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Cathy McMorris Rodgers is one of the most powerful members of Congress; her challengers say that makes her part of the problem

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodger is being challenged by (from left to right) Joe Pakootas, Dave Wilson, Tom Horne and Krystol McGee.
  • U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodger is being challenged by (from left to right) Joe Pakootas, Dave Wilson, Tom Horne and Krystol McGee.

Dave Wilson tries not to spend so much time on people's doorsteps.

In March of last year he got an early start on his second bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, an entrenched incumbent representing Eastern Washington, by introducing himself to voters.

"I'd purposely try to have longer conversations with people," says Wilson, a retired businessman and founder of the now-closed technical school Interface College, who would talk as long as 30 minutes. "I wanted to really hear what was on their mind, and I wanted to test out different issues."

Since then, Wilson, running as an independent, recruited some of those chatty voters as volunteers. Now, he spends only a few minutes on each doorstep in hopes of covering more ground.

Joe Pakootas, who served 16 years on the Colville Tribal Council and is credited with reviving the tribe's business operations as its CEO, is also making his second run for the seat, as a Democrat. He's recruited more volunteers and put 130,000 miles on a Chevy Cruze traveling to campaign events across the 5th Congressional District, which stretches from the Canadian border to Washington's southeast border.

With the Aug. 2 primary coming up, Wilson and Pakootas are effectively running against each other in hopes of emerging with enough votes to take on McMorris Rodgers in the general election. She's a well-funded candidate who has won 60 percent of the vote in five out of the past six elections. This year, the race between Wilson and Pakootas has become contentious, with both lobbing accusations at each other. But both agree that McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-highest-ranking House Republican, is aloof and part of the dysfunction in Congress.

"It's the least effective Congress in history," says Pakootas. "It's not good leadership."

"She's abandoned us," says Wilson. "That's not too strong of a word, in my opinion."

McMorris Rodgers says she keeps in touch with constituents, and that her leadership position gives "her a seat at the table setting the agenda" that she says benefits her district.

But the most recent election revealed pockets of discontent in the 5th District. In the 2014 primary election, McMorris Rodgers finished just shy of 52 percent of the vote; just over half of voters in Spokane County voted for someone else, making it her weakest showing since first running for Congress in 2004.

Wilson and Pakootas, along with two others with less name recognition and campaign infrastructure, are hoping to ride this discontent to a second-place finish in August before facing her one-on-one in November.

RACE FOR SECOND PLACE

When Pakootas and Wilson met at Pullman City Hall last week for a candidate forum sponsored by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, neither man threw a punch.

Just a week earlier at a similar forum in Spokane, Wilson called out Pakootas for claiming endorsements from the League of Women Voters, a tax-exempt nonprofit that's prohibited from backing candidates. The same week, Wilson sent out a press release stating Pakootas was claiming endorsements from about a dozen groups that either didn't endorse in federal races, had yet to issue endorsements or didn't exist. It also stated that Pakootas was claiming an inflated percentage of the vote he received in 2014.

"I don't think it was an accident," says Wilson. "Maybe some of them were, but this is Candidate 101."

Pakootas responded that his campaign mistakenly took support from staff or volunteers from these organizations as endorsements. After Wilson made the accusations, Pakootas' campaign looked into the accusations and removed any unfounded endorsements from its website. Pakootas also fired back, saying that Wilson had overstated his vote totals from the 2014 election.

"He was looking for media attention," says Pakootas. "My preference would be to drop it and not go farther."

Wilson, who also wants to move on, says that these sorts of claims could unfairly sway the election.

"If voters don't know a lot about the candidates, they look at those endorsements," he says.

Although Pakootas didn't formally endorse the candidacy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, for the Democratic presidential nomination, he introduced the candidate at a Spokane rally and says he supports many of his policies.

Pakootas, who grew up impoverished on the Colville Reservation, wants the federal government to do more to alleviate the district's high poverty rate and to create job programs.

"Republicans talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, but haven't introduced a jobs bill since they've gotten control (of Congress)," says Pakootas.

He also wants to improve the Veterans Health Administration and resist efforts to privatize it. If elected, Pakootas says he would push for a public health insurance option that he says would make health care more affordable.

"Things are getting worse and worse," he says.

Wilson describes himself as a centrist who leans right on fiscal issues and left on social issues. If elected, he says he'll work to form a centrist caucus in Congress from members of both parties and will work to reduce the influence of money and lobbying.

"I want to be able to go to Congress not beholden to a party, not beholden to special interest groups, just my constituency," he says. "That's what's missing in the House of Representatives. That's why it's so dysfunctional."

Wilson wants the U.S. to have the strongest military and an active world presence. He wants to reduce the national debt to around 65 percent of gross domestic product without "taxing everyone to death" or excessively cutting government programs, but is open to deficit spending during slow economic growth.

He supports gay marriage as well as abortion rights, and is actively pursuing Planned Parenthood's endorsement. Although he's uneasy with marijuana legalization, he says it's a "victimless crime" and supports the federal government reclassifying the drug.

Wilson only takes donations from individuals that he caps at $500 (he says he's willing to use $100,000 of his own money on the campaign), and eschews help from political action committees. After serving, he says he'll turn down a government pension and won't become a lobbyist.

THE INCUMBENT

McMorris Rodgers decided to skip this week's Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

"I had a couple of memorial services for some friends and decided it was just a better use of my time," says McMorris Rodgers, who unlike other members of her party reluctantly endorsed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

When asked if Congress is dysfunctional, McMorris, speaking by phone from Seattle, says, "There is certainly room for improvement. I look for those opportunities to be bipartisan."

She says she's used her position in party leadership to get results and points to legislation to fund fighting wildfires, reforming the Veterans Health Administration and helping rural communities access medical equipment.

Wilson faults McMorris Rodgers for a 2013 government shutdown and for failing to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that stalled in the House after passing the Senate.

McMorris Rodgers has blamed the shutdown on President Obama and Senate Democrats' refusal to negotiate the implementation of health care reform. She says that the House is considering smaller bills that provide a more targeted approach to specific issues related to immigration, such as agriculture or border security.

Being in touch with constituents is "a priority," she says, claiming she's back every two to three weeks, holding town halls and other events in every corner of the district.

"I need to make sure that I'm accessible, listening to people across the political spectrum," says McMorris Rodgers. "That helps me make smarter decisions."

She conducts Q&As on Facebook. Last year, one backfired after she asked how the Affordable Care Act was negatively affecting constituents. Instead, she heard praise for the law.

McMorris Rodgers says she still wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and is focused on encouraging innovation in health care and improving how it's delivered.

PUSH FROM THE RIGHT

In a 2014 primary election in Virginia, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor unexpectedly lost his seat to a Republican challenger. Currently, House Speaker Paul Ryan is facing a similar challenge, and so is McMorris Rodgers.

"I'm kind of like the guy who farts in church, but you wish would stop," says Tom Horne, a 67-year-old retired engineer from Nine Mile Falls who is challenging McMorris Rodgers for the second time, and whose sole source of funds is $4,000 he lent his campaign.

Horne says that McMorris Rodgers is part of the "establishment," which is too intertwined with government agencies, special interests and banks. He wants to reduce taxes and regulations, as well as opening up state and national forests to be harvested. He's also concerned about women in infantry positions, which he says amounts to "social engineering of the military."

Also in the race is Krystol McGee, a 60-year-old retired truck driver running as a Libertarian who wants to cut taxes and regulations while deregulating marijuana.

HANDSHAKES TO VICTORY?

"I don't think most people care if she is in sync or out of sync with the district," says Tom Keefe, a former chair of the Spokane County Democrats who challenged McMorris Rodgers' predecessor George Nethercutt in 2000. "She's an incumbent and most get re-elected."

Although Keefe praises Wilson and Pakootas, he says both are at a fundraising disadvantage. He says if McMorris Rodgers was in real trouble, the national party would bring out the big guns.

"It's impossible to shake enough hands to win," Keefe says. ♦

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