Washington: Third District|
Rep. Brian Baird (D)
Last Updated May 23, 2000
From the Pacific Ocean to the majestic row of active and inactive volcanoes from Mount Rainier to Mount St. Helens to Oregon's Mount Hood, southwest Washington is one of America's most productive lumber areas. The moist air and almost constant rains blown in from the Pacific keep the trees on the coast growing rapidly; in the valleys just past the Coast Range, there is still plenty of precipitation and fast-growing forest. Then come the high mountains: The Cascades are a genuine divide, wrenching almost all precipitation out of the air so the climate eastward for a thousand miles is arid. Americans were reminded of the force of the volcanoes when Mount St. Helens, dormant for 123 years, erupted in 1980, killing 65 people and ruining the land in its path. But nature has repaired itself, as it must have done many times before.
Lewis and Clark came here in 1805, down the Columbia River to a rainy and foggy winter by the ocean, and for many years this part of Washington was sparsely settled, with lumber mill- and fishing boat-towns interspersed between mountains and water. It was flannel shirt country, Democratic since the New Deal days. In recent years, its resource-based economy was threatened by the environmental movement, which restricted fishing practices and got a court decision shutting down old-growth forest logging to save spotted owl habitat. This roiled local politics, and gave Republicans an opening.
More important recently has been the spread of the Pacific Northwest's great metropolitan areas into these valleys. Clark County across the Columbia from Portland, Oregon, has filled up with new residents, eager to avoid Oregon's income tax; the Seattle-Tacoma metro area has been moving down from the north past the small state capital of Olympia. This is one of America's great international trading areas, with big exports of logs and timber and vast imports on the docks of Portland and the Puget Sound.
The 3d Congressional District covers the land between the ocean and the Cascades, from Olympia on an inlet of Puget Sound, south to Vancouver in Clark County, site of the Hudson Bay Company headquarters in the 19th Century. Politically, this was long a solidly Democratic district, indeed sometimes the most Democratic district in Washington. But economic growth and diversification and the coming of many new residents with no roots in the old industries have made the 3d now a politically marginal district.
The congressman from the 3d District is Brian Baird, a Democrat elected in 1998. Baird grew up in northern New Mexico and western Colorado. He got a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Wyoming, and worked with veterans and families dealing with cancer, with juvenile delinquents in prison, and families of murder victims. He also wrote a book called Are We Having Fun Yet? for couples on vacation. He moved to Washington in 1980 and was a professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and living in Olympia when he ran for the House in 1996 against Republican incumbent Linda Smith. Smith was one of the most revolutionary of the 1994 Republican freshmen, an opponent of free trade and a backer of campaign finance reform, strongly supported by Christian conservatives. She got into the 1994 race in August, when a high-spending Republican dropped out, won the Republican nomination on write-in votes and beat incumbent Democrat Jolene Unsoeld 52%-45%. Democrats did not target Smith until well into the 1996 cycle, after she led Baird by just 52%-48% in the September all-party primary, which is often a good forecast of the general election. On election night Baird was ahead by 2,400 votes and was pronounced the winner by an overeager media; Baird spent five days in Washington, D.C., at freshman orientation. But when the more than 40,000 absentee votes outstanding were counted, Smith won by 887 votes, 50.2%-49.8%.
Baird returned to southwest Washington and, taking a leave from his job, never stopped running, while Smith decided to challenge Senator Patty Murray; she won the Republican nomination but lost the general election 58%-42%, running behind in the 3d District as well. Campaigning constantly, Baird picked up the consensus-minded inclination of voters and emphasized how confrontation-minded the Republicans were. ''People really want to focus on a positive agenda. People are tired of candidates who just want to tear down government and tear down their opposition,'' he said. He called for applying 100% of the budget surplus to Social Security, opposed school vouchers, favored campaign finance reform, opposed breaching the Columbia River dams and said Washington taxpayers should be able to deduct their sales tax payments, as they could before the tax reform act of 1986.
The two leading Republicans started far behind Baird in fundraising and both took confrontational, crunchy stands on issues. State Senator Don Benton called for a flat tax and respect for gun rights and property rights. Former legislator and 1992 nominee Pat Fiske, who was Smith's chief of staff, took similar positions in a similar tone. In the September 1998 all-party primary, Benton won 22% of all votes and Fiske 16%; Republican candidates altogether won 52%, while Baird, unopposed by other Democrats, won 48%.
This suggested another very close result in November. But opinion in several Washington races shifted perceptibly toward the Democrats in the seven weeks of the general election campaign. This was accentuated by the tone of the campaign. Independent expenditure ads were run by Americans for Limited Terms (against Baird), the Sierra Club (against Benton) and the Republican Party. The last seized on the fact that on a Project Vote Smart questionnaire, Baird left blank the question whether he would prosecute as adults youths accused of murder and violent crimes.''Brian Baird wouldn't support trying even the most violent juveniles as adults,'' the ad said. Baird replied that ''to make it a black-or-white blanket judgment and eliminate any judicial discretion is, I think, a big mistake. Voters are fed up with this kind of deception.'' It was unclear why, if Baird felt that way on the issue, he had not checked the yes box. But he managed to frame the issue as one of positive versus negative campaigning and the media, very unsympathetic to conservatives here (the Olympian called Benton ''an arrogant divisive blowhard''), accepted his argument that the ad was inaccurate. One Portland station pulled the ad and the issue probably worked for Baird. Baird also spent twice as much money, $1,602,000, an impressive amount for an open seat, which Democrats wisely targeted. Baird won 55%-45%, winning more than 60% in the Olympia area and the coast and running barely ahead in the area around Vancouver, Benton's home base.
In the months after the election Baird performed well. He was elected Democratic freshman president for the first six months of 1999 and got a seat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He sought aid for victims of the landslide that slowly enveloped most of the houses in the Aldercrest neighborhood of Kelso. But he also got some bad publicity. During his two campaigns Baird had featured pictures of him and his wife embracing and holding hands by a river bank; he talked of how, with her two children in college, they avoided the ''peace of an empty nest'' by becoming hosts to an injured Bosnian teenager. But two days after the election the Bairds were divorced. Mary Baird said that her husband told her in April that he wanted a divorce but did not want to announce it until after the election for fear it would hurt his campaign. She stopped attending his rallies and asked that her pictures be dropped from his brochures and Website; most but not all were. Reporters recalled how Baird said during the campaign things like, ''Voters demand and deserve honesty and integrity from their public officials,'' and ''All the time we hear about how people are disgusted with negative and deceptive advertising.'' The Seattle Times, which endorsed Baird, wrote, ''Baird squanders his potential when he puts short-term personal gain over long-term public trust.'' Baird replied, ''It has never been my intention to deceive the public, only to protect my family's privacy in this painful time.'' But it escaped no one's notice in Washington that 1st District Congressman Rick White, who had featured his wife and four children in his 1994 and 1996 campaign ads, was divorced in April 1998 and defeated in November 1998, not so much because voters abhor divorce but because they dislike hypocrisy.
Baird has shown the skills and perseverance to make this once-safe Democratic district safely Democratic again. But he may face serious competition again in 2000.
Competitive. Baird's convincing win here in 1998 belies the underlying competitiveness of this district. But, to be competitive here in 2000, Republicans need to find a stronger and less controversial candidate than their 1998 nominee.
- Pop. 1990: 540,658
- 37.5% rural;
13.2% age 65+;
- 94.8% White,
1.4% Amer. Indian,
2.3% Hispanic origin;
57.8% married couple families;
27.5% married couple fams. w. children;
50.5% college educ.;
median household income: $29,154;
per capita income: $13,328;
median gross rent: $346;
median house value: $70,400.
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