Jaime Herrera: Staying ‘true to the principles’

Republican state legislator doesn’t hesitate to criticize both parties

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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The Columbian is profiling the six candidates who are running for the open 3rd Congressional District seat. With Democratic U.S. Rep. Brian Baird’s retirement from Congress, the seat representing Southwest Washington has grabbed national attention as one of a handful of toss-up congressional races in the nation.

Republicans see a chance to retake control of the U.S. House and their first opportunity in a dozen years to win the 3rd. Democrats hope to hold onto the seat by coalescing around a single leading candidate. Voters’ first chance to weigh in on this important race will come in the Aug. 17 top-two primary. Ballots will be mailed late next week.

In conjunction with this series, The Columbian is publishing all the candidates’ responses to its questionnaire on major issues that will face the next Congress. Those responses are available at http://www.columbian.com/politics.

• Wednesday: David Castillo, Republican.

• Thursday: Denny Heck, Democrat.

• Today: Jaime Herrera, Republican.

• Saturday: David W. Hedrick, Republican; Cheryl Crist, Democrat; Norma Jean Stevens, Independent.

photoJaime Herrera speaks during a forum featuring the six candidates for the 3rd Congressional District seat July 8 at Clark College.

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Jaime Herrera, Republican

• Age: 31.

• Residence: Camas.

• Occupation: State legislator.

• Political background: State representative, 18th Legislative District, 2007 to present.

• Campaign funds raised: $378,116.

• Quote: “I am right of center, but I have voted my district ahead of party politics.”

• Campaign website: www.jaimeherrera.com.

Jaime Herrera arrives breathless at the Hilton Vancouver Washington ballroom on the morning of June 2. The ballroom is bursting with 350 people who have paid $35 each to eat scrambled eggs and bacon and hear this 31-year-old state representative, widely regarded as a rising star in the Republican Party, make the case that she is ready to serve in Congress.

It’s Herrera’s first big local fundraiser, and many who have brought her to this moment are in the room: state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, in whose office Herrera served as an intern in 2004; state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, her 18th District seat mate in the state House chamber; U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Colville, her former Capitol Hill boss; and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who has been advising her on national security issues. All had mentored her during her meteoric rise from congressional staffer to state legislator to congressional candidate in just three years.

Zarelli has known Jaime Herrera since 1995. She sought his opinion before jumping into the race for the 3rd Congressional District seat back in December.

“We choose a party because we think that party holds principles that we believe are ones we agree with,” he says, introducing her. “Sometimes, we go astray. The thing that is important is to stay true to the principles, not necessarily the party.”

Herrera will do that, he says. She believes in solution-oriented politics. But he adds, “She’s going to have a battle this fall. Even after she is elected, it’s going to be very important to support her. Ultimately, it’s going to be the effort you all put in.”

Gorton predicts that Herrera will join “a huge class of freshman Republicans in Congress.”

McMorris Rodgers calls her “a hard worker, rock-solid on the issues, competent and compassionate.”

When it’s time for Herrera to take the podium, she says, “I do believe that the American dream, which is to pass on a better life to our children, is in danger.”

It’s a message that every major candidate, whether Democrat or Republican, is stressing in this race to represent a congressional district that has been especially hard-hit by the recession.

Herrera’s main Republican opponent, David Castillo, entered the race in June 2009, intending to challenge U.S. Rep. Brian Baird. The former chief of staff to the House Republican Caucus has won the endorsements of several Republican legislators who have worked with Herrera in Olympia.

Castillo and other conservative Republicans have accused her of straying from the party line, of lacking experience.

But this moment — as three of her opponent’s supporters stand across the street from the Hilton holding Castillo for Congress signs in the driving rain — belongs to Jaime Herrera.

Lessons from parents

Herrera’s father, Armando, grew up in the San Gabriel Valley east of Pasadena, Calif. Though his family was poor, he found a route to a middle-class life when a high school teacher introduced him to lithography.

Armando and Candice Herrera moved north and raised their three children in Ridgefield. They also adopted his brother’s three children to rescue them from the influence of drugs and gangs in Southern California. In 2006, through their church, they became involved in gang prevention.

“My parents taught me God first, family second and service to community a close third,” Jaime Herrera wrote in a letter to precinct committee officers when she was seeking appointment to the 18th Legislative District seat.

“Those were the values of our region, too: personal responsibility, a strong work ethic,” she said in an interview.

Herrera was home-schooled through ninth grade. She graduated from Prairie High School, where she played on the girls’ basketball team, and went on to the University of Washington, where she earned a degree in communications and political science in 2004.

She said she decided she was a Republican after leaving home and reflecting on the values she’d learned from her family.

“I do believe in smaller government, less government at every possible turn,” she said. She opposes abortion rights, opposes extending legal partnerships to same-sex couples.

Yet she touts the benefits of drug treatment for addicts, saying she saw how her cousins’ lives were affected by methamphetamine.

“Neither political party has all the answers,” she told commissioners from Clark and Cowlitz counties on the day she won appointment to the 18th District seat. “My ear is open and my heart is open to both Republicans and Democrats.”

Started political career in 2004

Herrera launched her political career in 2004, the same year she graduated from UW. She interned in Zarelli’s office, coordinated a successful fundraiser for the re-election of President George W. Bush, and won a White House internship. She stayed on in D.C. to work for McMorris Rodgers in her first term, specializing in health care, education and veterans’ issues.

“Some time into it, she expressed a desire to sometime run for office,” her former boss said. “You never know when the opportunity is going to come.”

It came in the fall of 2007, when a vacancy opened in the 18th Legislative District with the resignation of state Rep. Richard Curtis.

Herrera made the decision to go for it. She quit her Capitol Hill job, flew home and moved in with her family. On Nov. 18, 2007, she wowed 18th District precinct committee officers with a poised, five-minute presentation emphasizing her background and her views on health care and education reform.

“We need someone who can hit the ground running and go toe-to-toe with the Democrats,” she told her fellow Republicans.

Eleven days later, facing commissioners from Clark and Cowlitz counties, she declared, “Every step I have taken since high school has been preparing me for this. There is not a job in the world I would rather have.”

Herrera won the appointment. She immediately drove to Olympia to be sworn in, huddled with members of the House Republican Caucus, and cast her vote in a special one-day session held to reinstate a spending limit on local governments after a court ruling had overturned it. She was appointed to the House Transportation Committee., where she helped rescue a highway project at Ridgefield Junction that was scheduled to be delayed indefinitely.

Herrera impressed colleagues and constituents with her willingness to learn. She didn’t hesitate to ask questions of experienced lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Almost immediately, she started getting questions about whether she had higher political ambitions.

“Let me earn the respect and the trust of the people of the 18th,” she told them. “That is my goal. I’m focused right now. That’s what I want to do.”

On Dec. 9, when Baird announced he would not run again, it didn’t take long for Herrera to get the news. She discussed with her husband of four months, Daniel Beutler, whether to jump into the race. “My husband and I had talked about running even when we thought Baird was going to seek re-election,” Herrera said. She had followed coverage of Baird’s travels to exotic places on the taxpayer’s dime and the publicity surrounding his health care town halls. “I had groups of people calling me, asking me to run.”

They had tentatively decided that this was not the year. Now they had a decision to make. It wasn’t enough to know that the party would support her, Herrera said. She wanted to know, “Would people be willing to go door to door? Would I get support from small businesses? I had gotten encouragement from the national party, but could I actually win?”

She also looked at what kind of campaign structure she could put together and how much she could raise during what turned out to be a protracted 2010 legislative session.

“I was not going to stand down during session,” she said.

Once she made the leap, Herrera hunkered down and made fundraising calls during the last week of December. By the end of the first quarter of 2010, she had raised $197,000, surpassing Castillo, and had nearly three times as much cash on hand. She was on her way.

In February, Herrera flew to Washington, D.C., for a fundraiser and her debut appearance before the national media. Although she missed no committee meetings or floor sessions, critics said it was irresponsible for her to leave Olympia during the legislative session.

Speaking to a reporter from Politico, she downplayed her age and ethnicity. “I’m a different package,” she said. I’m younger. It’s intriguing to some folks, so I’ll take it. But I have never been one that said we need certain quotas for everything.”

Herrera says she’ll represent the 3rd Congressional District first and her party second if she’s elected to serve.

She doesn’t hesitate to criticize both major parties. Republicans in Congress overstepped in 2006 when they put their own political futures above the interests of the American people, she says. Democrats are spending the nation into oblivion.

Castillo, who has been delivering a similar message, says he has asked Herrera to debate him one-on-one, but her campaign has refused.

“We’re really focusing on the general election and making sure we have the ability to get our message out there,” Herrera said. “I’m not interested in cutting other Republicans out.”

Herrera admits to being ambitious but also conflicted.

Eventually, she and her husband want a family. “We put our lives on hold,“ she said, a bit wistfully, in an interview after the fundraising breakfast. Holding her niece Liberty, she said, “I made the decision that’s not going to be us for a while.”

That’s not the only trade-off they’ve made: Daniel has postponed law school. “It didn’t seem to fit,” Herrera said. “It was his decision.”

She knows a grueling schedule is a fact of life for West Coast members of Congress — the red-eye flights home on weekends, the constant travel within the district.

It’s necessary, she says.

“The best way to do a good job is to be connected to home. That means being here. If you don’t do this, you don’t have the background to make the right decisions.”

Then there’s the alternative scenario.

“If I lose this race,” she said, “I have the best years of my life ahead of me.”

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