As the lone Democrat in his race for Congress, Derek Kilmer is the heir apparent to Norm Dicks.
But Republicans aren’t going to let their best chance in decades to take over the seat go by without a fight. Five Republicans are among the seven Pierce County men trying to make it through the Aug. 7 primary election.
Personal wealth should allow Bill Driscoll, a real estate executive with a background in the timber industry, to outspend the candidates who are more familiar to GOP activists, lawyer Doug Cloud and technology consultant Jesse Young. Also in the race are real estate investor Stephan Brodhead and accountant and software-company owner David Eichner, plus an independent, Eric Arentz.
Whoever prevails is likely to face an uphill battle in November against state Sen. Kilmer, the only one in the race with elected experience. Washington’s 6th Congressional District is one of the state’s more evenly divided between the parties, but Democrats have won 24 straight consecutive elections there over a 48-year period.
“It still includes downtown Tacoma and more areas of the state that elect Democrats than (elect) Republicans,” former state GOP chairman Chris Vance said. “It would be a pretty big upset for a Republican to win this race.”
Vance – who knows something about tough races for Congress, having lost to U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma in 2000 – said he had written off Republicans’ chances in the 6th until Driscoll decided to run. With a well-funded candidate, his party has a shot – maybe a 20 percent chance, Vance figures.
The Republican who helped draw the congressional lines in post-Census redistricting, former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, agrees it’s a “marginally competitive” district. Gorton’s redistricting counterpart, Democrat and former Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, said Kilmer’s victories in a Republican-leaning legislative district show he can reach beyond just Democrats.
But the current GOP chairman, Kirby Wilbur, is talking up the chances for his party and says Driscoll or Young could attract Democrats who are blue-collar workers.
Vance said the race between the Republicans will come down to who has the money to get his message out through advertising – as Driscoll, at least, seemingly will. Congressional races cover too much ground for a campaign to be based on face-to-face meetings with voters, Vance said.
The district sits on both sides of the Tacoma Narrows bridges and stretches north through Kitsap County and west through the Olympic Peninsula. Post-Census redistricting took away University Place, east Lakewood and Shelton in exchange for Bainbridge Island and the rest of north Kitsap.
The area is in for a major changing of the guard considering the retiring congressman’s power and longevity. Driscoll, Cloud, Eichner and Brodhead, a two-time unsuccessful candidate for Congress in Oregon who declined to be interviewed, and Arentz, who didn’t return phone and email messages, were teenagers or younger when Dicks won election to Congress in 1976. Kilmer was a toddler. Young was born that year.
The GOP candidates tout their business backgrounds, and some also have military experience to emphasize, including Driscoll (Marine Corps), Eichner (Navy) and Brodhead (Air Force).
That could help them against Kilmer. But Dicks, who made his name doling out military spending and defending Boeing and the state’s military bases, said in an interview he did all that without having served in the military.
If some candidates’ time in uniform stands out as a contrast, Young recounts his own upbringing in a poor family in and out of homelessness in Tacoma’s Hilltop as a point of difference with wealthy Weyerhaeuser descendant Driscoll.
Young also highlights his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Driscoll is the rare Republican who favors both, saying the government should stay out of those personal decisions.
Some of the biggest differences among the Republicans come on military issues. Eichner, a supporter of presidential candidate Ron Paul, favors ending the Afghan war.
“It’s time to bring our heroes home to their families,” he told delegates to the state GOP convention.
Likewise, Cloud says the U.S. shouldn’t be fighting there without a declaration of war. Driscoll, like Kilmer, says the U.S. presence should be phased out, as is happening now.
Driscoll draws on his time stationed in Afghanistan, where he said he dealt with corrupt local officials and saw how the original U.S. mission had expanded to include trying to build a democracy – which he said is a job for diplomats, not soldiers.
“We have to be more cautious in our foreign affairs,” Driscoll, who also had a combat tour in Iraq, told the GOP delegates.
But Young said the war effort has been constrained because of news coverage of military missteps. He said the news media should be removed, not the military, which has promises to keep in Afghanistan.
“We shouldn’t have had to fight this war in front of the media,“ Young told the delegates.
He pointed to the coverage of the massacre of Afghan civilians and charges against former Lake Tapps resident and Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, and the reaction from President Barack Obama, who called the killings “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”
“I would never apologize for the United States. Ever. Period,” Young said in an interview. “You either believe in our country or you don’t.”
On other military issues, Brodhead, in campaign literature, calls for a more aggressive funding schedule for Boeing’s Air Force refueling tanker to create jobs. Eichner cites the same goal in calling for reducing military bases around the globe.
Driscoll said his effort to tame debt would include taking on Pentagon purchasing. But he said U.S. defense strategy should focus on Asia and the Pacific Ocean, which could benefit local military bases.
Cloud sees corruption in Congress tied to military spending. His biggest applause line at the GOP convention came in describing his request for files from an FBI investigation into members of Congress steering defense contracts to a campaign contributor’s clients. He asserts that Dicks would be implicated by the documents and that Dicks resigned to keep the files from being released.
“I almost single-handedly destroyed the career of Norm Dicks,” he told delegates. “What I did to Norm Dicks I can do the rest of ’em. I am so anxious to get into that ring. I plead with you, just let me at them.”
Dicks denies that, and a House ethics committee cleared him of wrongdoing. State Democrats’ spokesman Benton Strong said suggestions Dicks was acting as anything other than “an unbelievable advocate for that district” are unfounded. “Does Doug Cloud have any proof to back up this claim?” Strong said.
Between the two parties, the biggest contrast may be competing strategies on government’s role in stimulating the economy.
Kilmer in some ways fits right in with the Republicans. His prescription for creating jobs includes reducing the tax and regulatory burden on small businesses – providing tax credits and making it easier to get a development permit, for example. That comes naturally from his day job at the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
But he also advocates a role for government to juice the economy by spending money on infrastructure such as roads and sewer systems.
That’s a reflection of his lead role in directing state money to public-works projects as co-author of the capital budget, the plan that funds one-time spending such as construction and renovation of government buildings and facilities and environmental cleanup efforts.
”We need projects. We need stimulus. We need things that will put people back to work,” said Dicks, who has endorsed Kilmer. Both Democrats focus on boosting jobs rather than slashing as their main prescription for reducing the deficit.
A deal Kilmer and other Democrats negotiated with Republicans this year allowed the state to borrow extra money for projects while also asking voters to tighten the state’s debt limit.
But the Republicans running to take on Kilmer say stimulus provides only fleeting government jobs while adding to the nation’s deficits.
“Jobs don’t come from government stimulus. Economic bubbles come from that,” Driscoll told GOP delegates.
Addressing supporters at a fundraiser in Gig Harbor, Kilmer said government doesn’t directly create jobs, only sets the conditions for them. But he said government needs defending from being “made to be incompetent by an ideology that says government can’t do anything right.”
Young argues for deregulation as a way to help companies create jobs. He says the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is threatening jobs by putting up obstacles to Northwest coal exports.
To deal with the deficit, Young calls for slashing health care costs through lawsuit reform and weeding out medical fraud.
Driscoll said he would be pragmatic and build relationships across party lines to work out a budget-cutting deal. It’s similar to what Kilmer promises, citing his own work on the debt deals and on balancing an out-of-whack state budget to show he can work with the other side.
“I think it’s worth looking at the revenue side of the ledger,” Kilmer said in an interview. “The federal government has tax breaks for everything from race horses to imported ceiling fans, and I don’t think that makes sense.”
Driscoll says some tax exemptions would have to be eliminated as part of a bipartisan solution to the deficit. Brodhead is the most specific about new revenue, calling for a higher payroll tax to shore up Social Security and for seniors to foot more of their Medicare costs.
Eichner and Cloud have the most sweeping proposals for cuts – moving federal responsibility for education to the state level, for example. Cloud also calls for eliminating farm subsidies. And Eichner calls for eliminating foreign aid, the Transportation Security Administration and the departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior and Housing and Urban Development.