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Baird says he has no plans to seek Inslee’s seat

Ex-Vancouver congressman says decision to quit was 'for benefit of the kids'

The Columbian
Published: June 22, 2011, 5:00pm

EDMONDS — Brian Baird is talking, in paragraphs, about marine snails the size of lentils that are in danger of dying out from the increasing acidity of oceans.

He’s speaking with authority about how the loss of those pteropods would disrupt the food chain, and, for a moment, it’s as if he’s addressing his former colleagues in Congress, imploring them to act before it’s too late.

But Baird, 55, is not standing at the podium on the floor of the House of Representatives where the Democrat served 12 years as a Washington congressman. He’s seated at a small round metal table at the marina in the city of Edmonds where he moved six months ago with his wife, Rachel Nugent, and 6-year-old twin sons to begin a new phase of life as a stay-at-home father.

“It was absolutely for the benefit of the kids,” he said of the decision to leave office. “People say that and it always elicits skepticism: What’s the real reason? Was there a crisis? Was he afraid of not getting re-elected? I didn’t have any fear about that. That had nothing to do with it.”

Still, when an ex-congressman moves to town, it gets people talking.

And when said congressman also has a bundle of money in his campaign kitty — $451,000 as of March 31 — and chooses to live where a congressional seat may soon be available, well, those conversations quickly become fodder for rumors nationwide.

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, Edmonds’ current Democratic congressman, is considering a run for governor next year. Baird said he’s not likely to try to replace Inslee.

“I would never guarantee that but it is certainly not in my plans or my family’s plans,” he said. “It would be foolish to ever guarantee something but I will tell you it is far removed from our plans.”

Nor, he said, is he quietly trying to influence the drawing of the state’s newest congressional district to fit his brand of politics. He said he has “zero self-interest” in the outcome of the redistricting process.

“If I was thinking of running I would be on the phones every day. I’d have the maps out every day,” he said.

Indeed, Baird is showing no signs of wanting to wade back into politics. He’s yet to even dip his toes into the waters in Snohomish County.

“He hasn’t reached out to me. I know he’s here only by rumors and press accounts,” said Bill Phillips, chairman of the Snohomish County Democratic Party.

Phillips said he’s not trying to learn Baird’s intentions next year should Inslee’s 1st Congressional District seat open up, because there’s already a crowd of potential candidates for the post.

“There are so many people running, if someone is saying they’re not then I’m not going to try to change their mind,” he said.

Baird served six terms as the Democratic representative of the 3rd Congressional District in the state’s southwest corner. In 2009, he announced he would not seek a seventh term. Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas won the seat in November 2010.

Baird said he and his wife, who had a home in Vancouver, spent last year looking for a new residence nearer family members in the Puget Sound area and within striking distance of Seattle, where his wife hoped to pursue her career.

“Frankly, having focused on my career for the last 12 years, it seemed fair to say, ‘So where do you want and need to locate for yours?’” he said. She now works at the University of Washington.

The couple also wanted a place they felt comfortable raising their sons and discovered everything they desired in Edmonds. They bought a home in the summer and moved in last December.

“We are incredibly happy that we chose Edmonds. It’s an astonishing place,” he said, adding with a smile: “I sound like I’m from the Chamber of Commerce and I’ve only lived here six months.”

Since leaving office, he’s written a book on improving the American political system, in which he proposes such controversial ideas as higher taxes, less federal spending and overhauling Social Security.

These days he consults a bit on health care matters and works with an international group on halting ocean acidification.

One day earlier this month, he said he squeezed in a conference call regarding the oceans while making his sons’ lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and getting them ready for school. Most afternoons, he shuttles them to swimming, gymnastics or piano lessons before dinner, he said. The kids’ names are William Washington and Walter Franklin — with the first names after their grandfathers and the middle names taken from the Founding Fathers.

“That’s my life and happily so,” he said.

Baird, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, cut his own political path and it sometimes led to run-ins with both sides of the political spectrum.

His support for the military surge in Iraq split him off from the party’s philosophical left flank. His vote against the health care reform bill cost him support. And Democratic leaders also fault Baird for not doing more to help Denny Heck defeat Herrera Beutler in the 2010 campaign.

On new political turf in Edmonds, those past battles might not be all that politically damaging, observers said.

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said Baird’s name recognition and campaign funds are “two big pluses” which could outweigh those controversial actions.

Even Phillips doubted Baird’s résumé alone could bring him down.

“In a political environment with Anthony Weiner, you’re asking me if Brian Baird is damaged goods?” Phillips said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz doesn’t want Baird vying for Inslee’s seat any more than he wants U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, to do so.

“If Brian Baird wants to run for Congress, he should have run in the 3rd (congressional) district,” Pelz said. “If he does run in the 1st, I guess you could call him less of a carpetbagger than Dennis Kucinich.”

While Baird insists he’s doing nothing to promote himself as a candidate, the $451,000 in his treasury would be seed money for a campaign at some point.

“I’ll reserve a fair bit of it in case I want to run,” he said. “If, at some point, it becomes definitive that it’s not going to be part of our future I’ll most likely donate it to some charitable cause.”

A Baird re-entry into electoral politics sooner or later wouldn’t surprise the leader of the state Republican Party.

Chairman Kirby Wilbur said if a Republican wins Inslee’s seat in 2012 then forces in the Democratic Party may ask Baird to try and recapture it in 2014.

“That’s going to be tempting. I don’t know if he’d give into temptation,” Wilbur said. “Once it gets into your blood, it’s hard to get out.”