Despite pressing issues such as health care, jobs and the war in Iraq, Cathy McMorris doesn't seem to mind discussing more mundane topics -- like fruit.
"Peach trees require more maintenance that apple trees," she explains. "You have to squeeze the fruits every couple of days and only pick the ripe ones." After years working in her family's Kettle Falls orchard, McMorris' skill in knowing just when fruit is ripe for the plucking translates to her keen sense of political timing.
After 11 terms in the Washington State Legislature, McMorris declared her candidacy for George Nethercutt's congressional seat as early as last September. She's one of three Republicans who are vying for a spot on the Nov. 2 ballot. Despite the fact that Washington state's 5th District congressional race has been highlighted as one of the most important in the nation, McMorris doesn't seem tense. Instead of rattling off lists of accomplishments, she speaks about her transition from the orchards to the legislature.
"I see similarities between farming and politics," she says. "You're always working ahead for the next year. There's so much preparation, you're going around those trees before you pick the fruit. With legislative issues, it's much the same. You're preparing, looking into the years ahead. When I think of the lessons I learned in the orchard, they are lessons of perseverance and hard work."
Now, instead of selling a cornucopia of farm-fresh fruit, McMorris is up early to commute from her Deer Lake home to her downtown Spokane campaign headquarters. Her week consists of phone calls, knocking on doors, business tours and fundraisers. As for the weekends -- well, most people have seen their share of endearing, rural town parades. Imagine, then, attending every single one of them throughout Eastern Washington, and you'll have a picture of what Saturdays are like for McMorris and the other congressional candidates.
Though McMorris doesn't let on, the inevitable stress of campaigning comes across in her office headquarters; disheveled stacks of flyers, crates of campaign paraphernalia and impromptu electronic wiring are strewn around the phones and fold-up tables. Copies of
Republican Woman and the Washington Post lie scattered on table tops in McMorris' office. A dorm-sized TV is programmed to the Fox news channel. Pamphlets and handouts for the Pacific Arms Society and various other right-leaning organizations are well stocked on a bookshelf. It doesn't take the R next to McMorris' name to figure out which party she's from; McMorris is conservative to the core.
McMorris' campaign scheduler, Chrissy Poe, a determined and organized young staffer, shuffles everyone out the door and into her car. Days are siphoned off into intervals by appointment, and Poe isn't about to let a five-minute lapse rest on her shoulders. Despite the tight schedule, McMorris is calm, answering a barrage of questions as Poe races through Spokane's streets.
"I enjoy biographies, human interest stories," McMorris says from the back seat, playing along with the requisite "personality questions" all politicians suffer through. "The last one I read was on Karen Hughes -- she was George W. Bush's communications director and stepped down to move back to Texas and be with her family."
The books and the movies she recalls seem to slide into the rest of the facts that make McMorris' personality hard to discern from her political image. McMorris has been called "reserved" by the press before, which may be a mild way of saying, as the novelist Margaret Atwood noted, "Inside the peach, there is a stone." Not that McMorris is the pits; on the contrary, she's composed, observant and graceful. McMorris will let seconds pass before responding to questions. It's hard to know whether what's at work is her quiet resolve or her stonewalling strategies. Yet whether she's easy to read, it's clear McMorris is devoted. She's been a full-time politician since she filled an open seat in Olympia in 1994, at the age of 24. She later went on to win a position in the House of Representatives and has since become the House Minority Leader.
"[Before that] I worked on a family friend's campaign right out of college -- Bob Morton, he was a rep at the time, and I worked for him for three years," she recalls.
McMorris, 34, has a bachelor's degree from Pensacola Christian College and a master's of business administration from the University of Washington. Though she says she'd like to have a family, McMorris isn't married and has no children. She thinks that being single while running for office gives her an advantage.
"I'm torn," she says. "Really, the political arena is so hard on children. You hear about people doing it, but it has an impact, there are pressures. Right now I can give politics my all."
Poe pulls the car up to a nondescript office building in Hillyard, which houses HI-REL Laboratories, a successful business that tests micro-electronic equipment for the aerospace, defense and commercial industries. McMorris spends well over an hour touring the site. In addition to listening a great deal about the science of testing minute metal particles, she talks politics with Chief Financial Officer John Level.
"The liberals won't take time to support small business," Level says, explaining that none of the Democratic politicians have responded to invitations to tour HI-REL. The company has endorsed McMorris because she'll back federal bills that support space and defense programs, like the ones the Bush administration has backed.
After the tour, there's only time to sweep by the office and grab bag lunches from a deli. Eating in the car between appointments isn't new to McMorris -- or to the other candidates, for that matter. The 5th District stretches from Oroville to Clarkston, from Walla Walla to Metaline Falls, making it the biggest district in Washington state. Between bites, she talks about her competition.
"It makes me a little nervous to know this is one of the four most competitive seats in the nation," she admits. "Republicans view it as though they must hold on, and Democrats view it as though they must take over."
McMorris says she plans on focusing on her own campaign and that she will avoid slandering her opponents. But she may not have to get negative because Club for Growth, which has endorsed McMorris, can do it for her. A conservative organization that supports candidates through large monetary donations and lots of media ads, Club for Growth is a kind of MoveOn.org for the political right. The organization chooses to endorse Republican candidates sparingly, only in the most important national races -- and this year the Washington 5th is one of them. Known for the attack ads it runs on Democratic opponents, Club for Growth created the commercial, for example, that depicts John Kerry as a weather vane, switching directions when the wind blows.
Before an afternoon of door-to-door campaigning in Liberty Lake, McMorris rushes to out to join other public figures in the hot sun for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's new office at Mirabeau Point. She leaves her half-eaten lunch on the back seat.
Though it's easily over 100 degrees, McMorris stays after many of the other public officials have left. She spends time with people, listening to a few talk about relatives in the Okanogan area and politely nodding as a man from the Mule Deer Foundation complains that the Elk Foundation gets too much attention.
McMorris might be stoic and private -- even difficult to discern -- but her patience for everyday folks has proven to be an advantage in the world of politics, where people elect candidates whom they believe care about the same things that they do. McMorris spends more time listening than talking, and no matter what she's thinking inside her head, people respond to being heard.
Does McMorris ever let her guard down? If her days in the orchard are any indication, she knows a thing or two about waiting for the right time.
SECOND in a Series -- This is the second of four articles to appear over the coming weeks in this space that will introduce you to the candidates running for Washington's 5th District congressional seat. Last week was Shaun Cross (R); Aug. 26, Larry Sheahan (R); and Sept. 2, Don Barbieri (D). The three Republicans will be whittled down to one after the primary on Sept. 14. To read past profiles, go to inlander.com and hit the "Election 2004" button on the right margin.