Do voters want longtime lawman or high-tech entrepreneur?

Three-term Republican incumbent Dave Reichert faces Democratic political newcomer Suzan DelBene in the race for Washington’s 8th Congressional District - the hotly contested swing ground spanning east King and Pierce counties.

Reichert, 60, of Auburn, brings with him a career in public service, including a seven-year stint as King County sheriff.

He says his three-plus decades as a cop and six years as a congressman uniquely position him to represent the district’s broad spectrum of constituents – from farmers and small-business owners to aerospace and technology professionals.

“If we want to tout previous experience, I don’t think she’s run an organization with 1,100 employees and a $110 million budget that’s required by law to meet their budget every year,” Reichert said of his sheriff’s background.

DelBene, 48, of Medina, brings 20 years of private sector business expertise as a high-tech entrepreneur and executive. Among her jobs, she has served as a vice president for Microsoft and helped launch the online start-updrugstore.com .

She says her “real world experience” of running a business and managing a tight budget is the kind of skill sorely lacking in Congress.

“He doesn’t have experience in the critical issues that we face today,” DelBene said of Reichert. “And frankly, (he) hasn’t been willing to step up and put together policy that addresses those issues.”

To the winner goes the two-year seat of a fickle swing district that tilts moderate, making it perennially difficult to defend. GOP candidates have never lost the 8th District seat, but its voters have backed Democrats in other races. Patty Murray, John Kerry and Barack Obama all won majorities here.

Reichert coasted in a crowded primary field in August, but garnered less than half the vote. DelBene ran a distant second, but polls in recent weeks suggest the race is tightening.


Both candidates identify economic growth and job creation as the campaign’s top issue, and both contend their respective backgrounds separate them as the clear choice.

Reichert said his ongoing work to enact a trade agreement with Korea, while serving as one of only two Republicans on President Obama’s Export Council, is crucial to creating local jobs and improving the economy.

“For Washington state, 1 out of 3 jobs is connected to trade,” he said. “ There (is) some key language in the Korean trade agreement that benefits Washington state.”

Reichert also continually cites his work as sheriff from 1997 to 2004, when the department expanded from 850 employees to more than 1,100, largely through police services contracts with local governments.

“I don’t know how many jobs she’s created,” Reichert said of DelBene. “I created over 200 jobs in my time as sheriff.”

DelBene’s campaign counters that Reichert hides behind his old police job to cover up for his lack of business experience and a spotty congressional record. She added that she has helped to create hundreds of private sector jobs by launching the successful online start-up. She also touts a three-pronged plan to kick-start the economy.

Much of that plan builds on legislation already enacted by Congress, including reforms to financial institutions and creation of the Small Business Lending Act to provide capital and $12 billion in tax cuts to businesses.

“It’s taken way too long for that to happen,” DelBene said of such efforts. “I think that we’ve been in a bad situation, and we’ve allowed businesses to struggle for too long.”

As part of her plan, Del-Bene said she will also seek to make a research and development tax credit permanent to foster entrepreneurial innovation.

Both candidates support more investment in infrastructure to help long-term economic growth. Both also support extending the so-called Bush tax cuts, but in different ways.

Reichert would extend the current income tax breaks to everyone, regardless of income. DelBene favors Obama’s plan to extend them to all but the wealthiest 3 percent of Americans. Revenues garnered from the highest earners can be used to help pay down the debt, she added.

Reichert cites among his top accomplishments in Congress co-leading the effort to reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Hurricane Katrina and working to get a bill through the House this year to protect an additional 22,000 acres as part of the existing Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area.

Reichert’s environmental record – including a break with his party in 2009 to support the “cap and trade” clean energy bill – has helped him win key endorsements from environmental groups and garnered him a moderate’s label.

But since leaked audio surfaced from a speech Reichert gave to some Republicans earlier this year, in which he described his environmental votes as “chess pieces” to retain his seat, some have questioned his sincerity on green positions.

Reichert recently declined to comment on the speech, calling it “old news.”

“My record speaks for itself,” he said. “ I really believe we need to protect our environment.”

The candidates diverge on social politics and several key congressional bills.

Reichert’s 86 percent voting record with House Republicans is actually among the lowest in his party during the past session. Still, he voted solidly GOP to oppose the recent stimulus package, health care reform and Wall Street reform bills.

DelBene said she largely supports all three bills, but criticized each for various reasons.

On social issues, Reichert opposes both abortion and gay marriage. He said he has no problem with homosexuals serving openly in the military, but he voted against repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on grounds that a promised survey of military personnel hadn’t been conducted before the vote.

DelBene favors abortion rights, supports gay marriage and would vote to repeal “don’t ask.”

Through July, Reichert held a slight edge in total contributions – $1.7 million to $1.6 million. Campaign finance records show contributions from special interests and Republican groups fund about 36 percent of Reichert’s war chest. Meanwhile, Del-Bene has dropped nearly $700,000 of her own money into the campaign.

Acrimony between the two camps has increased as Election Day approaches. Each accuses the other of distorting positions in recent TV spots.

DelBene’s camp also has complained for weeks that Reichert is unwilling to debate her. Reichert denies it, but no formal debate has been set.

Meantime, Reichert has accused DelBene of orchestrating media speculation that he is unfit for office due to a head injury he suffered earlier this year. DelBene denies the claim, saying Reichert’s health isn’t an issue.