Laura Ruderman's "fire in the belly" and focus on retail politics made her name in state politics a decade ago. Is it enough to get the Democrat through the August primary in the competitive 1st Congressional District?

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Laura Ruderman estimates she has doorbelled 54,000 homes in her political career. She has knocked on doors during a home-birth and a memorial service, been bitten by two dogs, and prides herself on burning through at least one pair of shoes per campaign.

“You can tell if someone is really doorbelling if they’re losing weight,” she said.

Ruderman’s retail politicking propelled her to three terms in the state House between 1998 and 2004, when she was the first Democrat to break the Republican hold on the Eastside suburbs.

Now a decade removed from her last win, Ruderman, 41, is attempting a political comeback in the newly drawn and competitive 1st Congressional District.

It is an uphill walk, even in the Keen sneakers she bought for this campaign. Among her six opponents sprinting toward the top-two Aug. 7 primary are better-financed and better-known Democrats with similar, progressive positions.

Political consultants question how a 180-mile-long district with 672,000 people can be effectively won one door at a time. And despite working inside Democratic politics for the past six years as a fundraiser, Ruderman did not win key endorsements from party stalwarts, most of whom are backing another Democrat, Suzan DelBene.

Ruderman, who embraces the edge of her native New York City, waves off doubters. “People said I couldn’t win back when the Eastside was Republican,” she said. “They were wrong.”

“Fire in the belly”

Ruderman, a Wesleyan University graduate, moved to Seattle in the early 1990s to work as a stage manager at the Seattle Repertory Theatre before landing a job as a program manager at Microsoft.

She quit in 1998 to become among the first Microsoft “blue-badge” employees to try politics. She ran for Congress in the 1st District, but when Jay Inslee entered that race, Ruderman switched to campaign for the state House in the 45th Legislative District, which stretches from Kirkland to the Cascades.

The Eastside suburbs were solidly Republican at the time but were being transformed by Microsoft wealth and a backlash against the looming impeachment of President Clinton, said former state GOP chairman Chris Vance. “As the party was perceived to be moving farther to the right, voters turned away, and she benefitted from it,” said Vance, who admires Ruderman’s work ethic. “She has fire in the belly.”

Her 1998 victory over incumbent Bill Backlund, a Christian conservative, was followed by two other hugely expensive, hard-fought wins in 2000 and 2002. Ruderman campaigned then, as she does now, as a liberal policy wonk often focused on health-care issues, and boasts that she returned every constituent’s call or email.

Her wins coincided with an even Democrat-Republican split in the state House, forcing bipartisan agreement on legislation. Ruderman cites the collaboration now as evidence she could help defuse the bitterly divided Congress.

“You have that first reaction when you meet Laura, that there’s a directness and intensity we don’t normally see in Northwesterners,” said Fred Jarrett, a Mercer Island Republican who served with Ruderman in the Legislature. “She’ll make her position clear in two sentences. You know where she is, and what’s going on.”

A dual role

Her star dimmed after losing a race in 2004 for secretary of state and then in 2006, a bid to chair the state Democratic Party.

She stayed in politics, opening her own fundraising business that worked for Democrats and progressive groups such as NARAL. In fundraising calls for Sound Mental Health, Jarrett joked that he felt the force of her persistence. “She would not give in,” said Jarrett. “I couldn’t get her off the phone.”

In 2006, Ruderman worked simultaneously as a fundraiser for Rodney Tom, a Democrat in a hotly contested Eastside race for state House, and for an independent committee supporting Tom, according to Public Disclosure Commission records. State law prohibits campaigns and independent groups from coordinating, in part because that relationship could be used to skirt limits on political contributions, said Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for the PDC.

Violations of campaign-finance law at the time could have resulted in a fine, but the PDC did not receive a complaint about Ruderman’s dual roles, and Anderson said a five-year statute of limitation has expired.

Luke Esser, the Republican who lost to Tom, said he was unaware of Ruderman’s work. “She should have been very aware of that pretty simple restriction,” said Esser, who later served as state GOP chairman. “That’s very well known in the business.”

“It certainly looks suspicious,” said Anderson, after reviewing Ruderman’s role.

Ruderman said she thought her work was permitted by campaign-finance law, and said she didn’t “provide strategic coordination or information sharing” between Tom’s campaign and the independent expenditure.

An uncertain path

On a recent sunny day, Ruderman speed-walked between homes in Kirkland, clutching campaign fliers and a spreadsheet listing most-likely voters.

It is a tiring, monotonous campaign ritual, but Ruderman believes it shows voters tenacity. She avoids coffee because it induces bathroom breaks. A volunteer waits in an idling hybrid car.

“You might remember that I represented this area in the state Legislature,” Ruderman said as a friendly woman opens her door. The woman, a police officer, nodded, vaguely recognizing Ruderman’s name.

Ruderman’s path through the August primary is uncertain, in part because her politics align so closely with three of her 1st District opponents: DelBene, a millionaire former Microsoft vice president; Darcy Burner, a progressive activist with the highest name recognition; and Darshan Rauniyar, who co-founded a business that sells flash memory drives.

State Sen. Steve Hobbs is running as a moderate Democrat. Republican John Koster, a Snohomish County Council member, holds such a wide lead in the polls that he appears assured of advancing to November.

Ruderman acknowledges the tough field, but declines to criticize fellow Democrats.

“Whoever wins the primary is going to have to pivot very quickly to run against John Koster, and we as a party had better make sure they are not a bloodied and broken mess on the floor,” she said.

Ruderman’s doorstep pitch included pro-abortion-rights and pro-gay-marriage statements, a call for a liberal vision of health-care reform and a second stimulus focused on public-works projects. “We know trickle-down doesn’t work,” Ruderman said, referring to the GOP’s support for tax cuts.

The five-minute conversation was the most substantial of the afternoon. Ruderman checked off the cop’s name and headed to the next home.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @jmartin206.