A freshman congressman can’t be expected to bring home the bacon like Norm Dicks did, and Congress isn’t frying up a whole lot lately anyway.
So it’s no wonder that a lot of what U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer can quantify about his first term happened back home.
The Gig Harbor Democrat reels off stats on his talks with constituents: 16 town-hall style meetings, three drop-in style, six by phone, one by Twitter. Two visits to ferry docks, four to farmers’ markets, more than 100 to companies. He takes credit for keeping two small-business advising centers open and convening a forum for the timber industry, environmentalists and others to find common ground.
“Congress is not exactly a legislative juggernaut right now,” Kilmer said, “so oftentimes I’m looking for opportunities to have impact outside of the legislative arena.”
Now Kilmer’s task at home is to try to keep his seat against three challengers in the Aug. 5 primary election.
From the left come Green Party candidate Doug Milholland, a self-described “small-town peace activist” from Port Townsend, and Bill McPherson, who writes under the nickname “Greybeard” and doesn’t have a party preference but shares many of the views of Milholland and the Greens.
From the right comes a familiar foe from Kilmer’s hometown: Republican Marty McClendon, who challenged Kilmer for state Senate in 2010 and fell far short, winning just more than 23,000 votes to Kilmer’s more than 33,000.
McClendon, a real-estate agent for Morrison House Sotheby’s International Realty, is one of the pastors and teachers at the small Family Church Gig Harbor.
“People have lost trust in their government,” McClendon said of why he’s running for Congress.
The reasons? To McClendon, they include patients waiting for care at veterans’ hospitals, IRS scrutiny of conservative groups, and a number of Supreme Court rulings that “slapped down” the position of President Barack Obama or his administration, most recently on appointments to a labor board.
He also says people can see Obama’s signature health care law isn’t working because there are still people uninsured.
In the first five months under the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health insurance, the state insurance commissioner’s office estimates the number of uninsured people in Washington has dropped about 38 percent to 600,000. The drop is likely far smaller in some states where conservatives have blocked parts of the law.
In contrast to Kilmer, who criticizes Republicans for partially shutting down the government in an attempt to stop the law from taking effect, McClendon says it should be repealed.
“We had a system that worked for the majority of the people in the nation,” McClendon said of the health care system before Obamacare.
McClendon draws on his own family’s experience in the health care system. The oldest of his three children, 17-year-old son Logan, is in remission from leukemia after more than four years of treatment and a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Faith. Wife Lyn is undergoing radiation after successful surgery for breast cancer.
Medical bills helped push the family to the brink of bankruptcy, he said. McClendon said the family pulled out of an initial move to seek bankruptcy protection, but probably will eventually have to file again.
The 6th Congressional District that runs from Tacoma to the Olympic Peninsula is seen as safely in Democratic hands. Kilmer, a former business consultant, economic developer and state senator who replaced 18-term Democrat Dicks, had more than $1.2 million to spend at the end of March. He drew on financial support from both labor and business, including defense contractors and electrical workers. None of his foes had started raising money at that point.
McPherson, the independent, said that haul shows Kilmer like the rest of Congress is “too involved with the big money people.”
“I don’t see Congress doing much of anything until we can reform Congress, get the big money out of it,” said McPherson, a 75-year-old retiree from Port Angeles who decided to run after he couldn’t get on the ballot in his home state of North Carolina.
To rein in campaign spending, he favors a plan that would provide more public money to candidates who collect small contributions locally.
Kilmer, too, says he wants to reform campaign spending. He has co-sponsored proposed legislation to require greater disclosure and to amend the Constitution to undo the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that loosened rules on independent spending.
As for his large donors, that’s when Kilmer starts citing his meetings with average constituents: 19 appearances at Rotary clubs, 17 at chambers of commerce, more than 100 at festivals, fairs and other community events.
Back in Washington, D.C., Kilmer has joined groups aimed at connecting Republicans and Democrats and touts his efforts to make sure his bills have Republican co-sponsors. Until a recent family medical emergency, he hadn’t missed any votes.
He hasn’t passed a bill into law but says he’s responsible for many provisions in a major defense bill passed by the House. One tries to improve Pentagon management of training on cyberwarfare. Another aims to have the military look at purchasing software rather than creating it.
Kilmer’s key votes include support for a bipartisan budget deal, opposition to efforts to kill or delay the Affordable Care Act, and support for some of the proposed limits on collection of Americans’ communications by the National Security Agency.
Milholland, the Green Party candidate, criticizes him for opposing an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to curb NSA collection of phone data. (Kilmer says an amendment to the defense budget bill wasn’t the place to deal with a major national security issue.)
Milholland also opposes a couple of proposals Kilmer supported that would loosen or delay post-recession Wall Street regulations.
It’s Milholland’s second try for Congress after unsuccessfully challenging Dicks in 2002 as a Democrat. He’s a builder of eco-friendly houses and decided he wanted to make a bigger contribution, so he chose to use the money he would have spent on a new car on a campaign.
Milholland is running partly because he became alarmed about radioactive munitions in warfare. In a military-heavy district, he stands out.
He wants to gradually get rid of the nuclear submarines stationed in Kitsap County and convert that base into a “peace academy” that would invite the people of other countries to study the world’s problems. He also wants to create a “wisdom council” of veterans who would consider what could be done to help people hurt by the wars the veterans have fought.
“I will put forth legislation that says, let’s declare peace with the world,” Milholland said. “Let’s not continue to have our first foot forward the most militaristic one.”
His views are similar to McPherson, who spent 13 years in the U.S. Army before working at technology companies, and who says the country can have a strong defense without going to war. McPherson calls for creating a separate Department of Peace.
Milholland said his goal is to get to the general election, to change a debate that’s usually Republican vs. Democrat.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826