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June 14, 2021

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Denny Heck: Part liberal, part conservative

Democrat with deep local roots alarmed at path of middle class

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Denny Heck greets Mac and Pat Echols, who now live in the Vancouver house where he grew up, during a Lake Shore neighborhood campaign event in early June.
Denny Heck greets Mac and Pat Echols, who now live in the Vancouver house where he grew up, during a Lake Shore neighborhood campaign event in early June. Photo Gallery

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.

o Wednesday: David Castillo, Republican.

o Today: Denny Heck, Democrat.

o Friday: Jaime Herrera, Republican.

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

o Age: 58.

o Residence: Olympia.

o Occupation: Business entrepreneur, founder of TVW.

o Political background: State representative (1977-1986); chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner.

o Campaign funds raised: $950,162 (includes $350,000 of Heck’s own money).

o Quote: “This economy has been savaged by the Great Recession. My ambition is to go back, roll up my sleeves, and go after this problem.”

o Campaign website: http://www.dennyheckforcongress.com

Denny Heck’s Lexus hybrid pulls up to a ranch-style house on Northwest 24th Avenue in Clark County’s Lake Shore neighborhood. He motions to the corner window of the house next door.

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.

o Wednesday: David Castillo, Republican.

o Today: Denny Heck, Democrat.

o Friday: Jaime Herrera, Republican.

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

“That was my bedroom window.”

When Heck was growing up here, one of four kids in a working-class family, his street was surrounded by strawberry fields. He attended Columbia River High School, where Al Bauer, his history teacher and mentor, inspired in him an appetite for history, politics and current events. Bauer went on to serve for a decade in the state House and 20 years in the Senate. Among other lessons, Bauer taught Heck the proper way to plant a lawn sign — with a level.

Heck attended Clark College and graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia in 1973. At 24, he ran for the Legislature, hoping to solve the state’s school funding crisis. He served five terms representing Clark County’s 17th District, advancing to the positions of House majority leader and co-chairman of the House Education Committee.

Heck’s roots in Clark County go deep. But for the past 25 years, he has lived in Olympia. He pursued a political career as chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner and, in 1995, founded the public affairs channel TVW. For the past 10 years, he has made a series of business investments, including RealNetworks, the digital entertainment company that pioneered streaming media on the Internet and made Heck a wealthy man.

Along the way, he wrote and produced a one-man show, “Our Times,” in which he assumes the persona of an 86-year-old man and reflects on transformative events in Washington history. He performed “Our Times” at his high school alma mater in April 2008 to a sold-out crowd of old friends and colleagues.

Toward the show’s end, Hecks’ character reflects on the evolution of his own political philosophy.

“I realize I’m part liberal — someone with faith that government can serve,” he says. “Alas, I realize I’m also part conservative.” It’s often a good idea to think twice before adopting new ideas, he says. “There are almost always unintended consequences.”

Back in Clark County

Now that he’s running for Congress, Heck is back in Clark County, reintroducing himself to his hometown, which has changed dramatically since he left. Nearly half of the registered voters in the 3rd Congressional District live in Clark County, and many don’t recognize Heck’s name.

That’s not the case this early June afternoon. He’s among old friends and neighbors at the home of Bill and Marilyn Hogan. Wearing his standard campaign uniform — pin-stripe suit, suspenders, no tie — he’s in his element as neighbors stream in through the open door. Some knew his parents; some remember him from when he was a kid.

He’s running, he says, because he is alarmed at what is happening to the middle class.

“Here’s what I believe,” he tells them: “The single greatest domestic challenge of our time is creating family-wage jobs. I had a truck-driving dad and a telephone operator mom. They had four kids. Every one of those kids was able to go on to college.”

Most working families these days would be hard-pressed to do the same, he says.

He cites statistics:

• In the past 10 years, middle-class income has fallen when accounting for inflation.

• For the first time in 70 years, the economy has seen a “net zero increase” in jobs.

• Unemployment in Clark County still hovers at about 13 percent.

Then, for about 45 minutes, Heck fields questions.

• On health care reform:

The health care bill passed by Congress “is not perfect. It’s a work in progress. What I like is what it does for small businesses, the health care exchange, insurance reform. … What I don’t like is the cost. The cost of health care in the U.S. is 40 percent higher than in the next highest-cost country. We compete with countries that have socialized medicine.”

• On immigration reform:

“Our borders are porous. We need tough, practical and smart solutions. It is not practical to round up 12 million undocumented residents and send them home. … They should earn their citizenship by paying back taxes and learning English.”

• On foreign competition and the national debt:

“The single biggest purchaser of our treasury bonds is the Chinese. They are the largest manufacturer of solar panels and high-speed rail. They are kicking our tails, and we aren’t taking it seriously. Imagine the leverage they have.“ If the U.S. doesn’t find a way to boost exports, “China will have leverage against us. Banks won’t have money to lend to businesses.”

• On war and peace:

“The most serious decision a member of Congress makes is to send our men and women to war. It requires prayerful deliberation. Is our national interest at stake? Would this serve the purpose of peace in the broader world? Do we have an exit plan? Do we have a reasonable chance of succeeding?”

o Age: 58.

o Residence: Olympia.

o Occupation: Business entrepreneur, founder of TVW.

o Political background: State representative (1977-1986); chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner.

o Campaign funds raised: $950,162 (includes $350,000 of Heck's own money).

o Quote: "This economy has been savaged by the Great Recession. My ambition is to go back, roll up my sleeves, and go after this problem."

o Campaign website: http://www.dennyheckforcongress.com

Heck’s older brother died from exposure to Agent Orange during his deployment in Vietnam, “so it’s very personal,” he says. “ It would not be a decision reached without the deepest consideration.”

Answering the call

Heck was moderating a legislative meeting in Spokane on Dec. 9 when he got a text message from his godson. “I took my iPhone out to put it on the podium,” he said. The message, “Brian Baird is not running again,” stopped him in his tracks.

He and his wife, Paula, were living in comfortable semi-retirement, with a house in Olympia and another on Mason Lake. They were immersed in civic and volunteer activities.

“You could have bet me any amount of money that I would re-enter public life, and I would have taken that bet in a New York minute,” he said. Instead, he said, “I felt called immediately.”

He phoned his wife of 34 years. “If you say, ‘This is not what I want,’ I’ll drop it and you’ll never hear of it again,’” he told her.

There was a long silence. Then Paula said, “If you want to do this, I’m 100 percent behind you.”

Over the next week, Heck met with friends and associates. He and Paula and their two grown sons held family councils. The family vote was unanimous. He was in.

Heck quickly found himself in a political arena that had changed dramatically in the 25 years since he’d last run for election.

“It’s a whole different world than when I last got into this,” he said. “Civil discourse is more coarse.”

Heck flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Baird. They discussed the dysfunction of Congress and the Republican resurgence. “I don’t think I can flip a switch” and change that, Heck said.

His goal is more modest: He hopes to draw on his experience creating hundreds of jobs in the private sector to help reboot the economy of Southwest Washington.

From the start, Heck had no illusions about the toughness of the race.

“This is a swing district. It’s going to be a year that’s likely trending Republican,” he said when he was still pondering making the run. “I think they are very fair in their assessment that this is the best chance they’ve had for a while.“ On the other hand, he said, “I’ve lived in this congressional district my entire life, and in 50 years there have been only four years when a Republican held the seat.”

Heck entered a crowded field of candidates for a rare open seat in the 3rd. During the first four months of 2010, he traveled to each of the seven counties in the district while three of his opponents — Democratic state Sen. Craig Pridemore, Democratic state Rep. Deb Wallace and Republican state Rep. Jaime Herrera — were tied down in Olympia, dealing with a state budget crisis.

His campaign got an early boost from longtime associates, including two friends at the high-powered Seattle firm Strategies360, who hosted a fund-raiser for him.

By the end of June, he had put $350,000 of his own money into kick-starting his campaign and had more than a half-million dollars on hand.

Meanwhile, other candidates fell by the wayside. Wallace, one of the first to announce for the seat, dropped out in February and endorsed Heck. Republican Jon Russell dropped out soon after. Pridemore, who had carved out a position on the liberal end of the political spectrum, ended his campaign in June and also endorsed Heck.

Olympia peace activist Cheryl Crist is the only other Democrat remaining in the race.

The state Democratic Party gave Heck its endorsement at its convention in late June. If he survives the top two state primary on Aug. 17, he faces a tough contest in the fall. “Karl Rove is sitting on so much soft money to defeat a 3rd Congressional District Democrat, it would make Wall Street blush,” he said at the convention.

Heck spoke forcefully at the convention of the need to create jobs.

Of the unemployed, he said, “These are not a bar graph. These are our neighbors and friends. They need our help. I will get up every day and fight for the economy of Southwest Washington. The Lion of the Senate, Teddy Kennedy, said it very well: The best social program you can have is a job.”

He says he has created hundreds of private-sector jobs, and that he is the only candidate who can make that claim.

“Nobody has to tell me that 70 percent of all jobs are created by new businesses.”

Most weeks, Heck spends several days campaigning in Clark County.

After the early June gathering at his childhood neighborhood, he also attended a potluck supper in Fisher’s Landing, where he fielded probing questions: about why it’s so hard to change the health care system, about why it’s still so hard for small businesses to obtain credit, about what’s really important in education reform, about why the growth of China’s economy threatens the Pacific Northwest.

Heck did his best to answer each question, until he finally ran out of steam.

At the end, he remembered to make his pitch. “Please consider helping. It’s going to take $2 million and hundreds of people.”

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

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