Rep. Jim McDermott (D)
Elected: 1988, 11th term.
Born: Dec. 28, 1936, Chicago, IL .
Education: Wheaton Col., B.S. 1958, U. of IL, M.D. 1963.
Family: Married (Therese Hansen); 2 children.
Military career: U.S. Navy Medical Corps., 1968–70.
Elected office: WA House of Reps., 1970–72; WA Senate, 1974–87.
Professional Career: Asst. prof., U. of WA, Practicing psychiatrist, 1970–83; Medical officer, U.S. Foreign Svc., Zaire, 1987–88.
The congressman from the 7th District is Jim McDermott, first elected in 1988. McDermott grew up in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, one of three boys, and was the first in his family to attend college. His father, a fundamentalist Christian, ministered in a church run out of the garage. McDermott graduated from conservative Christian Wheaton College, the alma mater of the Rev. Billy Graham. He went on to get a medical degree from the University of Illinois and did the last two years of his psychiatric residency at the University of Washington. He fell in love with the area and decided to make it his home. But first, with the Vietnam War under way, McDermott volunteered for a stint in the Navy as a psychiatrist. The experience left him adamantly opposed to the war, and when he returned to Seattle, he got involved in politics. In 1970, while he was operating his medical practice, he was elected to the state House, and in 1974, he was elected to the state Senate. He ran for governor three times and lost every time. In 1987, he retired from the Legislature and went to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) as a medical officer in the Foreign Service. When the House seat opened in 1988, he returned to Seattle and won easily, beating Norm Rice 38%-29% in the primary and taking 76% in the general. He is the only psychiatrist in the House.
|Jim McDermott (D)||291,963||(84%)||($1,033,233)|
|Steve Beren (R)||57,054||(16%)||($32,473)|
|Jim McDermott (D)||95,344||(74%)|
|Steve Beren (R)||19,307||(15%)|
|Donovan Rivers (D)||6,685||(5%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (79%), 2004 (81%), 2002 (74%), 2000 (73%), 1998 (88%), 1996 (81%), 1994 (75%), 1992 (78%), 1990 (72%), 1988 (76%)
In his early years in the House, McDermott rose quickly in influence. Democratic leader Tom Foley of Washington state tapped him for influential assignments. His great cause has been health care, but he has shared the frustration many have felt in dealing with the issue. He has long backed a single-payer, Canadian-style national health-insurance program. In August 1994, as the Clinton health-care plan was failing and Democratic leaders were scrambling to come up with an alternative, McDermott urged Congress to abandon all health-care bills for the year. He evidently expected a more favorable political environment after the election; like many, he was surprised by the results. After Republicans took majority control of the House, he said: “A lot of people around here have never been in the minority. I have. I know what to do: Attack.”
He kept his word. He was harshly critical of the Bush administration on a number of fronts, especially the war in Iraq. In September 2002, with a congressional delegation in Baghdad, McDermott said in a statement broadcast on ABC’s This Week that Bush was willing to “mislead the American people”; he also said that he found Iraqi Leader Saddam Hussein more credible than Bush. This sparked harsh criticism from Republicans and dismay from those Democrats who felt his comments had gone too far. “He combined the judgment of Neville Chamberlain before World War II and Jane Fonda in Hanoi,” Texas Democrat Chet Edwards told the New York Times. (In 2008, it was revealed that McDermott’s trip to Iraq was financed by Muthanna Al-Hanooti, an Iraqi activist who’d been indicted in 2008 on charges of being a spy for Saddam.) McDermott continued to be a harsh critic of the war, arguing that President George W. Bush had failed to make the case for military action. In a 2007 floor speech he said, “In less than one generation we have done what we vowed never to do again. We allowed a president to stampede the nation into a hopeless war, not because we had to, but because he wanted to.”
McDermott is upfront about his legislative interests, which tend not to include the parochial matters and pork-barrel spending that consume some of his congressional colleagues. He has promoted health issues overseas; he founded and chaired the Congressional Task Force on International HIV/AIDS. He also sponsored a measure that at first seemed quixotic but was enacted in 2000: The African Growth and Opportunity Act, which reduced import quotas and tariffs on African goods and included investment funds.
With the Democrats’ return to the majority in 2007, legislative life for McDermott became considerably more enjoyable. A longtime ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he again had a friendly ear in high places. In the opening days of the 110th Congress (2007-08), he helped shape the House-passed bill to rescind some tax breaks for oil companies. As a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, he chairs the Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee. In 2008, McDermott was the lead sponsor of two bills that extended unemployment benefits for American workers. He also shepherded to enactment legislation aimed at improving foster-care programs through initiatives such as allowing children to remain in foster care until age 21. He tends to reach for broad legislative fixes to entrenched social problems, even though Congress moves at best slowly and incrementally. The first hearing he held as subcommittee chairman was on solutions to poverty. He has continued to advocate for a universal health-care system guaranteeing every American coverage, and he thinks “wage insurance” should be provided to laid-off workers.
McDermott stirred controversy in 2004 when he omitted the words “under God” as he led the House in its daily Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. After leaders of both parties criticized him, he replied that his omission had not been deliberate and that the fallout “ain’t fun.” In 2007, he was attacked by conservatives for voting against a House resolution recognizing the importance of Christmas. They noted that he had previously voted for resolutions recognizing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Until recently, McDermott was bogged down in a years-long partisan battle with House Republicans stemming from an incident when he was ranking minority member on the Ethics Committee, during its consideration in 1997 of charges against Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich. In that highly charged political atmosphere, a Florida couple, both Democratic activists, happened to tape from a police scanner a cell-phone conversation between Ohio Republican John Boehner and other GOP leaders. They gave the tape to McDermott. A few days later, excerpts from it appeared in the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Boehner sued McDermott in federal court for invasion of privacy, and the case lingered in the courts for years. McDermott approached Boehner in 2002—they had not spoken in the 12 years they served together—and sought to settle the case. He agreed to one of Boehner’s demands, that he apologize to the House, but would not agree to the other two: admit that he was wrong and make a contribution to charity. In 2004, the judge found McDermott guilty of violating the federal wiretapping law and ordered him to pay $60,000 in damages and $500,000 in attorneys’ fees. McDermott appealed the ruling. But the court case took yet another turn against him in 2007, when the divided D.C. Circuit Court concluded that House rules on confidentiality barred him from disclosing the contents of the tape. The judges ordered payment of the damages to Boehner. McDermott claimed the ruling infringed on his free-speech rights and took his case to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. In April 2008, a federal judge ordered McDermott to pay Boehner over $1.2 million in legal fees.
His outspokenness has not hurt McDermott in Seattle, where he regularly wins re-election with more than 70% of the vote. He considered running against Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000, but backed away soon after he underwent open-heart surgery, saying he didn’t want to raise the $8 million that would be required. Democrat Maria Cantwell defeated Gorton to capture the seat.