Adam Smith faces challengers who include former state Rep. Jesse Wineberry, an African American who argues Smith isn’t doing enough for minority constituents in the state’s only majority minority district, and Republican Doug Basler, who finished second in 2014.
When the boundaries of the 9th Congressional District were redrawn after the 2010 census, it became the state’s first majority minority district, with about 51 percent people of color. Asians make up 24 percent of the district, Hispanics 12 percent and African Americans 10 percent. Almost 30 percent of the residents are foreign born.
No longer centered on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the district now stretches from North Tacoma to Seattle’s Central District and includes Bellevue and Mercer Island, some of the region’s wealthiest neighborhoods as well as its poorest.
Does that mean it needs someone to represent it other than a white, middle-aged politician who’s spent two decades in Congress?
Incumbent Adam Smith, 51, has earned a reputation as a moderate Democrat. He’s the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and an expert on defense budgets and trade.
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But in a recent campaign flier, he’s calling himself “a champion for our progressive values,” and has endorsed a $15 minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, gun-safety laws and changes to tax codes that he argues favor the wealthy.
The stronger emphasis on social issues may reflect the makeup of the new 9th District: less conservative than the old, with more dramatic income disparities. It may also reflect the concern that in a solidly Democratic district (Smith won in 2014 with 70 percent of the vote) a challenge is more likely to emerge from the left.
This year, that challenge is coming from fellow Democrat Jesse Wineberry, 61, an African American and former state legislator, whose campaign literature calls him a “Proven, Progressive Voice.” Wineberry argues that Smith hasn’t been a strong enough advocate for his minority constituents, a view supported by dozens of black clergy who say they’re looking for a representative who shows more urgency about issues of racial and economic justice.
Smith, the son of a Sea-Tac Airport baggage handler, is also being challenged from the right by Republican Doug Basler, 57, a Kent business owner who finished second in a field of four candidates in the 9th District race in 2014. Basler faults Smith for campaign contributions from military contractors and for being part of Washington D.C.’s “professional class of politicians.”
“Adam Smith should get a real job,” Basler said.
Smith, an attorney and former Seattle city prosecutor, says the job he has is very real, and that he has accomplished a lot on behalf of constituents. On the Armed Services Committee, he’s one of the few critics of military spending. This year, he voted against the defense appropriations bill and the defense authorization bill. He supports another round of military base closures, noting that could save the country $6 billion a year — money which, he argues, could be spent on education and the nation’s crumbling highways and aging water pipes.
“I think experience does matter,” said Smith, who lives in Bellevue and commutes to Washington, D.C.
As for representing his diverse constituency, Smith cites his help over the past two years to the Somali community to ensure they can send money back to families, his support for African-American small businesses and his calls for an end to the deportation of children brought to this country illegally by their parents.
“There are 160 different languages spoken in the district,” Smith said. “You have to understand all the different constituents. I consistently reach out to these communities.”
Smith has raised $601,000 for the campaign. On Wednesday, he was endorsed by President Obama, who called him “an effective elected official.” He also has endorsements from the Washington Machinists Council, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, The Seattle Times and The Stranger.
Basler reports contributions of $23,000. He’s been endorsed by the King and Pierce County Republican parties.
The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election.
Wineberry, who declared for the office in May, reports a $14,000 loan from himself to his campaign and no individual contributions through June 30. He’s been endorsed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Samuel McKinney of Seattle’s Mount Zion Church and the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Wineberry argues that Smith has been silent on issues convulsing the country, including police shootings of African-American men, attacks on gays and the verbal attacks by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump against Muslims and Mexicans.
“Diversity is under attack in this country,” said Wineberry. “Our community needs a voice to speak out against police killings, against assault weapons in gay nightclubs. We need someone who will fight for health care and affordable housing. Let me utilize the power of the office to benefit the community.”
Wineberry was elected to the state Legislature in 1985 while still in law school and served in Olympia for a decade, rising to House majority whip, before running unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate and Seattle City Council. He left Seattle for Washington, D.C., and in 1999 founded BroadcastUrban, a business that streams conferences and seminars over the internet. More recently, he co-founded a film-production company, BroadcastUrban Filmworks.
About two dozen black clergy in Seattle and Tacoma signed a petition in May calling for new leadership in the 9th District and endorsing Wineberry. They pointed to increasing gentrification in some traditionally African-American neighborhoods and the resulting loss of political clout. And they cited statistics about high African-American poverty, the deaths of young black men from gun violence and unequal educational opportunities.
“Unemployment is too high, the median income needs to rise, the college graduation rate needs to rise. We need someone who will fight for us and give us a voice,” said the Rev. Reggie Witherspoon, of Mount Calvary Christian Center in Seattle’s Central District.
But some African-American political leaders say Wineberry is a flawed candidate. Former Metropolitan King County Executive Ron Sims, County Councilmember Larry Gossett and Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland all have endorsed Smith.
Strickland praises Smith’s accessibility and responsiveness. “He’s acutely aware of the issues that are important to communities of color. He supports raising the minimum wage, he supports paid family leave. He’s a strong supporter of Joint Base Lewis- McChord, which is in my backyard. Many military families are from communities of color,” she said.
Others note Wineberry’s long absence from Seattle and raise questions about his work ethic during his decade in the Legislature.
“Jesse is not one of my favorites,” said Sims. “In my book, you pay your dues, you work hard and you earn your position by being involved in the community to improve lives, not only of African Americans, but of the community as a whole.”
Wineberry also has a lengthy history of financial problems, including a $630,000 judgment in 2011 for building-code violations and accumulated fines at his now-boarded-up house in the Central District. Court records also show a $130,000 judgment in 2015 against BroadcastUrban Filmworks over a contract dispute.
“I’m not denying I’ve had legal disputes,” said Wineberry. “Is it resolved? Did you comply? In every case they were resolved.”
Republican Basler, who runs a TV advertising production company in Kent, is critical of Smith’s ties to defense contractors, including $33,000 in campaign donations in 2015 from Northrop-Grumman executives. In October, the company beat out Boeing/Lockheed Martin for a $44 billion B-21 bomber contract.
“Do those executives just love him?” Basler asked. “To me it stinks. I’ve talked to (Boeing) machinists and they’re not happy about the jobs that have been lost.”
Basler picked up about 30 percent of the vote in the 2014 general election, but he said he’s running a more vigorous campaign this time around. He opposes trade deals such as NAFTA that he says have resulted in the shipment of manufacturing jobs overseas. He’s also against a $15 minimum wage, arguing that it is a marketing strategy and not an effective way to rebuild the middle class or the economy.
An anti-abortion Christian, he said that while the Texas abortion law recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court may have gone too far, he thinks restrictions are needed and that the “abortion industry is out of control.”
Both Basler and Wineberry fault Smith for the number of votes he’s missed in Congress the past few years — 19 percent in 2015 and 95 percent from January through March of this year, according to the website www.govtrack.us. Smith had three hip-replacement surgeries, the first unsuccessful, and notes that he hasn’t missed a vote since returning in April.
Two other candidates have filed for the 9th District seat: Jeary Flener, who gave no party preference, and Daniel Smith, a Democrat. Neither has raised any money for the race, according to the Federal Election Commission.