by Cara Gardner
You may think hugging babies and shaking hands is easy work in order to get elected, but follow a candidate like Larry Sheahan around for a while and you'll soon discover that running for Congress seems more like training for the Olympics. Running for public office takes a lot of legwork; in Sheahan's case, that's literal. By the time the primary absentee ballots are dropped in mailboxes, the Sheahan campaign will have visited about 20,000 houses in the 5th District, and Sheahan's hoping that by showing up at people's doors, he'll earn enough votes to be George Nethercutt's replacement.
"People are very appreciative," Sheahan says, regarding his impromptu visits. "This one guy looked at the pamphlet [I handed him], then looked at me and said, 'Is this you?' and I said, 'Yeah, it is.' And he said, 'Wow, I can't believe you're at my door.' It's something they don't forget."
At least, Sheahan is hoping they don't forget him, because in order to make it on the November ballot he'll have to beat out two other Republican candidates in the primaries, Shaun Cross and Cathy McMorris, both of whom have raised more campaign dollars. Point that fact out to the Sheahan campaign, however, and you'll get explanations -- everything from how many more paid staffers they've got, to how federal and state elections have taken away from peoples' abilities to contribute to local races. Sheahan is making up the difference in campaign coffers with face time in front of voters.
"I'm feeling very good about the primary," Sheahan says, sitting in his campaign headquarters on North Division. It's a typical campaign office, unplanned and harried; the building used to be a church, was transformed into a day spa and is now a holding tank for five hardworking campaign staffers, dozens of empty coffee cups and countless Sheahan campaign signs. Sheahan has just returned from late-night debate with his opponents in Walla Walla. He's got only a few hours of sleep and hasn't loaded up on caffeine yet, but before the entrance door has closed behind him, Sheahan is seated and ready to talk politics; after all, he's a seasoned veteran.
"The difference [between Cross, McMorris and I] is that I have 12 years of legislative experience and 18 years of business experience," Sheahan says. "Shaun has business experience, but not legislative, and Cathy has legislative experience but no business."
Sheahan's major play is his experience both as an attorney -- he ran a law office with his father in his hometown of Rosalia, Wash., for a number of years before entering politics -- and as a 26-year veteran of the Republican Party. Sheahan has served four terms in the House and two in the Senate, where he's also Senate Majority Floor Leader, serving on a number of committees as a state senator for the 9th District. Like any politician worth his salt, Sheahan doesn't need to be asked before he'll rattle off a list of great things that never would have happened without him: funding for upgrades to Blair Elementary on Fairchild AFB, $1 million for BSE (mad cow) testing at WSU's vet school, passing bills on tort reform. Sheahan's got a great memory when it comes to complicated deals, but his memory fails him when it comes to the simpler things, like the last movie he saw.
"Um, probably a chick flick or something," he says, clearly uninterested in the question. Granted, movies are irrelevant, but personality certainly isn't. Even though Sheahan seems more comfortable discussing policy than pastimes, his sense of humor comes through in the dry, sarcastic quips he makes throughout his conversations.
"I'm running for Congress because I love airplane food," he deadpans, adding that if he wins, he'll commute between his place in Spokane and a place in D.C. weekly, if not more frequently. Apparently that isn't a problem for his wife, Lura, or either of his two grown step-children, but it's doubtful anyone's asked Sheehan's three Austin Terriers or their one pug, even though he claims his dogs keep him "grounded."
Voters in Eastern Washington want to make sure whomever becomes the 5th District Representative remains not only grounded, but loyal to his or her ties east of the Cascades and far west of Capitol Hill. They may take a hint from Walt Worthy, a real estate developer who is now a local icon thanks to his risky -- but successful -- investment in restoring the famed Davenport Hotel.
"I think he's a stellar choice," Worthy says of Sheahan. The two became close friends when Sheahan's wife, Lura, worked as project manager for the Davenport. "I'm not trying to put any one [of the other candidates] down, but I think he's the one." Worthy makes a point to stay out of politics, so his public support of Sheahan is eyebrow-raising.
"I think he's totally upright, honest, has lots of integrity, is easy to talk to, there's no doubt he's experienced, and the kind of person who can wade in and get the job done and not make a lot of noise," Worthy says.
As for keeping his ties to the region strong, Sheahan says that's in his blood. His ancestors were pioneers in this area, and Sheahan says his family still owns a plot of land out in the Palouse. Though he's known success, wealth and the joys of family, Sheahan's had his share of loss. His stepson recently died from cancer at the age of 29.
"He was going to work on my campaign, but died," Sheahan says. "In three weeks, he was gone."
On the Road Again
Phil Van Treuren, Sheahan's 26-year-old campaign manager from Cleveland, has spent all of about a month in Spokane trying to get his man elected; he may not know what the garbage-eating goat is, or why we love marmot jokes, but give Van Treuren a car and some Sheahan pamphlets and the guy will find the address of every single registered Republican who consistently votes in the primaries. It's impressive. It's also a wild ride.
Following along on a "mail drop," where Sheahan's glossy photo and brief bio (along with a freshly inked signature) are stuck in screen doors, mail boxes or fence posts. The team can cover dozens of homes in minutes
"This is something our opponents aren't doing," Van Treuren says from the driver's seat of Sheahan's leather-upholstered Lexus SUV. "We're definitely doing some more grassroots things." The other candidates are, in fact, doorbelling -- it's an integral part of campaigning -- but with his fast pace, Sheahan hopes to cruise through more neighborhoods than Cross, McMorris or Don Barbieri, the Democratic candidate.
"This is an apartment complex," Van Treuren says, slowing down along the bushes bordering the property. "This place doesn't look like people stay here long; we're skipping it." No one questions Van Treuren's sense of go-to residences and skip-it residences. He's worked on 20 campaigns and was bitten by dogs three times in the last campaign, to say nothing of previous run-ins. Mail dropping is a science for Van Treuren; watching him hurdle juniper bushes and work the handles on screen doors, you might say it's an art.
Before heading into the next neighborhood of actively voting Republicans, Sheahan's car rolls by his billboard on a main street.
"Oh, there I am. Spooky," Sheahan says, looking away from his 30-foot face, smiling down benignly on the public. He recalls the first time his family saw his billboards. "My wife said, 'I hope your head doesn't get that big [in Congress].'"
The voters hope so too -- but then with Sheahan making the effort to show up on stoops and front porches throughout the Inland Northwest, they can give him the message themselves.
Third in a Series -- This is the third of four articles to appear in this space that will introduce you to the candidates running for Washington's 5th District congressional seat. Shaun Cross (R) was profiled on Aug. 12; last week, it was Cathy McMorris; and on Sept. 2, it's Don Barbieri's (D) turn. 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.
Publication date: 08/26/04