Leavitt eyes pros, cons of taking on Herrera Beutler

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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What’s next for Vancouver city council?

2013 could be pivotal for Smith, Stewart, Burkman

It’s come down to decision time.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt — in an Aug. 11 tweet from his account floated a single question: “Leavitt for Congress?”

There’s since been little from him on the topic, but that hasn’t kept down a flood of questions about a race featuring Leavitt and freshman Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas.

What party would Leavitt run with? Does he have enough experience? Can he raise the money? Will he find enough support?

Either way, Leavitt — or whoever else may want to challenge Herrera Beutler — will likely need to step forward soon to get started trying to unseat her in 2012. Leavitt’s said he’s likely to make an announcement this week.

A rumor is floating in Democratic circles that the party has someone else in mind: someone new, someone female.

But if or until that person steps forward, Leavitt, 40, remains the most visible and well-known person to take on Herrera Beutler, 33. Another candidate, Jon Haugen, has also announced he’ll run as a conservative Democrat in the race.

It’s not a certainty that Leavitt would have a smooth time ascending the political ranks. The mayor, only two years into his first four-year term (following five years on city council), may alienate some by trying to move on too quickly.

“He was really charged to become mayor of Vancouver,” noted former Mayor Royce Pollard, whom Leavitt defeated in 2009 a

hard-fought race. That rift hasn’t healed. “People wonder here about his dedication to city of Vancouver.”

But, observers noted that if Leavitt, or anyone else, wants to take Herrera Beutler down, it’s best to do it before she becomes an established member of the House.

It’s also worth noting that Herrera Beutler served only three years as a state representative before moving on to Congress.

“In a raw comparison between those two, is it that much a difference in where they started?” said Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman, who considers election analysis a hobby.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, put it another way: “It’ll kind of be a Barbie and Ken race, don’t you think?”

• • •

Leavitt, who has always been a nonpartisan politician, would have no chance of winning unless he runs as a Democrat, and gets the support of that base. And it’s no secret in that crowd that in the past, Leavitt has fallen more toward the right.

For a long time, he had former Republican candidate Dino Rossi’s bumper sticker in his office at PBS Environmental + Engineering and was also dinged during his 2009 campaign for his gaffe of calling Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire a “bureaucrat.”

Said Pollard: “There’s the question of if he’s a Democrat by necessity, rather than by principle.”

Leavitt said his track record shows he’s a moderate, “anyway people want to slice me.”

“I’m a moderate candidate, and I suspect that’s why I’m the most viable candidate to take on our congresswoman,” said Leavitt. “Because we are a very moderate district. And the question is: ‘Are folks ready to return to more moderate-oriented politics?’ I think the recent elections suggest that may be the case.”

Word is that many of Pollard’s former supporters aren’t warming to the new guy.

“Tim’s going to have to mend some fences from the last (mayoral) race if he’s going to run as a D,” Moeller said. But he added: “I can’t think of anybody right off-hand who’s actively in office who would be a viable candidate out of Clark County, other than Tim.”

Leavitt may also have the fundraising chops, should the party swing behind him: He joined Pollard in raising record-breaking amounts of money in their 2009 race, with Leavitt pulling in more than $140,000. Of course, he’ll have dig up millions of dollars, not tens of thousands, to be a serious threat in a 3rd District race.

As of Sept. 30, Herrera Beutler reported she had $556,982 in cash on hand for her 2012 campaign.

Washington Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz said he’s spoken with Leavitt about a run. Much, he said, will depend on the redistricting of Washington’s congressional districts at the start of next year.

Still, he said Democrats would “certainly be very open to the idea of the mayor running against Jaime Herrera (Beutler) on the state level.”

The freshman representative is “very vulnerable,” Pelz said.

“She’s a Tea Party Republican,” he said. “And President Obama’s going to be running against the Tea Party. The House of Representatives is a volatile job in America.”

Herrera Beutler spokesman Casey Bowman said that the congresswoman only takes her orders from the people of her district.

“Jaime is completely focused on getting our economy restarted and folks of Southwest Washington back to work,” he wrote last week. “Zero percent of her time is spent thinking about potential political opponents.”

• • •

A race would include a full-scale referendum on Leavitt’s track record as mayor. His reviews — just as they are for the congresswoman — are mixed.

When Leavitt defeated Pollard in November 2009, the 14-year mayoral veteran said voters were snowed by a pile of promises he didn’t think the rookie mayor could keep.

“I think he made an awful lot of promises, and I think if he’s mayor, people should hold him to them,” Pollard said at the time.

Leavitt countered then that he would do the things he said he would: fight tolling on the proposed Columbia River Crossing; discuss rolling back a $50-a-head employee tax; and bring a cultural and performing arts center back to the forefront.

“I’m careful enough not to make promises I can’t keep,” he said on Nov. 4, 2009.

So far, none of those promises have been kept.

Leavitt’s pledge to hold town hall meetings around the city also fell by the wayside in less than a year.

One local business owner called Leavitt’s leadership style “paralysis by analysis.”

At a local event recently, he said the tone of the conversation was: “Boy, do we ever need leadership around here. Boy, do we miss Royce.”

Leavitt said that’s the first time he’s been criticized for wanting to think things through.

“People usually appreciate that I’m a little more thoughtful about my decision-making,” he said. “You can’t keep everybody happy … but I think most of our community is happy. I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit in the last two years.”

He said he’s proud of the city’s budget restructuring; of the purchase of City Hall that will save $1 million a year; settling key labor contracts; of hiring City Manager Eric Holmes in November 2010; beginning work on developing the Columbia River waterfront; and of the hiring of a city volunteer coordinator and public information officer.

Leavitt has also become one of the strongest local advocates for the Columbia River Crossing’s plans, despite his earlier anti-tolling stance.

He’s the one who called then-Metro President David Bragdon, Portland Mayor Sam Adams and then-Clark County commission Chairman Steve Stuart together to write letters in support of the CRC.

“He’s fighting for (the CRC), publicly; that’s a huge change,” city councilor Burkman said. “He applies himself, he works really, really hard, and I think he’s much, much improved from when he first started.”

Burkman praised Leavitt’s work with Portland and Oregon leaders, along with those at the federal level. “It’s a nice framework he’s set up,” he said.

Leavitt also this month convened a working group to advise on transportation issues and possible solutions to the city’s road fund problems.

He’s helped form groups, including a business advisory group, and has worked with Battle Ground Mayor Mike Ciraulo to start a countywide cultural advisory council.

“Not all of those are all sexy issues, but we’re not in a sexy time in our country right now,” Leavitt said. “It’s certainly more difficult to lay the foundations for success than to be out cutting ribbons. And right now we’re laying a foundation for success, for future job and economic growth. I’m perfectly happy with that.”

• • •

It’s not clear whether Leavitt would attempt to keep his full-time job as an engineer and remain mayor, while also trying to mount a campaign in a district that as of now spans from Olympia to the coast and east to the edge of Lewis and Skamania counties.

Stuart, a close ally of Leavitt’s, announced last week that he won’t be running against Herrera Beutler — but he said he hasn’t heard about his friend’s plans for the race.

“He’d be a great representative for Southwest Washington,” Stuart said, before hedging his comments to say: “But as a commissioner and resident of Vancouver, I’d prefer he stay our mayor. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do.”

Leavitt has made it clear he’s relying on the advice of a close group of advisers on whether to stay or go.

But he did say that if he remains in his current position, it would hurt more to lose that seat when it expires in 2013 than to try and fail against Herrera Beutler in 2012.

“Losing the mayoral race would be more painful,” Leavitt said. “Given I grew up in this community, I’m most closely in touch with the people I represent, a loss in a mayoral bid would be disappointing.”

Not, Leavitt added, that such a possibility is on his mind: “I’m not worried about losing a mayoral race.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall .