Seattle's unabashed liberal congressman Jim McDermott is introducing himself to thousands of new voters as he seeks a 13th term in office. He's hoping voters know more about him than just the headlines he's garnered at times.
WASHINGTON — Jim McDermott ended a long day at the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month discussing a topic few might associate with Seattle’s unabashed liberal — septic tanks.
He was hosting a group of advocates from Northwest Indian fisheries and the Puget Sound Partnership in his Capitol Hill office. Stifling one of his periodic yawns, the 75-year-old McDermott lobbed questions about stormwater runoff and loss of marine habitats.
At one point, he brought up Hood Canal, home of Rep. Norm Dicks, one of his closest colleagues in Congress.
“What’s the status of the body of water in front of Norm’s house?” McDermott asked, fingers laced over his abdomen. “Are the oysters dying from acidification?”
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The question was vintage McDermott: grasp of policy mixed with an unfiltered manner that has earned him a reputation as an impolitic politician. It’s an image McDermott hopes to shed as he seeks a 13th term against five challengers in one of the nation’s bluest congressional districts.
Thanks to redistricting, McDermott will face a slew of new voters in the 7th District this year. Chunks of Democratic enclaves in Seattle, including Seward Park, Columbia City and the Chinatown International District, were siphoned off to the 9th District now held by Rep. Adam Smith, a Tacoma Democrat.
McDermott’s district instead will stretch to the north and south while tilting a touch more conservative. It also will swap 30 percent of McDermott’s longtime constituents for residents of such suburban communities as Edmonds, Lake Forest Park and Burien — places where voters might be less stirred by his crusade against conflict minerals from Congo or agitating for government-financed health care.
McDermott, a psychiatrist and a Navy veteran, has been making forays into the new territory to meet local officials and introduce himself to constituents over coffee. A win this fall would make him the most-senior member of Congress from Washington state when Dicks retires next year.
Still, he suspects most people are only superficially familiar with him, and he believes his liberal caricature has overshadowed his accomplishments regarding foster care, tax policy, unemployment insurance, domestic-partner benefits, health care and low-income housing.
“An awful lot of people don’t know what I’ve done,” he said.
What many people do know about McDermott is he has been one of the more reliable generators of sensational headlines in Congress.
A standing part of McDermott’s biography is his 2002 visit to Baghdad and accusation from Iraqi soil that President Bush was misleading the country into war. A couple of years later, he incited a flurry of condemnation after omitting — out of habit, he said — the words “under God” while leading his House colleagues during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Plus, he’s been sued by John Boehner, the Speaker of the House. The Republican Boehner filed an invasion-of-privacy suit against McDermott after a Florida couple leaked an illegally recorded cellphone call to McDermott in 1997.
Boehner, then-House Speaker New Gingrich and others were caught on tape hashing out how to spin an ethics settlement against Gingrich. McDermott, the lead Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, invited two newspaper reporters to listen to it, setting off a long court saga and ultimately racking up $1.1 million in legal fees.
Jim Hardtke, a retired criminal investigator in Edmonds, is chagrined that “Baghdad Jim” will become his new representative.
“He strikes me as someone who’d rather be out on the streets protesting than working in Congress,” Hardtke said.
A Republican, Hardtke was hardly keen on his former congressman, Democrat Jay Inslee, who resigned from his House seat in March to campaign for governor full time. But at least with Inslee, Hardtke said, “I don’t remember anything he did that really upset me.”
Political observers say McDermott can afford to be an iconoclast.
He has won all his 12 House races in wipeouts. His narrowest general-election victory was in 1990, when he garnered 72 percent of the vote. Only once has a current member of the state’s congressional delegation topped that — Dicks in 1976.
Democratic consultant Blair Butterworth argues that McDermott’s far-left ideology simply reflects the will of his constituents. Among the nation’s white-majority congressional districts, the 7th is far and away the most liberal, as measured by voting in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index.
McDermott’s chief challenger this election is Andrew Hughes, a 30-year-old Seattle tax lawyer who calls himself a progressive Democrat. Hughes has sunk $68,000 of his own money into the campaign.
“A centrist Democrat would not win the 7th District,” said Butterworth, a close McDermott friend.
Interest in Africa
The rap on McDermott, however, is that he sometimes shortchanges those same voters in pursuit of idiosyncratic interests, including a lifelong passion for Africa and the developing world.
Last year, for instance, he took a $15,000 congressional tour to Rwanda and Congo, funded with a grant from the Gates Foundation. On his trip disclosure form, McDermott explained that learning about maternal and child health there would benefit research projects at the University of Washington in his district.
McDermott also can seem more engaged in crafting grand policy than prosaic matters such as, say, transit concerns in Shoreline. His name doesn’t come up often at City Hall. And he’s not known for aggressively pushing for local projects the way Sen. Patty Murray and Dicks do as members of appropriations committees.
McDermott plans to introduce yet another iteration of his single-payer health plan, the 10th consecutive session of Congress he has done so. This time, the bill would amend the federal health-care law to give states the option to largely supplant private insurers such as Premera and Regence and set up their own publicly funded health systems.
McDermott has no qualms about continuing to pursue universal coverage, with the fate of the federal health-care law hanging before the Supreme Court.
“You have to advance ideas,” he said.
Besides, McDermott can rattle off a host of tangible things he has delivered as a senior Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
Among other things, he’s largely responsible for the fact that relatives of foster children can get paid for taking them in. Previously, only non-kin caretakers could receive money, further fracturing families.
McDermott takes credit for promoting energy conservation by rewriting the tax code to allow employers to deduct subsidies for public transit, not just for parking. He has worked to secure housing for patients with HIV, emergency aid to the poor and the elderly and help for the jobless.
In 2008, McDermott introduced a bill to add 13 weeks of unemployment checks to those who have exhausted their normal 26 weeks of benefits. Five months later, the financial collapse sank the country into devastating recession. President George W. Bush signed the beefed-up assistance. Under the Obama administration, McDermott has kept pushing to help the long-term jobless qualify for bigger and longer unemployment benefits, for up to 99 weeks.
“I can’t think of anybody who has done more to help the unemployed in this recession,” said Maurice Emsellem, co-director of policy for the National Employment Law Project. “There was nobody more active and knowledgeable than Congressman McDermott and his staff.”
Norm Ornstein,a longtime congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, thinks McDermott’s partisan antics have helped obscure his legislative skills.
“I would not put Jim McDermott anywhere close to the category of Allen West or Patrick McHenry,” Ornstein said, referring to Republican House members who have had their share of notoriety.
West, of Florida, claimed that some 80 House Democrats were Communists. McHenry, of North Carolina, called a U.S. contractor working in Baghdad a “two-bit security guard” after he blocked McHenry from using a gym in the Green Zone for lack of credentials.
“If you put (McDermott’s controversies) aside, he’s much more like a serious lawmaker,” Ornstein said.
A generation has grown up since McDermott arrived on Capitol Hill in 1989 with visions of enacting universal health coverage. He’s paunchier, his gait is slower and he wears two hearing aids. He long ago broke away from his Christian fundamentalist childhood. But he still approaches politics largely through a moral prism.
“Are you running for office to do something or are you running for office to be someone?” McDermott asked, his tone making the better answer obvious.
In a place where some lawmakers might claim credit for sunrises if they could get away with it, McDermott is candid about the limits of his influence.
“What have a done by myself? Nothing,” he said, slouched in his chair. “We all do little things around the edges.
“I see government as a way to solve problems in society that people can’t solve themselves,” McDermott added. “If people don’t like what I’m doing, they can throw me out.”
Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or firstname.lastname@example.org