Derek Kilmer isn’t known for being angry. The Democratic state senator is more likely to be found extolling the virtues of tax-increment financing in wonky detail than playing a partisan attack dog.
So it was jarring March 2 to hear Kilmer’s voice rise as he decried Republican-proposed education cuts. Republicans had just taken over the floor of the Senate by flipping three Democrats to their side. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen twice had to intervene to urge everyone to calm down – both after Kilmer’s passionate attacks.
“This is a bad idea,” Kilmer said of the cuts, “and it’s the type of bad idea that happens when you make backroom deals.”
Earlier that day, Norm Dicks had announced he would not run for a 19th term in Congress. Even before his populist speeches, Kilmer was looking like the heir apparent. GOP Sen. Andy Hill prefaced his rejoinder to Kilmer: “In response to the good congressman – I mean the good senator.”
Kilmer won’t be a congressman unless he can fend off his Republican opponent, the well-funded and moderate Bill Driscoll, a Marine and former timber-industry executive. But several campaign veterans who have watched the 6th Congressional District race closely say Kilmer has the inside track.
The 6th district shed some parts of Pierce County in post-Census redistricting and picked up Bainbridge Island. It remains narrowly tilted toward Democrats, whose candidates won an average of 53 percent of its votes in three recent contests.
Both candidates have money, about $1.5 million each including $1 million of Driscoll’s personal wealth loaned to his campaign. But so far the district has not seen major independent spending by political action committees, parties or other groups.
In the primary, Kilmer received 53 percent of votes while five Republicans and an independent split the rest, with Driscoll leading them at 18 percent.
WHAT THEY WOULD DO
Rather than go on the attack as he did in March, Kilmer has focused on his own record, pitching himself as a principled leader willing to reach across the aisle. He and Driscoll have made it a mostly mild race that sometimes seems like a contest for the most-bipartisan award.
Driscoll is a first-time candidate, with no political track record to indicate whether he would be as bipartisan as he declares – although he notes he has plenty of practice at home, where he’s married to a Democrat, University of Washington Tacoma associate professor Lisa Hoffman.
But Driscoll highlights his support for abortion rights in a television commercial with women promoting him as a different kind of Republican “who’s more worried about jobs and the budget than our private lives.”
He calls himself an environmentalist who believes humans are affecting climate change.
He told a business audience at a debate last week in Port Angeles that he favors same-sex marriage and that he hasn’t signed a pledge to refuse tax increases – in fact, that he’s open to finding new tax revenue to deal with the deficit as long as it’s tied to spending cuts.
On some other issues, Driscoll hews closer to his party. He supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expansion of the Keystone Pipeline carrying oil from Canada. He backs the call by GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan to overhaul Medicare through private competition – specifically backing a Medicare plan Ryan introduced with a Democratic senator, Ron Wyden. He does depart from Ryan on other parts of his budget plans, arguing, for example, that defense spending should be examined for cuts.
He voices support for renewing the tax cuts passed during President George W. Bush’s administration, but said he could be persuaded to scale them back with enough spending cuts.
Kilmer lines up with Democrats in calling for ending the parts of the Bush tax cuts that benefit the highest earners, and in defending social-services programs from GOP-proposed overhauls. He went on offense against Driscoll over both issues in Port Angeles.
“He suggests that we should continue to provide tax breaks for millionaires like himself, and to pay for it, he wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program that would increase the cost to the average senior by $6,000 a year,” Kilmer said.
That refers to an analysis of an earlier version of Ryan’s plan, while the Ryan-Wyden plan actually would keep traditional Medicare alongside a new voucher program. “Ryan has worked very hard to make it a feasible solution, so you have the option of staying on Medicare in it,” said Driscoll, calling Kilmer inaccurate in saying it would cost seniors more. “That is partisanship. That’s not intellectually honest.”
While acknowledging the difference in an interview later, Kilmer said those who switch to the new system would leave traditional Medicare with poorer and sicker beneficiaries, raising costs.
Kilmer voted for recognizing same-sex marriage and supports abortion rights. Unlike Driscoll, he supports President Barack Obama’s rule requiring insurance plans to cover contraception even for employees of many religious groups.
Driscoll takes a harder line than Kilmer against a proposal supported by Dicks to expand wilderness protections to more of the Olympic National Forest. Both candidates call for allowing more timber harvests on federal land, but Driscoll says he would insist on that increase as a condition of expanding wilderness areas.
The district, which has population centers in Tacoma and Bremerton, covers much of timber country on the Olympic Peninsula and the coast.
Driscoll, a former Weyerhaeuser executive whose great-great-grandfather founded the company, said his top goal is a spot on the House Natural Resources Committee.
WHAT THEY’VE DONE
Driscoll’s biography also includes his decision to re-enter the military in his forties, serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he led a civil-affairs team working with local leaders and civilians.
He says those combat tours helped steer him toward advocating a more cautious foreign policy centered on diplomacy. Working in China while in the timber industry, he said, left him with a better understanding of foreign trade.
The Oxford-educated Kilmer is a vice president of the nonprofit Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, where he says he learned how to help businesses survive and grow. He grew up in Port Angeles and represents the Bremerton area. He lives in Gig Harbor with his wife, Jennifer, the director of the Washington State Historical Society.
Kilmer was elected to the state House in 2004 and jumped after one term to the Senate, where he has focused on higher education and capital-construction budgets.
Many of Kilmer’s successful proposals have had Republican backing: a sales-tax deferral for the Tacoma Narrows bridge intended to hold down tolls; letting military training count toward licensing requirements in civilian jobs; a financing scheme that paved the way for construction of St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, with its 450 jobs.
Kilmer told the Port Angeles crowd that 80 percent of the measures he has sponsored had Republican co-sponsors. He pointed to a constitutional amendment to slow the growth of state debt, a measure that was a top GOP priority and is on this year’s statewide ballot, where it’s opposed by some in labor.
Kilmer worked with Republican Sen. Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee and their counterparts in the House to reach deals on the debt amendment and on 2011 and 2012 packages of cash and bonds to finance construction projects. Parlette said Kilmer is easy to work with and their marathon negotiations stayed civil.
“You’ve got to be able to tease each other and throw your little jabs with a smile on your face and we all did that quite well,” Parlette said, saying the four negotiators gave each other good-natured ribbing about “who has the backbone and who doesn’t.”
Driscoll has said in campaign flyers that Kilmer voted with Democrats 97 percent of the time, and that he has passed “Big Union liberal policies” while getting low ratings from a small-business group. The conservative National Federation of Independent Business has given him poor marks, as it does most Democrats, and the more moderate Association of Washington Business gives him a lifetime score of 54 percent for his votes. In contrast, the Washington State Labor Council gives him an 80 percent lifetime rating.
Kilmer said he isn’t afraid to buck his party, recounting how he voted against a 2005 reinstatement of the estate tax and a 2010 package of tax increases including higher business-and-occupation tax rates. That same year, he voted against the budget written by Democrats and the suspension of voter-approved rules for supermajorities to raise taxes.
Driscoll’s flyer incorrectly said Kilmer voted to suspend the supermajority rule. Driscoll said he has stopped using the flyer because of the inaccuracy. It also blames Kilmer for a tax bill he voted for, ignoring that he voted against it minutes later when lawmakers redid the vote.
The attacks are on firmer ground in saying Kilmer supported authority for state universities to increase students’ tuition by double-digit rates.
Kilmer says universities needed the money to keep quality high despite state cuts. But he also mostly supported previous years’ budgets that contained billions of dollars worth of cuts to planned education spending – despite the outraged opposition he showed last winter when Republicans proposed smaller education cuts of $74 million during their takeover.
That’s because this year’s proposal was avoidable, he said. Republicans later retracted it. “As we proved in the final budget, it didn’t need to be cut.”
Parlette said the takeover “was a new experience for some Senate Democrats who hadn’t experienced what it felt like to be in the minority,” and noted Kilmer would be in that spot again if elected to a Republican-controlled Congress.
“If he is elected and he does go into the minority party, then it’ll be a new experience for him to see how effective he can be in the minority,” she said.