Washington’s 7th Congressional District seat was last open in 1988, when voters sent Jim McDermott to D.C. for the first time. The retiring legislator isn’t endorsing in this year’s race, but he has some thoughts to share.
And a psychiatrist politician with three failed runs for governor was elected to represent Washington’s 7th Congressional District.
The new congressman was Jim McDermott, a former state senator. The year was 1988.
Seattle was smaller and grittier then, and quirkier. But the political themes haven’t changed much since the last 7th District race without an incumbent in the seat.
“I had four TV commercials,” McDermott, 79, recalled in an interview this month.
“One introduced me. The other three were the issues I was running on — the need for national health care, the need for transit in Seattle and the need for more housing. You look at the issues today, 28 years later, and you’re looking at the same things.”
That’s what strikes the retiring congressman when he surveys the race for the seat he’ll leave at the end of this year. The primary election is Aug. 2 and there are nine candidates — including three Democratic front-runners, just like there were in 1988.
McDermott had taken a brief break from politics, working for the U.S. Department of State as a medical officer based in Zaire. His competitors were King County Assessor Ruthe Ridder, who had served with him in the state Senate, and City Councilmember Norm Rice, who went on to become Seattle’s first black mayor.
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“They’d both previously endorsed me for governor, so it was a race among friends,” he remembered. “The three of us were very similar. Ruthe and I had voted together 90 percent of the time. With Norm, there wasn’t too much difference between us.”
This year, State Sen. Pramila Jayapal, state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw and Metropolitan King County Councilmember Joe McDermott (no relation) are leading the pack, with more campaign contributions, endorsements and volunteers than the other hopefuls: Democrats Arun Jhaveri and Donovan Rivers, Republicans Scott Sutherland and Craig Keller, and independents Leslie Regier and Carl Cooper.
The top two primary vote-getters will advance to November, regardless of party affiliation.
Like the 1988 candidates, the 2016 front-runners hold mostly similar positions. They all support a national $15 minimum wage and gun-control measures. None favor charter schools. None believe President Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact should be approved as-is.
Jim McDermott remembers his long-ago opponents — in a race without ideological division — combing through his voting record for inconsistencies and mistakes.
The would-be Seattle congressman was the last candidate to join the race, ditching his foreign tour of duty early. He also was better known than Ridder and Rice.
“We all love Sunny Jim, but it’s sort of messy to do it this way,” one pundit told The Associated Press. “He comes in as the odds-on favorite, but he’ll have to scrap for it.”
This year, only Joe McDermott, a state rep and state senator before joining the County Council, has a record worth serious mining. Jayapal was elected, while Walkinshaw was appointed in late 2013, then elected in 2014.
“I’ve spent the last 15 years delivering true progressive results,” Joe McDermott reminded voters last week in closing a 7th District debate at the Seattle Central Library.
Similar ideas on issues
Neither Jayapal nor Walkinshaw attacked their opponent’s voting record during the hourlong debate, but some minor disagreements between the candidates emerged.
Walkinshaw said he would vote for state Initiative 732, a grass-roots plan for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Jayapal said she wouldn’t — she says it could cost nearly a billion dollars in lost revenue and exclude marginalized groups. McDermott waffled.
McDermott said he supports siting a pro basketball arena in Sodo, as did Walkinshaw, who previously opposed the plan. Jayapal said she doesn’t support it because it would negatively affect the Port of Seattle and its well-paying jobs.
Walkinshaw admitted voting for a Republican — King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, as did McDermott — former Secretary of State Ralph Munro. Not Jayapal.
In a joint interview with The Seattle Times editorial board, asked how to reduce the national debt, Jayapal mentioned corporate tax reform, McDermott talked about cutting military spending and Walkinshaw said social programs should be more efficient; he says preventative investments yield long-term cost savings.
The library debate also underscored distinctions of emphasis. Asked to name her favorite member of Congress, Jayapal chose Georgia civil-rights hero John Lewis. She picked racial justice when asked what issue she’d be willing to stage a congressional sit-in for.
Walkinshaw named Oregon’s Earl Blumenauer and said he’d sit in to combat climate change. And McDermott, who’s made campaign finance reform a chief talking point, chose Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin.
Baldwin has voted for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United — the 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate and union spending in elections. McDermott said he’d sit in for that cause.
In May, he asked his rivals to join him in a “People’s Pledge” to reject outside spending in the race. Neither Jayapal nor Walkinshaw has agreed. The pledge would require them to donate money to charity if they benefited from outside spending.
Jayapal says she hasn’t signed because “not all independent expenditures are created equal” — those by union workers are different from those by billionaires.
Walkinshaw says he’ll sign the pledge only if Jayapal signs, as well. There’s been no outside spending thus far, so McDermott’s signature is purely symbolic for now.
Jhaveri, a former Burien mayor, has signed the pledge. He and Rivers, along with Sutherland, Keller, Regier and Cooper, were shut out of the library debate.
Seattle CityClub ran the event, choosing to invite only the three best-known and best-funded candidates. But Seattle Public Library was a partner — and some of the other candidates have complained to Seattle Ethics and Elections commission about that.
“This was definitely wrong,” said Rivers, a community activist who works for King County Metro.
A changing city
Jim McDermott isn’t endorsing in the 7th District race — at least not yet. But the congressman says he knows what voters should be looking for.
“Having experience when you start is very valuable,” McDermott said. “It gives you a leg up in understanding how things work in a complicated system.”
He added, “I don’t see a whole lot of difference in what they’re saying. You want somebody who’s going to hit the ground running — who won’t spend two terms figuring out where the men’s room is, or the women’s room.”
Voters who agree with Jim may choose to back Joe, based on his legislative pedigree. His surname won’t hurt.
And in some ways, sending another McDermott to Washington, D.C., would be in keeping with Seattle’s trajectory.
Just like it was in 1988, the city is politically progressive, mostly white and car-dependent, according to U.S. Census data.
The 7th District’s population was 76 percent white in 1990 and in 2014. Back then, 59 percent of commuters drive alone to work. Now, 55 percent do.
The socialist strain shown in recent support for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders isn’t new, according to Jim McDermott.
“We’ve always had that lean,” he said. “The Postmaster General under FDR described the U.S. as, ‘Forty-seven states and the Soviet of Washington.’ ”
In other ways, however, the 7th District has been dramatically remade.
It no longer includes all of Seattle — the Washington State Redistricting Commission grabbed Southeast Seattle in 2011 to give the 9th District a minority majority.
Jayapal, who lives in the 9th (congressional candidates aren’t required to live in the districts where they run), was a leader in pushing for that swap.
Including Vashon Island and some suburbs, the 7th District is now 4 percent black, down from 10 percent in 2010. It’s 11 percent Asian and 7.5 percent Hispanic, up from 9 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
Its median income is up — $68,839 in 2014 from $29,707 in 1990. But so are its rents — $1,141 from $495.
Seattle voters have always leaned left, but Kshama Sawant is the City Council’s first socialist in nearly 100 years.
The neighborhood once known as Denny Regrade is now home to Amazon and has changed so much Jim McDermott barely recognizes his view from Capitol Hill.
“We had 16,000 new people move to Seattle last year, and I can see all of them from my house,” he said. “They’re in the Regrade and they don’t own homes and they don’t drive cars and they go out to restaurants and play games and Twitter.”
Despite his advantages, Joe McDermott is trailing Jayapal and Walkinshaw in campaign contributions and endorsements.
Walkinshaw, a Cuban-American raised in Whatcom County, declared his candidacy before Jim McDermott announced he would retire, betting that 7th District voters were ready for something new. Jayapal, from India by way of Indonesia, argues the time has come for an activist and a woman of color like herself to represent the Seattle area.
This year’s winner could hold the seat for decades, if history is any indication.
“The voters haven’t had to go through this for almost 30 years,” Jim McDermott said. “They need to decide, ‘What do I know about these people?’ ”