To say Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler’s political career has taken off during the past five years might be an understatement.
In five years’ time — the amount of time it takes most college students to earn a bachelor’s degree — the Camas Republican became a legislator in the state House of Representatives, successfully ran for Congress twice and recently was named to the U.S. House’s coveted federal-spending committee. That appointment gives her more authority over the Columbia River Crossing project.
Part of the 34-year-old’s success might come from the fact that her diverse background is seen as advantageous for the Republican Party, especially in a time when the party is working to re-brand itself. But a more important key to her success, her supporters and colleagues say, is that Herrera Beutler is an energetic and practical leader who balances party loyalty with the needs of an often independently minded district.
“People have recognized her as the talent that she is,” Herrera Beutler’s former boss, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said recently. “I’m always impressed that Jaime is quick to speak up, and she recognizes that it’s her responsibility to speak up on behalf of the people she represents.”
Although Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District became more conservative following last year’s redrawing of voter boundaries, those across the aisle from Herrera Beutler say her ability to stay in office will depend on whether she’s able to distance herself from the rigid conservative ideology that sometimes exists within her party.
Critics from both sides
When Herrera Beutler embarked on her first term in Congress, she thought she’d found a rubric to make all of her voting decisions easier.
In order to vote in favor of a bill, she said, that bill would have to pass this three-pronged test: “Do the people of Southwest Washington benefit, am I breaking any personal values, and am I in line with the Constitution?”
Since then, she’s learned her lawmaking decisions are never that black and white.
She’s come under fire by those to her left and her right. As Democrats in the 3rd District began organizing to find a candidate to pit against her in 2014, the congresswoman was chastised by Tea Party activists over her vote to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.
Herrera Beutler was one of 85 Republicans to vote “yes” on a plan to keep tax cuts from expiring on nearly all Americans and to delay the fiscal cliff debate on government cuts. In the House, 151 Republicans voted against the deal, which was put forward by the Democratic-majority Senate.
Within hours, the libertarian group Americans for Limited Government issued a statement saying her vote “may engender a primary challenge in 2014 — and Rep. Herrera Beutler will have nobody to blame but herself.”
Before the fiscal cliff vote, Herrera Beutler said she talked to other Republicans who said voting “yes” would be best for their districts, but that they still planned to vote “no.”
“They didn’t want to vote yes because they were too afraid about how it would be mischaracterized,” she said. “That’s not courage. … We need to govern.”
Herrera Beutler votes with her party 91 percent of the time, according to the Congressional Quarterly’s latest report, released a year ago. Meanwhile, the congressional vote trackers at GovTrack.us define her as a “centrist Republican” who in the past two years has missed just 14 votes out of 1,161.
Herrera Beutler is quick to point out that during her first term, the National Journal ranked her the 222nd most conservative out of the 435 lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives. Only 17 other Republicans out of the 242 in the House were ranked more liberal than Herrera Beutler, according to the National Journal’s analysis.
Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader knows what it’s like to legislate from the middle. The U.S. representative lives in a true swing district — one in which about half of voters lean right and about half lean left.
“The challenge is to represent your constituency with your principles despite the ideologues on the left or the right shooting at you,” said Schrader, who’s collaborated with Herrera Beutler on bills.
He first heard about her before she even took office in Congress.
The 3rd District’s outgoing Democratic Congressman Brian Baird “indicated that she was potentially a pretty reasonable person to deal with,” Schrader recalled. “I took note, and she won her election.”
Schrader said Herrera Beutler has navigated Congress cautiously, and that’s helped her succeed.
“She’s a new member and trying to feel her way through,” he said. “I don’t think she’s taking any excessive departures from what she feels works with their district, and (being) cautious is not a bad thing, as opposed to shooting from the hip.”
Her party’s future
The 2012 elections left many Republicans scratching their heads.
As they reflected on why Mitt Romney lost his presidential bid, or why their hopes of gaining more seats in the Senate were dashed, some conservative commentators suggested the party could become obsolete unless it figures out a way to appeal more to women, Hispanic voters and young people.
Meanwhile, Herrera Beutler, one of the youngest members of Congress and the first Hispanic Washingtonian elected to the U.S. House, celebrated her re-election to a second term.
“I think Jaime is what the Republican Party needs, and that she has a lot to offer in having someone like her communicating the values and the principles that we hold as Republicans,” McMorris Rodgers, committee chairwoman of the House Republicans, said. “I think that’s a definite advantage for the Republican Party.”
In the current U.S. House of Representatives, Herrera Beutler is one of eight Hispanic Republicans and one of 19 Republican women in the 435-member body. She’s also more than two decades younger than the average age in the House, which is 57.
Herrera Beutler was raised in a working-class home. Her great-grandparents on her father’s side immigrated from Mexico, and her mother is Anglo. Herrera Beutler said she views her background as a bonus for her party.
“It helps broaden the perspective of the Republican Party,” she said. “It’s good to have more eyes on a problem, and from a different point of view.”
Herrera Beutler said she’s had discussions with members of her party about changing their harsh tone on immigration issues.
“As a Hispanic who’s been elected federally, I think that we have a tremendous opportunity to build a relationship, whether it’s with Hispanics or just immigrants in general,” Herrera Beutler said, adding that those groups should mesh well with her party. “They tend to be family-oriented, hardworking, entrepreneurial, and they like small businesses.”
Former Democratic Clark County Commissioner Betty Sue Morris said she hopes Herrera Beutler is able to use her heritage in a way that helps Congress better represent its Hispanic constituents.
If the congresswoman is able to carve out a niche as a voice for Hispanics, “that’s great potential for her,” Morris said. “If she’s just there as a token Hispanic, everybody’s going to know it, and that’s not going to do anything for her.”
The Republican Party also has experienced some infighting between moderate members and those who identify with libertarian or Tea Party values. That in-fighting was most recently witnessed earlier this month, when far-right members of the House tried unsuccessfully to unseat Republican John Boehner as House Speaker.
Although her Democratic rival, Denny Heck of Olympia, raised nearly $2 million to her $1.5 million in the 2010 election, Herrera Beutler emerged victorious in a district that had voted seven times in a row for Baird.
Her election two years later appeared easier. Through the redistricting process, in which voter boundaries are redrawn based on new census information, Herrera Beutler’s district became more conservative. Her Democratic challenger in 2012, Jon Haugen, had trouble gaining support from his own party, and he lost the general election by 21 percentage points.
Haugen, to no avail, blasted Herrera Beutler for stopping her traditional-style town hall meetings. She replaced her town halls with “community coffee” events, in which she would invite a group of constituents to a smaller community meeting, typically over coffee. Herrera Beutler said she made that change because her last town hall in May of 2011 became so divisive and uncivil that some audience members felt uncomfortable.
Shorty after winning re-election in 2012, Herrera Beutler was named to the coveted House Appropriations Committee, which oversees federal discretionary spending. She also was able to convince Republican leaders that she could handle the workload of serving on Appropriations, typically an exclusive committee, while remaining on the Small Business Committee.
What’s more, one of her subcommittee appointments on Appropriations will put her in the spotlight when it comes to the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing megaproject — a project she hopes to reshape into one without light rail.
Raised in politics
Politics has been front and center in the congresswoman’s life. During her early years, Herrera Beutler’s parents campaigned several times for the 3rd District’s former Republican congresswoman, Linda Smith. Smith recalls Herrera Beutler helping out on Smith’s campaign as a youngster.
When Herrera Beutler “was just a little girl,” Smith said, “she door-belled for me.”
Herrera was home-schooled through the ninth grade. Her parents encouraged her to write letters to the editor and to visit the state’s Capitol. It was during a trip to Olympia when she was in about the fifth grade that Herrera Beutler began considering a career in public office, she said.
Smith lost track of Herrera Beutler until she resurfaced as a young woman with her sights set on a legislative appointment. “I was so impressed with the way she carried herself,” Smith said, adding that it takes real leadership and coalition-building skills to compete for such an appointment.
Morris also was impressed with Herrera Beutler during that appointment process. Morris was one of the county commissioners who decided to appoint Herrera Beutler to replace Curtis in the 18th Legislative District.
“As I recall, the other two commissioners from Clark County favored someone else,” said Morris, who also had served as a state representative in the 18th. “But I was a really strong supporter of Jaime. She interviewed really well. She was in tune with her district.”
Since then, Morris said she’s been both disappointed and happy with Herrera Beutler.
“I’ve been pleased with some of the things that she’s done for forest owners and small timber growers,” Morris said. When Herrera Beutler voted in favor of the fiscal cliff deal, Morris praised the congresswoman: “She did the right thing here.”
But “I was disappointed that she was so quick to sign the Grover Norquist no-taxes pledge,” Morris said. “What the 18th Legislative District and the 3rd Congressional District value more than anything else is independence in their elected officials, and their willingness to ignore the party position when it’s the right thing to do.”
Sometimes, first- and second-term members of Congress “walk a fine line between their own degree of independence and their need to get along with their party for the purpose of good appointments to their committees,” Morris said. Herrera Beutler might still be learning who she is as a lawmaker, and “it’s not until you get into the heat of battle that you get to understand who you really are.”
While those following Herrera Beutler’s career wait for her to find her niche, Herrera Beutler says she wants to be the lawmaker known for connecting with the people she serves. She’s not one to introduce many pieces of legislation — “I actually think we have too many laws on the books,” she says.
Instead, when her career in Congress ends, Herrera Beutler said she wants people to say: “I got a hold of her office, and she helped. … That’s what I’d like my legacy to be.”