Rep. Brian Baird wraps up sixth and final term

The hard-working 3rd District congressman defied political convention

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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For a dozen years, Brian Baird has been Southwest Washington’s face and voice in Congress.

Now he’s moving on, leaving a self-published manifesto that decries the state of the institution he’s been a part of, proposes sweeping reform — and leaves it to history to sort out his legacy.

Physically, Baird hasn’t changed all that much since he challenged conservative Republican Rep. Linda Smith for the 3rd District seat in 1996. He narrowly lost that race but continued campaigning nonstop for the next two years, ultimately defeating Republican state Sen. Don Benton in 1998 after Smith stepped aside to run an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign.

Still fit at 54 (he’s an avid skier), Baird wears his silver-gray hair short and neatly barbered and dresses the part of a congressman — business suits for congressional hearings; fleece, jeans and boots for tours of flood sites in Lewis County or shell-shattered buildings in Gaza.

He married for the second time soon after taking office and became the father of twin sons in 2005. His desire to spend more time with his boys was a factor in his decision to leave Congress. He and wife Rachel Nugent, a global health specialist, have bought a house in Edmonds, a Seattle suburb.

Baird began his first campaign as a liberal college professor-turned politician from Olympia. But over six terms in the House, he has carved a reputation as a political maverick in a fast-growing swing district that he believes is turning more conservative as its demographics change.

The economic base of the 3rd District — a diverse, sprawling district that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascades and from the Columbia River to the south tip of Puget Sound — has changed in a dozen years too, he says.

“It’s much less involved with heavy manufacturing industries — aluminum smelters, pulp and paper mills, wood products,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of natural resources but a flat housing market.” He believes Clark County’s tech sector will continue to grow.

He’s tried to mitigate the effects of the economic forces that have battered the region, but with limited success, he admits.

“How much can you do as a member of Congress to help the economy of your district? You can do more than people think, but less than you like. To some extent, larger forces are at work.”

Still, Baird has been diligent on behalf of his constituents.

Early on, he took a crash course in the workings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so he could better help address the many issues in Southwest Washington that revolve around water, power and navigation. He’s won support from local officials from Ilwaco to Morton for just showing up to get a firsthand look at their problems.

He’s fought to continue federal payments to timber-dependent Skamania County and to preserve sales tax deductibility for all Washington residents. He’s worked with the state’s two U.S. senators to win federal funding for dozens of public works projects, from the rebuilding of Columbia River jetties to channel deepening on the lower Columbia to infrastructure improvements at the Port of Vancouver. He’s supported the proposed Columbia River Crossing with some reservations, though he’ll leave office with billions of dollars in federal and state funding for the bridge project still not assured.

“We had an excellent relationship,” said former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard. “I met with him frequently here and every time I went back to Washington, D.C.”

Pollard said he appreciated Baird’s work in support of the Fort Vancouver Historic Reserve and his success in securing federal funding that allowed the city to hire more police officers. Baird put Pollard in touch with U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee was able to offer assistance in the establishment of the Fort Vancouver National Site.

Baird “opened a lot of doors for me,” Pollard said. “He was a very effective legislator and I was sorry to see him go.”

A contrarian streak

At the same time, Baird has frustrated some of his constituents and occasionally infuriated the Democratic establishment with his contrarian positions on national issues. He voted against going to war in Iraq, but later supported President George W. Bush’s 2007 Iraq troop surge, drawing the ire of hundreds who opposed the war at a town hall meeting in August 2007.

Pollard, a retired Army colonel and Vancouver Barracks commander, was one who applauded Baird’s stance on the troop surge. “It’s rare to find a Democrat who has such strong support for the military,” he said. “We’re at war, and one of the reasons that (the terrorists) are not here is the fact that we have Americans fighting them on their ground.”

Baird annoyed liberals with his vote in favor of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

He held community meetings on the Democratic leadership’s health reform bill only reluctantly in the summer of 2009 after receiving what he described as a telephoned death threat. The threat was investigated and quickly dismissed by the FBI.

Although he initially voted against the health reform bill and never gave it more than lukewarm support, his Clark County town hall on health reform drew taunts from Tea Party activist David W. Hedrick, who later ran for Baird’s seat and finished in third in the primary.

Baird agreed to support the bill on the second vote only at the last minute, after being publicly rebuked by state Democratic party Chairman Dwight Pelz.

Baird “was not an easy politician to figure out,” Pelz said. “Brian is a tremendously intelligent, hard-working member of Congress. I agreed with him on some things, disagreed on others. I disagreed with him on the matter of the surge. I was critical of his first vote on health care.”

On the other hand, “Brian understood his district and he worked his district hard,” Pelz said. “He traveled the length and breadth of it. “

Conservation record

Baird infuriated environmental constituents in 2006 when he publicly dressed down Oregon State University graduate student Daniel Donato at a field hearing over Donato’s use of statistics in a $300,000 federal study. The study, published in an academic journal, concluded salvage logging had impeded forest regeneration on the massive Biscuit Fire in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest. At the time, Baird and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., were co-sponsors of a bill that aimed to speed salvage logging on burned forests.

Baird insisted that his doctorate (in clinical psychology) qualified him to challenge Donato’s use of statistics, and even submitted his own rebuttal to the journal that had published Donato’s study.

Bill Lunch, a political commentator and head of the political science department at OSU, has followed Baird’s career. He found the incident telling.

“In an academic setting, one could imagine a fairly civil and enlightened discussion” about the use of statistics in the study, he said. “But of course, it was played out in a congressional committee.”

Baird’s public grilling of Donato “has to have been calculated,” Lunch said. “It helped him in the more rural, natural resource-dependent areas of his district. He’s a professor of psychology, a student of human nature. He figured out what he needed to do early on.”

In fact, Lunch attributes Baird’s re-election five times in a swing district to his ability “to establish this independent persona. This is a guy who knows his own mind, whether others agree or not.”

Baird’s record on environmental issues has been mixed, though his ranking by the League of Conservation Voters has remained high throughout his years in Congress, peaking at 97 percent in 2007-08 and dropping to 86 percent in 2009.

As chairman of a House Energy and Environment subcommittee that oversees federal research grants, he became a strong voice for action on climate change and ocean acidification. He devotes a sizeable section of his official congressional website to a discussion of ocean acidification, caused by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which threatens the ocean food chain and the communities that depend on it.

But Baird ran afoul of conservationists back home for positions in favor of post-fire salvage logging, commercial fish harvests on the Columbia, and the federally sanctioned shooting of salmon-chomping sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

He has been a consistent supporter of economic development projects in Skamania County, including some that would have an impact on the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. He has been a strong advocate for a proposed destination resort near Underwood in the heart of the gorge, a project that is now on hold due to the recession. Earlier this year he joined U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, who represents the east end of the gorge, in demanding that the Forest Service’s regional office back off its concerns over the visual impacts of wind turbines in Skamania County just outside the scenic area boundary.

“What I found with Congressman Baird was that he was always engaged, never complacent,” said Kevin Gorman, executive director of the watchdog group Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “Sometimes that worked for Gorge protection and sometimes it didn’t. He was good on land acquisition, and he helped us with the Cape Horn Trail. But with commercial and industrial development, and how those would affect the natural landscape, it was very disappointing to be on the other side of those issues from him.”

Gorman added, “I don’t know that anyone worked harder than Brian Baird. He drove himself.”

Baird fought federal agencies to give his constituents a chance to weigh in on projects of concern to Southwest Washington, including the proposed Cowlitz Tribe casino resort near La Center and a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal at Bradwood Landing, just across the Columbia River from Cathlamet in Wahkiakum County.

He’ll leave office without seeing one of his long-standing goals, official federal recognition for the Chinook Nation, come to fruition.

One of his favorite roles has been as an informal ambassador to young people on behalf of the federal government. He has visited every high school in the district — repeatedly — to explain in simple terms how the government works and to pass out pocket-size copies of the Constitution.

National spotlight

As a member of Congress, Baird has sought and gained his share of national media attention, both negative and positive.

In 2005, he was voted Funniest Celebrity in Washington, D.C., for his impersonation of President George W. Bush. In 2007, he agreed to subject himself to humiliation on Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show. In a feature called “Better Know a Congressman,” he was grilled on the phallic symbolism of the Vancouver Sausage Festival, among other local customs. He said he did it to raise his political profile with young people and to put in a plug for America’s Vancouver.

His “better government” proposal to require a 72-hour waiting period before votes on major legislation drew media attention but never was adopted by the Democratic House leadership. It has, however, been embraced by the new House Republican majority.

He won national coverage for legislation he introduced to ban insider training on Capitol Hill, though the legislation never passed Congress.

Baird drew notice of a more critical nature for his travels on the taxpayer’s tab.

Though he serves on no committees that deal with national defense or foreign affairs, Baird has made six official trips to Iraq, four to Afghanistan and a dozen to the Middle East, including four visits to Gaza.

But the travels that garnered media attention were the ones he made to the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica and Australia.

Last year the Wall Street Journal gave front-page coverage to a trip Baird and nine other members of Congress made around New Year’s Day 2008 to the South Pole, the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian rain forest.

The TV tabloid show “Inside Edition” called Baird’s Galapagos trip in June 2008 “the trip of a lifetime on your dime.”

Baird defended both trips, saying they were necessary to help him better understand firsthand the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans as chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee. He even posted a detailed itinerary of his June 2008 trip to the Galapagos on his official congressional website.

He is one of a very few federal officials to have visited Gaza, where in February 2009 he witnessed the effects of the 22-day Israeli military offensive against the militant group Hamas, which killed an estimated 1,300 Palestinians, caused widespread destruction and left thousands homeless. He later appeared on Al Jazeera TV to discuss his House vote in support of a United Nations report that concluded Israel had violated international human rights conventions. He has called on the U.S. to pressure Israel to lift a blockade of basic building materials into Gaza and has threatened to push for a cut in U.S. aid to Israel if the blockade continues.

Baird’s interest in the Mideast conflict stems in part from the death of a young constituent there. Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old Olympia peace activist, was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes in a refugee camp. Contacted by the young woman’s parents, Baird called for a U.S. State Department investigation of her death and has continued to support the family’s quest for answers.

Power squandered?

In terms of clout in the House of Representatives, Baird never has risen beyond the middle of the pack. A national ranking service called KnowLegis ranked Baird 212th among the House’s 435 members in 2008, the latest year for which rankings are available.

In recent interviews, and in his self-published book, “ Character, Politics and Responsibility: Restarting the Heart of the American Republic,” Baird has lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing her of operating within a tight leadership circle and excluding ideas from outside that circle. He’s especially aggrieved that she refused to include a provision on biomass energy in a climate change bill until he and a few other members threatened to withhold their votes from the overall bill.

“Her closed circle led to policies that I felt were out of touch with a great portion of the people in my district and the rest of the country,” he said. “I’m not very happy with Nancy Pelosi and I don’t think she’s going to lead the Democrats back into the majority.”

As for the climate in the House these days, he said, “I won’t miss the hostility. The intense level of anger and unrestrained bile that is directed from all sides at anyone in public life is unfortunate.”

Combine that with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited campaign spending by anonymous donors and Baird sees a dire future for democracy.

“It’s not just that one side won or the other side won,” he said. “Massive amounts of money were dumped into the campaign and it worked. I have colleagues who spent two years of their lives raising funds. Thousands of donors were effectively wiped out or negated by a single person writing a check anonymously.”

State Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, says he respected many of Baird’s ideas, even his published proposal last year to do away with entitlements altogether and completely restructure the nation’s health and social service programs.

“I thought that on a lot of policy issues, he had the courage and the intelligence to take wise stands,” Pridemore said. “When he came forward with his proposals on health care, I thought they were very sound. But I think he had lost track of the need to work with other people to get things accomplished. If you want to get something done, you have to work within the system.”

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, offered a more caustic assessment. He says he’ll always be grateful to Baird for defeating Linda Smith, whose evangelical Christian views clashed with his own. But Moeller, a former Vancouver city councilman, said Baird has snubbed him for the past five years.

“I don’t think he reached out to his base very well, and his base included other elected officials in the 3rd Congressional District,” Moeller said. “Brian never held any elected office other than Congress, so he didn’t learn about being an elected official from the ground up. He kind of treated us like his students.”

In his self-published book, Baird advocates for fundamental reform of Congress and entitlement programs and for replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax. He thinks big thoughts, outside-the-box thoughts.

He worries about what he sees as an attack on science, worries about the rise of China and Russia, worries about the future of the planet.

“I am very worried, not only about our country but about what happens to the world as the U.S. declines in effectiveness,” he said. “There are no superpowers with a moral compass to replace us. It creates a moral vacuum.”

What will he miss about serving in Congress? “I’m going to miss the ability to have an impact on the region and the nation and the globe,” he admits.

Will he seek political office again? He’s heard the speculation. He might even have encouraged it.

“It’s not in my plans right now to run for Congress again,” he said. “It’s possible I’d run, but my kids get to vote.”