There were just shy of 20 people -- most of them large men in weathered work jackets and jeans -- sprawled in a rough circle in a side room at Jake's Caf & eacute; in Ritzville. The morning's gloom was only enhanced by dark paneling on the walls as Peter Goldmark, in the center of the circle, introduced himself as a farmer and rancher running for Congress to help folks just like those assembled here for coffee.
There were moments of silence.
Then, 60 miles and a week later, the golden sun was waving a cheery goodbye to downtown Spokane on a cloudless evening, where the tiny leaves of the tiny urban street trees were turning to bright autumnal confetti.
Inside the Davenport Hotel, large men in dark suits formed a circle around Cathy McMorris, the tall, dark-haired Republican congresswoman who represents Eastern Washington. Greetings and small talk maintained a steady background hum as guests at a contractors' dinner gathered for cocktails with McMorris, who is finishing her first term. Waiters in vests wove through the Marie Antoinette Room bearing trays of savory-smelling appetizers.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & erhaps nothing more clearly defines the roles of challenger and incumbent in the 5th District Congressional race than these recent campaign appearances.
McMorris, a 37-year-old former state legislator from northeastern Washington, didn't have to talk much during her evening appearance at the pre-function for an annual celebratory dinner hosted by the Association of General Contractors (AGC). Politely holding a wine glass but rarely, if ever, taking a sip, she only had to nod attentively at the big-shouldered guys in suits who have made careers out of moving dirt and building things across the region.
"This is contractor country," says Tom Stewart, one of those at the gathering. "The huge thing for us is transportation and infrastructure funding and streamlining of permit rules. These are two things we believe Cathy understands."
Elected in 2004, McMorris may still be a freshman but she now has a staff and a track record of dealing with the contractors' group and others like it on a variety of projects and issues. It's a track record that wins her invitations to groups like the AGC.
When her staff called to say McMorris would be in town, she was quickly invited to appear at the reception, one of two campaign stops that evening.
"We support Cathy McMorris because of the job she's done," says Wayne Brokaw, a cousin of broadcaster Tom Brokaw. "McMorris is very open and receptive, and she listens. Her staff calls us on a regular basis to ask what issues can they watch in Congress."
Highway funding, especially for the north-south freeway, is a big one for the contractors, Brokaw and Stewart say.
"This group is not about social and cultural issues. This group is about business and politics, and Cathy understands these issues," Stewart says. "That's not to say she votes our way every time, but she understands."
He excused himself to chat with McMorris and soon was dominating the circle of conversation, one hand holding a glass and the other windmilling to make his points. Others who awaited a word with the congresswoman began to strategize. "Somebody call his cell phone," one joked.
Industry groups like the AGC have helped McMorris amass $1,313,377 in campaign funds, according to recent Federal Elections Committee filings.
Goldmark, who has raised $532,841, has a steeper climb to this sort of ready access to well-funded interest groups. He's not only a challenger and political newcomer, but he's also running as a Democrat in a district that hasn't elected one in 12 years.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he 60-year-old second-generation farmer and rancher with a doctorate in molecular biology has been willing to drive hours at the drop of a cowboy hat to reach an audience in the sprawling 5th District, which covers Walla Walla north to Canada and west to the spine of the North Cascades.
He had to use a little magician's misdirection to get into the predawn coffee ritual enjoyed by Ritzville-area farmers, one local says. The sparkle-eyed Terry Grimmesey Janzen is the chairwoman of the Adams County Democrats, where, she says, "There are three families in Ritzville that are Democrats."
His campaign staff said the meeting would be at Perkins Restaurant, just off Interstate 90 at the eastern edge of Ritzville. Anybody who showed up was directed to Jake's -- over at the west end of town -- because "There's more room there," a staffer said.
Truth is, Janzen says, the farmers always drink their coffee at Jake's, "but if we put out an announcement that Peter was going to be there, they wouldn't have shown up."
Once he got his foot in the door, Goldmark overcame the awkward silences and soon was fielding questions on topics that are largely alien to city dwellers: The Jones Act (governing maritime shipment of wheat), countercyclical payments, conservation futures programs.
Goldmark decided to run for Congress when he was one of many worried farmers who packed an auditorium in Cheney last November for a "listening session" with Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns.
Johanns came out at McMorris' invitation but, Goldmark told The Inlander several months ago, neither figure at the podium seemed to grasp the level of fear and anger from the crowd of farmers bludgeoned by low prices and high costs -- farmers who were facing foreclosure on family operations that were generations old.
He vows to seek a seat on the Ag committee if elected and to refuse gifts, free meals and free travel from lobbyists. Goldmark has preached this populist gospel of grass-roots change everywhere from Starbuck to Wauconda and seems to have touched a nerve.
News of his "Amber Waves Tour" was mentioned everywhere from historically conservative ag-news outlets to the progressive blogosphere.
But iconoclasm comes with a price. The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, the newspaper in a corner of the state where both candidates campaigned hard, endorsed McMorris earlier this week. While they liked Goldmark, the editorial writers thought his idealism would hamper effectiveness, they wrote. There was a similar thought at Ritzville.
"I'm not a die-hard Republican, and I'm not a die-hard Democrat," says Dan Hille, a fourth-generation wheat farmer from Ritzville and a public school teacher.
While still undecided, Hille says, "I don't have a lot of experience with politics, but I have helped put together legislative tours for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and done a little bit of lobbying for special interests in our area. My concern is a politician needs to know how to play the game to get anything done ... Mr. Goldmark is on track with his thoughts, but if he goes in with somewhat of a maverick attitude I don't know how far he'll get. ... And once again, we'd have a freshman; you don't get a lot done your first two years."
Voters like Hille tend to favor incumbents in hopes the faraway district eventually will gain someone with seniority and clout in Congress.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here are signs this may not be a safe year for incumbents. Increasing anger over the war in Iraq has plunged President Bush's approval ratings as low as 34 percent and threatens to take other Republicans down with it.
A wave of corruption and scandal has overtaken GOP leadership in Congress, forcing several key resignations. Former Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, in a national interview this week, said Republicans appear to have squandered the overwhelming mandate they earned when taking over Congress in 1994. The GOP has bankrupted its vision to create a better America for merely keeping a seat at the table of power, Armey said.
Goldmark has recently begun to sound this theme of "sleaze in Congress," broaching it during his opening remarks at an Oct. 13 debate sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and repeating it often since then.
McMorris, tagged as an up-and-comer in the GOP-controlled House, has had to do a bit of dancing on the topic, such as returning campaign funds from now-toxic congressmen like Randy "Duke" Cunningham. She also took money from former congressional power broker Tom DeLay but has not returned it. Her first-term record shows the bulk of her votes were cast along party lines, perhaps not unusual for a freshman in highly partisan times. She also has been appointed to the leadership as Freshman Whip. Heightened responsibility as part of the leadership brings the scandal closer to home.
"I am disappointed and very troubled by some of the activities -- not just legally wrong but morally and ethically wrong activities," she told The Inlander this week.
Widening Armey's theme, she says, "Republicans have the majority, and our No. 1 goal is to keep it. The Democrats don't have the majority, and their No. 1 goal is to get it."
This even-handed criticism doesn't go far enough for a rising star in the GOP, Goldmark says of his opponent. "She's done nothing to distance herself" from the scandals, he says, suggesting McMorris should urge House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to resign.
Bipartisan polling firms hired by National Public Radio reported this week that, in a survey of 48 contested congressional races seen as key to the balance of power, voters were 11 percent more likely to choose the generic Democratic candidate over the generic Republican. This is up from 7 percent in an earlier poll.
Even out in the scablands around Ritzville, voters have an ear to the ground.
"I think there will be a big change this year because of what's happening in Iraq. Even Republicans seem concerned about Bush's ways," Ritzville farmer and teacher Hille says.
There is a distinct lack of third-party polling in the 5th District, but internal poll results released by the Goldmark campaign show him 7 percentage points behind McMorris -- up from 26 points behind in a similar poll in summer.
The McMorris campaign did not return calls seeking information on its internal polling.
David Mermin, reached at his Oakland, Calif., office, is the pollster for Lake Research Partners who handled Goldmark's numbers.
The firm is not part of the Democratic Party and does little work for the Democratic National Committee or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Lake Partners has been hired this year by roughly a dozen Democrats in House, Senate or gubernatorial races, Mermin says.
His polling for Goldmark is based on telephone conversations with a random sampling of residents who represent the political demographic of the 5th District -- 38 percent identify themselves as Republican, 30 percent as Democrat and 27 percent as independent.
Mermin says the first poll in July showed Goldmark with no name recognition. The second, conducted in mid-September but released two weeks ago, shows Goldmark has at least gained visibility, Mermin says.
The pollster also found it striking that McMorris -- who out-polled Bush in these parts in 2004 -- failed to gain more than 50 percent. She was at 47 percent in the July poll and 45 percent in the latest, he says. Mermin says this fits a developing national trend.
"There is definitely a groundswell nationally," he says, "and it is a groundswell for Democrats and against Republicans. But it's also a groundswell for change and against incumbents."
Goldmark, Mermin says, is cut from the cloth of New West Democrats such as Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "Peter Goldmark is not a Puget Sound Democrat."
Yet even that cuts both ways.
If McMorris is forced into a dance where she cites her accomplishments (such as being chosen by GOP brass to lead the effort to rewrite the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA) yet stays far enough away from the flames where that leadership has crashed and burned, Goldmark faces a similar balancing act.
Goldmark is a conservative rural Democrat in a district where most of the Democratic voters are city folk from Spokane who may be more liberal than he is.
During the coffee in Ritzville for example came this laconic exchange:
Question: "Snake River dams?"
Goldmark: "Keep 'em."
"His views on the Snake River dams sound very similar to Cathy McMorris'," says Mike Peterson, director of The Lands Council in Spokane.
Environmentalists contend that breaching four dams on the lower Snake is the only way to preserve native salmon runs from extinction. Even former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt came to Spokane recently to pitch removal of the dams, proposing a method that could serve farm and power interests at the same time.
"I suspect he has a strong conservation ethic, and I think he would be a good convener -- bringing at-odds people together," Peterson says of Goldmark.
The questioner at Ritzville went off on a rant about judges "making decisions that benefit 300 fish," when jobs are imperiled... but Goldmark didn't pick up the us-against-them cudgel.
"We need collaborative process," he said instead, citing examples on the Colville National Forest where mill owners and environmentalists are finding common ground.
Peterson, who is part of that effort as the Forest Service updates its management plan on the Colville, says he is astonished that groups willing to go to war in 1988 are seeking each other out to cooperate these days.
It's quite different, he says, than the tone at the NEPA hearings sponsored by McMorris, "where, basically, she stacks the deck for her interests and where the public can't comment," Peterson says.
"That kind of posturing keeps us apart."
From bridge-building to dam-busting -- and beyond anyone's wildest predictions -- voters in the 5th District have been treated to a race that seems to be headed right down to the wire.
Goldmark has put more miles on the odometer, but that's part of being the challenger. He's been aggressive about forcing discussions of crops that can be grown and refined locally for biofuels, sharpened the focus on veteran's benefits.
Has he caught the attention of the incumbent? Perhaps we can only tell by the TV commercials, which are growing increasingly punchy as they play on televisions across Eastern Washington, from Jakes Caf & eacute; to the Davenport Hotel.