In a campaign that could draw hard-hitting ads after the primary, wealthy Democrat Denny Heck has built a large financial advantage over five rival candidates in Washington’s new 10th Congressional District.
The district, which was formed to accommodate Washington’s gain of a million residents during the past decade, sprawls from Shelton to Olympia and north and east to University Place and Puyallup.
Health care, the economy and Heck’s finances – including heavy support from political action committees from Washington, D.C. – are among the issues that are capturing top attention.
Heck is widely expected to emerge after the Aug. 7 primary as one of two finalists in a district that has a major military base but leans overall toward Democrats.
The five rivals – Republicans Dick Muri of Steilacoom and Stan Flemming of University Place, lesser-known Democrat Jennifer Ferguson of University Place, Progressive Independent Sue Gunn of Olympia and independent Steve Hannon from Yelm – are not giving up without a scrap.
Several said that Heck’s recent request that they and voters sign pledges stating opposition to independent super PACs – which can collect massive contributions and spend them without identifying donors – is a pretty convenient stance for Heck.
They note that he raised $1 million through March, including money from labor unions’ political committees and $100,000 he loaned his campaign, and he had eight times what his closest challenger has. His campaign announced last week it will report another $310,000 raised through June in Federal Election Commission reports due today.
“To me it’s a little bit of hypocrisy for a guy who’s raised all this money, and from PACs, to say we don’t want you to be able to get your message out through a group that wants to do this,’’ said Muri, a Pierce County councilman and retired Air Force officer.
THE ROLE OF MONEY
Muri said his own fundraising is going slowly. In his next report to the Federal Elections Commission, he expects to report about $140,000 total raised through June. Unlike Heck, whose top individual contributors are political action committees in the other Washington, Muri has been focused on local donors, such as a retired Air Force couple from Lakewood who canceled their summer cruise in order to contribute $5,000 each to his campaign.
Gunn, a scientist and environmentalist, said the whole political culture needs to shift away from wealth and corporate power. She said she raised about $4,000 but that her campaign goal is about meeting people in the district and offering them an alternative to the major-party candidates, whom she believes are too wedded to the financial and political-party interests that already hold much sway in American politics.
“I feel like it’s a battle for the soul of America. Are we about protecting corporate profits or looking out for the interest of the average person?” Gunn asked.
Hannon, a school teacher and long-shot candidate, said he has scraped $900 together so far, and he thinks Heck, Muri and Flemming “absolutely” will be beholden to interest groups if elected. Hannon said he expects they would prolong the partisan congressional gridlock that needs unallied candidates like himself to break.
“It’s the fact that you have these groups that really are trying to buy it. The regular folk – the everyday person – has no idea whether (to support) these congressmen who have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from labor unions, corporations, the environmental movement, the manufacturer trade associations,” Hannon said.
Heck, who is a former state House majority leader-turned-investor and small businessman, said his worry is that super PACs don’t have to identify where their money comes from and engage in negative attacks in local races, distorting what local voters want the campaign to be about.
The current law on super PACs also leaves open what Heck said is an even more “evil” possibility: illegal donations from foreign sources that would not be disclosed, if an unethical PAC wanted to accept them.
“Look, I don’t want super PACs coming in here spending money for my campaign or on behalf of my opponent,’’ Heck said in an interview. “I think super PACs are bad for America and bad for democracy.”
Ferguson, a marriage counselor who is new to partisan politics this year, said she signed the pledge; that makes her the only 10th District candidate besides Heck to do so.
Flemming, a physician and retired Army general who also serves on the Pierce County Council, is skeptical of Heck’s pledge, seeing no need for it. He also is struggling to raise funds and, like Muri, could benefit if Republican-allied super PACs enter the race after the primary.
Flemming’s larger donors are from out of state, and his campaign has taken a loan of $100,700 from Spanky LLC – a Beverly Hills, Calif., company – which helped swell his total receipts to $125,051 through the end of March.
Spanky LLC’s registered agent is Sherry Hackett, widow of the late comedian Buddy Hackett. Flemming said Spanky is an established business that lends money to various companies and entities and that he knows Sherry Hackett through her husband, David Loftus, whom he has met through working on veterans issues.
Flemming said borrowing is common for anyone who is “a serious candidate for Congress.” He said it is not realistic in the slow economy and in a presidential election year to raise large amounts of money locally.
Last month’s Supreme Court ruling to uphold President Barack Obama’s health reform law has the attention of 10th District voters, the candidates said.
Heck supported the health law on the eve of the vote passing it in the U.S. House in 2010. But he criticized it for not doing enough yet to rein in too-high inflation in medical costs.
After the ruling, he said the law strengthens middle-class families that live under threat of bankruptcies brought on by medical bills.
Republicans nationally are pushing back, and Muri has pledged to repeal it – in effect taking the same stance that majority Republicans in the U.S. House are staking in their standoff with the U.S. Senate.
Flemming also pledges to repeal the law, and he said he would bring his background as a physician to help shape any replacement bill that could give access to health coverage while slowing the rising cost of insurance.
“I think it is one of the front-burner issues,” Flemming said. “I think Denny’s position reflects his lack of understanding of health care … You can tout it as good because everyone is insured. But at the end of the day, the question is who pays the bill.’’
The other candidates in the race all said they favor covering more Americans with health care. Ferguson calls the Affordable Care Act a good start, while Gunn and Hannon favor going an extra step toward universal coverage by creating a single-payer system.
Gunn said the new law needs time to fully take effect so it is clear what needs to be improved, and she believes it could become a stepping stone to a Medicare-style system for everyone.
OUT ON THE STUMP
The candidates have been talking to groups that will listen, and several attended holiday parades to mark the Fourth of July in Tumwater, Steilacoom and other towns in the district.
Ferguson said she has been handing out fliers and studying the issues. But as a self-described “giver” and “doer,” she said she finds it hard to ask others to give money.
Gunn has been doing lots of knocking on doors in poorer areas, including along Interstate 5 near Lakewood, where she said she has met veterans injured by their service and struggling to find work in the slow economy.
A few candidates have attended small campaign forums, including one put on by the Green Party. Muri and Flemming spoke earlier this month to retirees at the Panorama community in Lacey, offering sharply different views on taxation.
Muri said he signed national anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s pledge not to vote in favor of new taxes, but Flemming said that was not a good idea. Flemming explained there are times “when we need” tax increases and that the bigger problem is getting taxes repealed when their original purposes have been achieved.
In another difference between the candidates, Flemming also said he would – if he could – get the United States out of the United Nations. He called that world body “worthless” in the two instances he has seen it up close – in Kosovo and in the Persian Gulf.
But Muri said later that the U.N. has kept the world out of global conflicts and that Flemming’s comments were sheer “pandering.”
The two candidates have clashed in other venues over each other’s record, much to the chagrin of state Republican Party chairman Kirby Wilbur, who said he wishes they would “spend at least a little time talking about Denny Heck and not so much attacking each other.”
Muri has attacked the financial condition of the city of University Place, where Flemming served as mayor, saying it was insolvent. That drew rebukes last month from the city, whose managers insist it is solvent and is paying bills.
Muri now says his accusations were “over the top.” But he said the city is still financially strained by decisions made during Flemming’s time as a University Place city councilman and mayor, including cuts to police services, and he said this raises valid questions about Flemming’s stewardship of public resources.
Flemming counters that claims about the city’s finances “are pure fabrications on Dick’s part, plain and simple. … It’s an issue of veracity.”
In their appearance at Panorama, both laid off each other and Flemming instead tore into Democrats, claiming Obama wants to cut the military to the point it no longer is effective globally.
Some event watchers said they were impressed by the breadth of Flemming’s background. He’s a retired Army Reserve brigadier general, former president of Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima and former state lawmaker (as a Democrat).
Flemming and the university parted ways in late 2009 and soon ended up in court arguing over the nature and cause of Flemming’s departure. The parties settled the suit in 2010. Court records do not include the terms of the settlement.
Political insiders with both parties in Washington, D.C., said the 10th District leans Democratic, based on how voters cast ballots in key races including the 2008 presidential campaign.
It is one of 30-plus seats Democrats hope to pick up nationally in their quest to regain control of Congress, and both political parties’ national organizations are watching the district for signs of an opportunity or vulnerability.
Dwight Pelz, state Democratic chairman, said Heck, who co-founded the TVW public affairs network, is better known in the district and a good fit.
“It’s a blue district with redistricting,” Pelz said, implying that Republicans know it. “If one candidate raises $1 million and the other raises $120,000, you wonder how hard they are running. … The real question is what will the PACs put in.’’
GOP chairman Wilbur has been unwilling to say if his party favors Muri or Flemming, or which candidate has an edge. But he thinks Republicans have a good shot at winning the seat, even though the much-quoted Cook Political Report and national Republican and Democratic sources say voter data show the district favors the Democrats.
One national observer, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, recently moved his rating of the district from “leans Democrat” to “safe Democrat.’’
But Wilbur said Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler of Camas beat Heck in 2010 to win in the 3rd Congressional District that had been represented for six straight terms by Democrat Brian Baird.
“I don’t think Denny Heck is the political giant that Democrats think he is,” Wilbur said.
Indeed, Heck is looking for his first electoral win since he was last elected to the Legislature in the mid-1980s, having lost a bid for state schools superintendent in 1988.
Muri, who served 22 years in the Air Force, touts his military background, saying he has credibility to win the trust of veterans, who make up a significant slice of the electorate in the new district that has more population in Pierce County than in more liberal Thurston County.
Flemming makes the same claim and has said that if elected he instantly would become the highest-ranking ex-military officer in Congress. He argues this would give the district an immediate seat at the table for any budget decisions that might involve cuts or closure of the Air Force or Army units at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Heck, who lost a brother during the U.S. war in Vietnam, said that military veterans just want competent representation.
He has said he would battle to preserve funding for soldiers and would advocate for base needs that are important to the local economy.
Heck also points out that U.S. Reps. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, and Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, served the base’s interest well over the decades, though neither man is a veteran, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has been spearheading efforts to improve care for veterans returning from combat with stress-related injuries.
Ferguson, who volunteered as a graduate student at Madigan Army Medical Center, wants to bring back specialty care for stress injuries at a unit she worked in that was discontinued.
Gunn and Hannon said they want to de-emphasize the role of the military overseas, using savings to improve the nation’s balance sheet. Gunn has said she also wants more focus on the well-being of soldiers returning from war.
All of the candidates believe the economy needs help, but they are far from settled on the cures.
Gunn wants to create a jobs program – something she is calling an environmental “restoration corps” modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps that put people to work after the Great Depression. She also wants to see stronger rules enacted for corporations to make them more accountable to shareholders and to the public.
Muri, on the other side of the spectrum, said he would try to repeal federal regulations, including health care reform, and halt environmental rules to deal with climate change. He believes these are contributors to uncertainty that slows hiring by businesses.
Flemming wants to improve training programs to get more workers ready for the jobs of the future, and he has floated the idea of a tariff on imports that could raise money for that purpose.
Heck is campaigning on a jobs-growth platform that relies a lot on continuing Obama’s policies and creating tax incentives for renewable-energy investments, and Hannon also favors moving the economy toward reliance on alternative energy sources. Both said tax breaks could encourage wider use of new technologies.
Heck has said more recently that he would push to have the government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae write off part of the principal on home loans to slow foreclosures and help consumers who owe more than their homes are worth to stay in them.