Politics & Government

Olympia professor Baird became D.C. maverick

For a dozen years, Brian Baird has been Southwest Washington's face and voice in Congress.

Now he’s moving on, leaving a self-published manifesto that decries the state of the institution he has been a part of, proposes sweeping reform – and leaves it to history to sort out his legacy.

Physically, Baird hasn’t changed much since he challenged conservative Republican Rep. Linda Smith for the 3rd District seat in 1996. He narrowly lost but continued campaigning nonstop for the next two years, defeating Republican state Sen. Don Benton in 1998 after Smith stepped aside to run an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign.

Still fit at 54 (he’s an avid skier), Baird wears his silver-gray hair short and dresses the part of a congressman – business suits for congressional hearings; fleece, jeans and boots for tours of flood sites in Lewis County or shell-shattered buildings in Gaza.

He 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.

Baird began his first campaign as a liberal college professor-turned-politician from Olympia. But over six terms in the House, he has carved a reputation as a political maverick in a fast-growing swing district that he believes is turning more conservative as its demographics change.

Baird has been diligent on behalf of his constituents, who live in a far-reaching swath of land that stretches from Olympia to the Columbia River, from the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean.

Early on, he took a crash course in the workings of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers so he could better help address the many issues in Southwest Washington that revolve around water, power and navigation. He has won support from local officials for just showing up to take a look at their problems.

He has fought to preserve sales-tax deductibility for all Washington residents. He has worked with the state’s two U.S. senators to win federal funding for dozens of public works projects.

A CONTRARIAN STREAK

At the same time, Baird has frustrated some constituents and occasionally infuriated the Democratic establishment with his contrarian positions on national issues. He voted against going to war in Iraq, but later supported President George W. Bush’s 2007 Iraq troop surge, drawing the ire of many thousands who opposed the war.

Baird annoyed liberals with his vote in favor of building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

He held community meetings, including one in Olympia, on the Democratic leadership’s health-reform bill only reluctantly in summer 2009 after receiving what he described as a telephoned death threat. The threat was investigated and dismissed by the FBI.

Baird agreed to support the health-reform bill on the second vote only at the last minute, after being publicly rebuked by state Democratic party Chairman Dwight Pelz.

CONSERVATION RECORD

Baird infuriated environmental constituents in 2006 when he publicly dressed down Oregon State University graduate student Daniel Donato at a field hearing over Donato’s use of statistics in a $300,000 federal study. The study, published in an academic journal, concluded that salvage logging had impeded forest regeneration on the massive Biscuit Fire in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest. At the time, Baird and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., were co-sponsors of a bill that aimed to speed salvage logging on burned forests.

Baird insisted that his doctorate (in clinical psychology) qualified him to challenge Donato’s use of statistics, and even submitted his own rebuttal to the journal that had published Donato’s study.

Baird’s record on environmental issues has been mixed.

As chairman of a House Energy and Environment subcommittee that oversees federal research grants, he became a strong voice for action on climate change and ocean acidification. He devotes a sizeable section of his congressional website to a discussion of ocean acidification, caused by the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which threatens the ocean food chain and the communities that depend on it.

But Baird ran afoul of conservationists back home for positions in favor of post-fire salvage logging, commercial fish harvests on the Columbia, and the federally sanctioned shooting of salmon-chomping sea lions at Bonneville Dam.

One of his favorite roles has been as an informal ambassador to young people on behalf of the federal government. He has visited every high school in the district – repeatedly – to explain in simple terms how the government works and to pass out pocket-size copies of the Constitution.

NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

As a member of Congress, Baird has sought and gained his share of national media attention, both negative and positive.

In 2005, he was voted funniest celebrity in Washington, D.C., for his impersonation of President George W. Bush. In 2007, he agreed to subject himself to humiliation on Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show.

His “better government” proposal to require a 72-hour waiting period before votes on major legislation drew media attention but never was adopted by the Democratic House leadership. It has, however, been embraced by the new House Republican majority.

Baird drew notice of a more critical nature for his travels on taxpayers’ tab.

Though he serves on no committees that deal with national defense or foreign affairs, Baird has made six official trips to Iraq, four to Afghanistan and a dozen to the Middle East, including four visits to Gaza.

But the travels that garnered media attention were the ones he made to the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica and Australia.

Last year, The Wall Street Journal gave front-page coverage to a trip Baird and nine other members of Congress made around New Year’s Day 2008 to the South Pole, the Great Barrier Reef and the Australian rain forest.

The TV tabloid show “Inside Edition” called Baird’s Galapagos trip in June 2008 “the trip of a lifetime on your dime.”

Baird defended both trips, saying they were necessary to help him better understand firsthand the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans as the chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee.

He is one of a few federal officials to have visited Gaza, where in February 2009 he witnessed the effects of the 22-day Israeli military offensive against the militant group Hamas. He has called on the U.S. to pressure Israel to lift a blockade of basic building materials into Gaza and has threatened to push for a cut in U.S. aid to Israel if the blockade continues.

Baird’s interest in the Mideast conflict stems in part from the death of Olympia’s Rachel Corrie, who was 23 when she was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes in a refugee camp. Contacted by Corrie’s parents, Baird called for a U.S. State Department investigation of her death and has continued to support the family’s quest for answers.

POWER SQUANDERED?

In terms of clout in the House of Representatives, Baird never has risen beyond the middle of the pack. A national ranking service called KnowLegis ranked Baird 212th among the House’s 435 members in 2008, the latest year for which rankings are available.

In recent interviews and in his self-published book, “Character, Politics and Responsibility: Restarting the Heart of the American Republic,” Baird has lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, accusing her of operating within a tight leadership circle and excluding ideas from outside that circle.

“Her closed circle led to policies that I felt were out of touch with a great portion of the people in my district and the rest of the country,” he said. “I’m not very happy with Nancy Pelosi and I don’t think she’s going to lead the Democrats back into the majority.”

MOVING ON

What will Baird miss about serving in Congress?

“I’m going to miss the ability to have an impact on the region and the nation and the globe,” he said.

Will he seek political office again? He’s heard the speculation. He might even have encouraged it.

“It’s not in my plans right now to run for Congress again,” he said. “It’s possible I’d run, but my kids get to vote.”

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