High stakes surround 3rd District debate

Thursday, local voters can size up all six candidates for U.S. House spot

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 
photoDavid Hedrick, Republican

Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District seat is on the national radar this year and up for grabs.

On Thursday, Clark County residents will get their first — and likely only — chance to size up the candidates side-by-side before primary ballots are mailed in late July.

All six candidates — Republicans David Castillo, Jaime Herrera and David Hedrick; Democrats Denny Heck and Cheryl Crist; and independent Norma Jean Stevens — will field questions posed by Leadership Clark County, a nonpartisan organization that promotes civic involvement and offers leadership training. The forum begins at 6 p.m. at Clark College’s Gaiser Hall and is open to the public free of charge.

Control of the U.S. House of Representatives hangs on the results of the 2010 midterm elections. If Republicans can capture 40 seats held by Democrats, they’ll be poised to block President Barack Obama’s agenda in the House for the next two years.

Pundits rate only a handful of races as toss-ups. Washington’s 3rd District is among them.

The 3rd has been represented by a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, for a dozen years. Linda Smith, the only Republican to have won the seat in its 50-year history, won it in a write-in campaign during the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress. She held it for two terms, giving it up for an unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in 1998.

Republicans see 2010 as their best chance since 1994 to retake the seat, which represents all or portions of seven counties in Southwest Washington. About half the district’s registered voters live in Clark County, a true swing county that voted for both Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi in 2008.

Since then, local Tea Party groups have become a factor in Republican politics. They have been vetting candidates for Congress and the Legislature and took an active part in the state GOP convention in Vancouver last month.

The GOP is confident.

“On Nov. 3, this state is going to look very different than it did before,” Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, the state’s top Republican elected official, predicted at the convention.

“After the 2008 election, some people thought Republicans would never win another election,” declared U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who now ranks fourth in the House Republican Caucus. “But we have found our voice. Today the Republicans are on offense, and the Democrats are running scared.”

Democrats hope to remind voters of the path the nation was on just two years ago under Republican control, and of what their party under President Obama has accomplished in 18 months. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine says the party has committed big bucks to reach the millions of idealistic first-time voters who helped Obama win election and enlist them in the fight to hold Congress for Democrats this year.

“We are the optimists,” U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee told the state Democratic Convention. “Optimism is an inherent American value. We have struggled to come out of recession. Next month, we will have created more jobs under Obama than under eight years of Bush.”

Heck, Herrera and Castillo have opened campaign offices in Vancouver in recent weeks and are spending a good share of their time here.

What to watch for

The suspense over which candidates will go head-to-head in November will continue until the Aug. 17 top two primary. The top two vote-getters in the primary will advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

The demographics and voting history of the district make it likely that voters will be asked to choose between Democrat Denny Heck and a Republican in November.

The real horse race in the primary is between the two Republican front-runners: Herrera, a state representative from Camas; and Castillo, a former Bush administration official from Olympia.

Castillo, a 42-year-old financial services adviser, entered the race in June 2009 hoping to unseat Baird. He has positioned himself as the true conservative in the contest. He won the endorsement of FreedomWorks, the organization founded by former Texas Congressman Dick Armey that helped launch the Tea Party movement last year. He’s also won the endorsement of Randy Tate, former executive director of the Christian Coalition. He’s a regular guest on conservative talk radio programs hosted by Lars Larson and Victoria Taft and an avowed opponent of the health care reform bill passed by Congress this year.

Herrera, 31, has served three years in the Legislature representing the 18th District, which encompasses every city in Clark County except Vancouver, as well as part of Cowlitz County. She previously worked two years for McMorris Rodgers in Washington, D.C. Herrera describes herself as “right of center,” but says she’ll cast votes for the benefit of her district first and with her political party second.

When she entered the race last December, Herrera quickly gained attention from the national media as a front-runner. However, the state GOP has not endorsed a candidate in the race.

Ex-Marine David W. Hedrick is the third Republican in the race. He gained overnight fame when he challenged Baird at a town hall meeting on health care reform last August. He joined the Tea Party circuit and traveled around the country in the fall, speaking at rallies. He gave a rousing speech at the GOP convention.

“My passion and beliefs come out when I’m on stage,” he told The Columbian editorial board. “I would describe it as a passionate argument for the Constitution.”

Two other Republicans, Washougal city councilor Jon Russell and Army veteran Chris Boyd, dropped out. Russell is running for the open 18th Legislative District seat Herrera is vacating.

On the Democratic side, what began as a crowded field in December, when Baird announced he would not seek re-election, has narrowed to one leading candidate — Olympia entrepreneur Denny Heck.

Heck, a Clark County legislator from 1977 to 1986, went on to found the state public affairs network TVW. Over the past decade, he has invested in several profitable private ventures. He told one group of voters recently that he will need $2 million to run a credible campaign. So far, he has contributed $250,000 of his own money to the race.

Heck has been endorsed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, Baird, Pridemore and Wallace. A moderate Democrat, he is campaigning passionately on the need to create jobs in Southwest Washington and restore opportunity to the middle class. The state Democratic Party endorsed him at its state convention in Vancouver last month.

Olympia peace activist Cheryl Crist, who has sought the 3rd District seat twice before, is the other Democrat remaining in the race. Endorsed by the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, she favors an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and public financing of campaigns.

She once campaigned for Baird but became disillusioned with him when he backed the Bush administration’s surge in Iraq. “I was upset with him,” she said. “Peace is good for your heart and also for your pocketbook.”

Norma Jean Stevens of Ocean Park, an independent seeking her first elective office, says she is running to change the direction of the country. “I am concerned about the rapid growth of the government, all the wasteful spending and the accumulation of massive debt that will be left to the next generation to pay,” she says on her website. Stevens filed for the seat during filing week in June.

State Rep. Deb Wallace and state Sen. Craig Pridemore, both Vancouver Democrats, announced early for the seat, but both ultimately dropped out, citing their inability to raise money during a challenging 2010 legislative session. Hispanic activist Maria Rodriguez-Salazar also dropped out.

Divisive within GOP

Both Herrera and Castillo point to their experience in government as an important qualification. Voters will decide who has the right mix of experiences: Herrera, 31, an elected state representative who previously worked as a congressional staffer, or Castillo, 42, a financial services adviser who held responsible positions in the Bush administration and the Washington House Republican Caucus but has never held elective office.

The race has been divisive within the GOP. Early on, Castillo launched a robocall campaign against Herrera, attacking her for accepting money from the SEIU, a powerful labor union in Olympia, and for supporting a labor-backed bill to help fund day care centers. That cost him support from some Republicans, including Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, who had earlier made a joint endorsement.

“There are other ways of showing their differences without trying to bash her,” Orcutt said. “I think that’s what turns people off to politics.”

“One of the reasons I think it made people angry is that the 3rd District hasn’t had a clear contest for 12 years,” Castillo told The Columbian editorial board. “Herrera has taken money from SEIU. She showed very poor judgment in leaving the legislative session and flying back to D.C. for a fundraising event. I made the decision, I caught hell for it, but I stand behind it. We are going to draw contrasts between the two of us.”

Herrera notes that her approval rate from organized labor is 24 percent. “I’m hardly in the pocket of big labor,” she says. In her first term, she explained, day care centers in the 18th District came to her and asked, “Will you give us the ability to join with our workers and negotiate for better rates?’” They said they needed state help so they could continue serving kids from low-income families.

“I don’t think it’s unconservative to support the safety net,” Herrera said. “The bill I supported is not compulsory. It doesn’t violate my own standards. Center directors pay the union fee. Workers are not compelled to join the union.”

Castillo told The Columbian he also supports the social safety net. Medicaid and food stamps helped his mother raise four kids on her own, he said. His concern is that deficit spending by Congress will force cuts in those programs that give struggling families a hand up.

Herrera sees herself as a match for the 3rd District. “Not once have you heard me criticize Brian Baird’s performance in Southwest Washington,” she told the editorial board. “Linda Smith and Baird both have an independent streak.”

Herrera said she will always put the needs of her district above the dictates of party, even though “there have been a few votes where I have felt the strong arm come down.”

Castillo and his backers, including House Republican leader Richard DeBolt, argue that he has the most relevant experience for the job.

“I have worked with David and I can tell you from first-hand experience, David Castillo is the only choice in this race,” DeBolt said in a fundraising letter last week. “Not only has David been a business owner, he has also worked at the highest levels of state and federal government. His experience is unmatched in this race.”

Castillo has struggled to win name familiarity across the district, however. A recent district-wide poll paid for by Herrera’s campaign showed him far behind.

Herrera’s backers, including her former boss, McMorris Rodgers, tout her youth, energy and ethnic background (her father is of Hispanic heritage) as pluses.

“I want to be part of that next generation that puts solutions on the table,” Herrera said at a recent fundraiser. “I want to help build the Republican Party and reintroduce it to the American people.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.