Democrat Denny Heck’s path to Congress was much easier in 2012 than in 2010, when he lost a tough race in a marginal district to Jaime Herrera Beutler, a telegenic rising star in the Republican Party. This year, Heck ran in the new, more Democrat-friendly and Olympia-based 10th District, defeating Republican Dick Muri, a Pierce County councilman.
Heck had a working-class upbringing in Vancouver. His father was a truck driver, and Heck began working at a nearby strawberry farm at age 9. Heck eventually graduated from Evergreen State College. He later applied for a position as an assistant to a school district superintendent. At the school board meeting where Heck was officially hired, he met his wife, Paula, who was monitoring the meeting as a local union representative. He was elected to the Washington House of Representatives in 1976. He was one of the principal authors of the state’s 1977 Basic Education Act, which established a funding formula based on ratios of staff to students. He rose to become House majority leader before retiring in 1986. A couple of years later, he became the chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner.
In the 1990s, Heck cofounded TVW, a statewide public-affairs network modeled after C-SPAN. Soon afterward, one of TVW’s board members, Rob Glaser, created RealNetworks, an early audio and video Internet service. Glaser convinced Heck to invest in RealNetworks. “He said, ‘Do you want to get in on this idea I’ve got for a software that pushes audio and video over the Internet?’ And my question was, ‘What’s the Internet?’ I mean, this was really early,” Heck recalled in an interview. In recent years, Heck cofounded an education and worker-training company called Intrepid Learning Solutions.
By the 2010 election cycle, Heck hadn’t worked in politics in years. “I thought I was done,” he said. But he decided to jump into the race in the 3rd District to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Brian Baird. Heck had a cash advantage over Republican opponent Herrera Beutler, raising almost $2 million to her $1.5 million. She criticized Heck for his support of the health care overhaul championed by Democrats in Congress and of President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill. Heck ran as a moderate Democrat and emphasized his experience in business creating jobs. Herrera Beutler ran on a campaign of “fiscal sanity,” a message that resonated that year, and won, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Running again in 2012, Heck was one of two top finishers, with Muri, in the all-party primary. Muri had an uphill battle running in Democratic-leaning territory. But as a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, his military experience was a strong selling point in a district that includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Heck finished in first place on primary night with 41 percent, and Muri came in second with 26 percent.
In the general election, Muri called for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and signed anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes. Heck called for phasing out tax breaks for households earning more than $250,000 a year. Heck did differ from some Democrats by pushing for a lower estate-tax rate. He substantially outraised Muri in both the primary and general election, and the race was never close.