate has spent her career in government; the Democratic candidate is the one touting his private-sector experience in “starting companies, growing companies, [and] creating jobs.”

The Democrat, Denny Heck, 58, served as chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner from 1989 to 1993 and as state House majority leader in the early 1980s. He also started the cable television channel that broadcasts the Washington legislature and state agencies.

Heck knows government inside and out, and discusses topics such as electronic medical records with the relish of a policy wonk.

Government service 'a long time ago'
Yet when reminded that he knows government as an insider, Heck testily says, “That was a long time ago. I haven’t been in public office in 25 years.” That’s partly in reaction to a TV ad run by the group Americans for Prosperity which attacks Heck as “a 30-year political insider and a career politician” and links him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Heck’s opponent, Jaime Herrera, 31, was born when Heck was in his first term as a state legislator. In a year of crusading conservative GOP candidates, Herrera stands out by her earnest, soft-spoken, and gentle manner. It’s simply impossible to imagine her shouting “You lie!” to Obama during a joint session of Congress, as Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., did.

Herrera said people shouldn’t misjudge her mild manner as a sign of “lack of outrage over what’s happening. Just because I don’t pound the table doesn’t mean I am not terrified of the direction our country is going.”

A must-hold district for Democrats
Stretching from the state capitol, Olympia, to the suburbs of Portland, Ore., the district has been represented by Democrat Brian Baird for the past 12 years. It voted for President Obama in the 2008 election with 53 percent of the vote.

It’s a district Heck pretty much has to hold for Pelosi to retain control of the House. Underscoring the importance of the race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said this week it has reserved $650,000 worth of television ad time in the district to help Heck.

Before Baird, the seat was held by conservative Republican Linda Smith and before her by liberal Democrat Jolene Unsoeld, whom Smith defeated in the GOP wave of 1994.

To win, Heck is distancing himself from Pelosi and the Democratic House majority he seeks to join.

According to Federal Election Commission records, his campaign has gotten $24,000 in funding from Pelosi and Democratic leadership campaign committees.

But when asked whether he’d he vote for Pelosi as speaker next January if the Democrats hold their majority, Heck replied, “I wouldn’t pledge my vote ahead of time to anyone without having had the opportunity to talk with them about what is it we can do together to help get people back to work.”

Getting people jobs is even more urgent here than elsewhere: Clark County, the district’s most populous county, has an unemployment rate upwards of 13 percent.

Heck supports a $30 billion plan to have the Treasury purchase stakes in local banks to encourage them to lend to small firms. He favors a tax cut for employers who show net increases in employment.

But he’s not preaching the Keynesian gospel of deficit spending: he’d require increases in spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere or by new revenue.

What the stimulus got wrong
And he’s critical of the stimulus bill which Pelosi shepherded to enactment.

“The last time I checked only about half of the (stimulus) money that was appropriated for public infrastructure, roads and bridges, had been spent,” Heck said.

“They promised us this money would be temporary, targeted and timely. Well, it’s going to be temporary — it better be temporary, because we cannot afford it on an ongoing basis. But it’s not targeted; there’s not a close enough tether between these investments and high unemployment areas. And it’s certainly not timely, because we’ve only spent half of it.”

He added, “So don’t confuse me with somebody that thinks that Congress has done this in a really good way. I don’t.”

But Heck hasn’t given up on infrastructure spending. Whenever there’s a recession, he said, “We ought to have teed up the shovel-ready public work projects for roads, bridges, sewers, and port improvements that will lay the foundation for economic growth.”

Some deep reservations on health care law
He’s also critical of parts of the Democrats’ health care law.

“It’s a step, but it’s not far enough.... There were things in it I liked a lot" such as insuring the uninsured, but he added, "I have deep reservations about other parts of it. I don’t think they did enough on the cost containment side.”

“We cannot afford health care inflation which is four to five times that of overall inflation. It will bankrupt us all,” Heck said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the health care overhaul will cut $455 billion from Medicare spending over the next ten years.

Can those cuts be made without the current Medicare beneficiaries suffering?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” he replied. “But the equally honest answer is that I don’t have any illusions about the difficulty of implementation of health care reform. There are a lot of bumps ahead. There’s no guarantee of success here ... This is going to be tough.”

Heck has funded his race with $350,000 of his own money. He was able to do this partly because he was an original investor in Real Networks. In 2000, the stock was trading at more than $115 a share; in recent days it has languished at under $3 a share.

“I still have some, and I didn’t sell it when I should have. I sold a bunch on the way up and a bunch on the way down,” Heck said.

Privatize Social Security?
Despite his fortune, Heck insisted that he’s at a disadvantage because Americans for Prosperity has been running ads attacking him.

“They’re backed by the Koch brothers who have called for the privatization of Social Security and all manner of things that I don’t believe in," Heck said. "I can only presume that they are doing that because I don’t believe in those and my opponent does.”

Is Heck saying Herrera supports privatization of Social Security? He replied: “She’s backed by people who do. I guess she’d have to answer why they’d support her if she didn’t.”

Herrera spokesman Casey Bowman responded, “Jaime doesn’t support privatizing Social Security. She does favor keeping the promise we’ve made to our seniors and ensuring Social Security is there for our current and near-retirees.”

Herrera worked as an aide to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R- Wash., and since 2007 has represented a state legislative district in Clark County, which casts 51 percent of the votes in the district.

As a member of the legislature, she voted against using federal funds to help the state cope with increased Medicaid costs. “I voted against using that money because I felt like it created the (funding) ‘cliff’ we’re experiencing now,” Herrera said.

She said the problem was that the state chose to expand its Medicaid eligibility beyond children and poor elderly people to include “people who shouldn’t be included,” specifically childless adults, including many single males with drug habits.

“I’m all for getting them on the right track, but Medicaid was expanded to give cash payments of almost $400 a month,” she said. The federal windfall simply “allows the state to continue to mis-prioritize.”

She told a crowd of senior citizens last week she was “a little frustrated” that GOP leaders in D.C. haven’t yet come up with a 2010 version of 1994's Contract with America. But she has heard that one is in the works and she said any contract ought to include a plan for reducing spending, returning unspent stimulus funds, and cutting off bailouts.