Baird sounds off on Clark County politics, issues

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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See the entire Brian Baird interview with The Columbian's Editorial Board at the bottom of this story.

Former 3rd District Rep. Brian Baird said on Friday that he's unsatisfied with the Democratic candidate running for his old seat and that he doesn't approve of his Republican successor's abandonment of traditional town hall meetings.

While visiting The Columbian on Friday afternoon, Baird, a Democrat, said U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, shouldn't have been scared off by the raucous town hall she had last spring.

"So she had a rough town hall; (I've) been there," Baird said.

More than a year ago, Herrera Beutler stopped conducting town halls, replacing them instead with smaller meetings with constituents over coffee. Her office gets the word out by sending phone alerts to a select number of people who live near the meeting location, though attendance is not restricted to those notified.

Despite his disappointment with Herrera Beutler, Baird said he has no plans to endorse Jon Haugen, the only Democrat in the race against her. Haugen is a commercial pilot for Delta Air Lines who in 2008 unsuccessfully challenged former state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.

Educator Elizabeth Uelmen was running as a Democrat in the race, but she dropped out because of fundraising difficulties.

"I wish the Democrats had been able to find a stronger candidate," Baird said, adding that there are so many deterrents to qualified people running for office, including a more negative campaign landscape. "It's sad that the call to public service has become so overshadowed by the voices of anger or disdain."

Recent changes in campaign finance rules that give corporations, organizations and wealthy individuals a way to make unlimited and anonymous campaign donations mean candidates have more money to spend digging up dirt on their opponents and transmitting attack ads to the public.

Baird was in Vancouver on Friday to speak at a Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership meeting. He also met with The Columbian's editorial board and spoke with a reporter, sharing his thoughts on several political issues in Southwest Washington.

On Zarelli's departure

Baird said the way Zarelli left office last month was damaging to the democratic process.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on May 18, the final day of candidate filing week, Zarelli said he would not seek re-election to his 18th District job. He then resigned on Thursday, setting in motion an appointment process to pick his replacement.

Zarelli said he wants the Republican already running to replace him, state Rep. Ann Rivers, to have the appointment.

Baird said that would give Rivers the incumbent advantage in the November election. He said Zarelli pulled "the old switcheroo" and essentially "selected a successor. We don't do that in America."

Baird said he would like to see the candidate filing system reformed in a way that would extend the filing period if an incumbent makes a last-minute announcement about not seeking re-election. Baird said he announced his plan to retire a year ahead of time, giving potential candidates plenty of time to prepare a run for his seat.

On partisan gridlock

Congress has changes since Baird became a lawmaker, and not in a good way, he said.

"There is an attitude, more prevalent on the right, that they are right about everything and compromise is a dirty word," Baird said.

When Baird approached U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, to see if they could work together, Baird recalled that Toomey said: "I'd be happy to work with you on anything you agree with me on."

Some of the incoming Republicans in 2010 had the attitude that they were elected because they were right about every issue and the other side was wrong, Baird said; they saw compromise as a sign of weakness.

"I'm not so confident that I'm 100 percent right about anything, and it's very hard to work with people who are," Baird said.

Reforming campaign finance law could help this problem, Baird said, because large campaign donors often throw their money behind extreme issues rather than behind a candidate with good leadership skills.

"Exacerbating all of this is the influx of independent money," he said. "Those people are tending to write checks on the extreme."

On insider trading

Baird said it was gratifying to see the STOCK Act, which bans congressional insider trading, get passed after he retired. Baird wrote the legislation while in office, but it didn't take off until the issue was featured on the "60 minutes" television show.

"I just loved it," Baird said of the STOCK Act's passage. "It was a major statement that members of congress and their staff have to remember why they were sent there."

On the CRC

Not gratifying, Baird said, was recently hearing that the Coast Guard said the planned Columbia River Crossing bridge was too low for ships passing underneath. Bridge planners and the Coast Guard should have been communicating better, and Baird said he had even warned the Coast Guard and bridge planners to work together during the design process.

"It floored me when I heard that," Baird said. "That's dumb. I was assured that it would be taken care of."

The proposed CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 bridge, extend light rail to Clark College, and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.

The former congressman also was unhappy about Herrera Beutler trying to block federal transit funding for the CRC project without a local vote. Her attempt, which took place in February, failed in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"To spring that in the middle of a hearing was a not-well-thought-out strategy," Baird said. It also could have had a negative impact on the project, he said.

On his regrets

Baird said he has no regrets about retiring but misses parts of the jobs, including the extensive research he did, which kept him in the know. If there was any vote he wished he could take back, it was his vote in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"That's the vote I regret the most," he said. "Our leadership told us that if we didn't vote for that, the result would be much worse. And I bought the line because of the makeup of Congress at the time."

On political endorsements

Although Baird won't endorse Haugen, he's made it clear to 49th District state Senate candidate Annette Cleveland and 17th District state House candidate Monica Stonier that he would endorse them. Cleveland and Stonier are both Democrats.

Baird served 12 years in Congress. He got 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.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics