It's pronounced Pa-koh-tas, like "Dakotas." The "o" sound is long, like the "o" sound in "Joe."
The moderator from the League of Women Voters of Pullman asks about half a dozen questions at the League's primary forum on Monday night before she finally gets it right.
"Maybe I'll just call you Joe," she says, after the candidate corrects her, to laughter in the room. It's the first time she's heard his name pronounced correctly out loud.
Name recognition — that, Joe Pakootas admits, is his biggest challenge heading into the Aug. 5 primary election. For the 20-some people — mostly white-haired retirees and a handful of college students — who have gathered at the Neill Public Library to meet Eastern Washington's 5th Congressional District candidates, this is likely the first time they're hearing him say his name aloud, too.
This evening, only Pakootas, the Democratic candidate, and Dave Wilson, the independent, have showed up to debate. Missing from the panel are five-term incumbent Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Tom Horne, a retired engineer running to the right of the congresswoman.
(McMorris Rodgers, who was campaigning in Spokane on Monday, never responded to the League's invitation. Horne missed the forum in order to crash a Republican shindig and confront McMorris Rodgers in person.)
"I am very impressed with [Pakootas] myself," says lifelong Democratic voter Carolyn Cress, 72, during a short break in the forum. "Joe has — from what I've heard and seen — has really been able to work with all sorts of people and in federal government, state government, tribal council."
Pakootas, 56, is the current CEO of the Colville Tribal Federal Corporation. He's credited with turning a $10 million profit at the enterprise, which was on the brink of bankruptcy when he took over in 2010. He served a total of 16 years on the Colville tribal council. He and his wife also run a convenience store on the Colville reservation.
He grew up on the reservation in Inchelium. He had a hard childhood: His family was forced to relocate to California for a few years when the federal government adopted a "termination policy" to mainstream American Indians into urban society. Later, he and his six siblings were put into foster care for three years due to dysfunction at home. When he first started campaigning last spring, supporters told him he was "too tribal." Now he tones down stories from his past and his culture. Tonight, he wears a tribute to his family on his tie — a gold guardian angel pin, a gift from his mother, symbolizing three of his brothers who died — one in a motorcycle crash, one to suicide and another claimed by drug and alcohol abuse.
He says he's running because he's dismayed about the future of younger generations. He rattles off statistics:
"Twenty percent of our people live on food stamps, and a great number of that is children and young people," he says. "One in six people in the 5th Congressional District live below the federal poverty level, and our unemployment rates are 30 percent higher than the federal unemployment rate. ... Something drastically has to change."
The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary will face off in the general election in November. Pakootas' greatest threat to finishing second behind McMorris Rodgers is Wilson, the independent. Wilson, 59, founded Interface College, a local vocational school specializing in computer training, in the 1980s.
He's running as a fiscal conservative and social moderate. His top priorities are reducing the deficit — before passing jobs and stimulus bills — and ending partisan gridlock by creating a centrist caucus of moderate Republicans and Democrats in Congress. At Monday's forum, he frequently invokes the Simpson-Bowles plan, a proposal created in 2010 to reduce the federal deficit.
"I believe Congress is very dysfunctional right now, and gridlocked," he says. "We should be setting an example for the rest of the world for how democracy should work."
At a time when the public's faith in the legislative branch has reached new historic lows, McMorris Rodgers pushes back against criticism that she's part of the partisan warfare crippling Congress. In a phone interview with the Inlander, she touted two bipartisan bills she sponsored that were signed into law last year, one promoting the development of hydropower and the other supporting pediatric research.
"I would encourage them to look at my record, and it's one where I look for opportunities to work across the aisle," she says. "That's always been my approach, building those relationships."
All of the challengers, of course, face long odds in the general election. The 5th Congressional District hasn't elected a Democrat in more than 20 years, ever since George Nethercutt unseated former Speaker of the House Tom Foley. McMorris Rodgers has handily won her five electoral bids, carrying roughly 60 percent or more of the vote each time.
Her war chest dwarfs all of her challengers' combined: She's raised $1.82 million this cycle — nearly 90 percent of which has come from political action committees and large donors — while her opponents campaign on shoestring budgets. Pakootas has raised $82,000 with significant support from tribal governments, and Wilson $25,000 — almost half from his own pocket. Horne hasn't yet reported any contributions to the Federal Election Commission.
McMorris Rodgers' opponents have urged voters that money isn't an issue; they say they'll all earn votes the old-fashioned way by making phone calls, knocking on doors and handing out campaign literature. In fact, part of Wilson's campaign pledge is not to take any individual contributions larger than $500. His strategy is to beat Pakootas and finish second in the primary.
"If I beat him, that's pretty newsworthy," he says. "I think we can get a bounce, and I think people are fed up enough that we can make it a horse race in the general election based on our message versus Cathy's."
So Wilson likes his odds against Pakootas. He makes a tantalizing case for some voters who don't think any Democrat stands a chance against McMorris Rodgers in the 5th District.
"I really came to see Pakootas; I was more impressed with Wilson," says Judy Stone, 70, a retired nurse from Palouse, after Monday night's forum. "I've never seriously considered an independent, but I was pretty impressed with a lot of the specifics he was saying. He influenced me a lot." ♦
On the Issues
We asked the candidates five questions about issues making headlines today. Here’s what they said.
What solution should the U.S. encourage in response to the escalating violence and bloodshed on the Gaza strip?
Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R): I was encouraged to see that Egypt was stepping up and trying to foster some kind of ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza. I was disappointed when Gaza did not agree to the ceasefire. I would continue to support those efforts.
Joe Pakootas (D): I’m not a fighter. I will fight if I have to do, but I’m more [in favor of] a diplomatic approach.
Dave Wilson (I): All we can really do is try to put pressure on both sides to sit down and talk. I don’t know what else you can do. Ultimately, it’s up to them to settle their differences.
Tom Horne (R): The Obama administration should shut the hell up. This is an Israeli problem. Wars brought to a logical conclusion end. Wars brought to some silly negotiated end that don’t make sense on the ground — they don't end; they go into recess. The Israelis have to beat the Palestinians into the ground in order for this to quit.
What should we do about the surge of unaccompanied children who’ve crossed the border into the U.S. from Central America ?
McMorris Rodgers (R): The first step is to recognize that this both a border security as a well a humanitarian issue. We have tens of thousands of kids now and we need to make sure they’re as safe and healthy as we possibly can while recognizing the laws of this country. I have called for the National Guard to be deployed immediately to take action to protect our border. Step two is expediting the process, so the kids that are here, we can process them more quickly.
Pakootas (D): The reason they’re leaving those other countries is because they're endangered. George Bush had signed legislation in 2008 [the reauthorization of a law to combat human trafficking] where we would work with these refugees and give them an opportunity to stay in this country and that’s what we need to do. … We need to be more compassionate.
Wilson (I): We need to pass comprehensive immigration reform. I support the bill that passed in the Senate in 2013. Secondly, these are kids and I’m concerned about their safety but the first thing we have to do is stop the flow, or it’s only going to get worse. I hate to say this, but I see no other way to send that message other than to start deporting them back.
Horne (R): We should change the law as quickly as possible to allow them to be deported immediately back into the their homes.
Should Congress reauthorize the Export-Import Bank?
McMorris Rodgers (R): I voted for the reauthorization two years ago for the Ex-Im bank and there were some reforms attached to them: increased transparency, making sure that the loans and guarantees are going to those intended. Other concerns have been raised related to some of the deals. I think we need that transparency and accountability being part of that reauthorization.
Pakootas (D): I think so. All of these things — they need to take a look at and work some of the bugs out them. ...Washington state is one of the top exporters of goods and services, so we do need it here in the Northwest, for sure.
Wilson (I): We need to reauthorize it as it is. We’re one of the leading exporting states in the country. We’d be foolish to let that go away.
Horne (R): I’m very concerned about the impact of not reauthorizing the Ex-Im bank. On the other hand in a perfect world, if we weren’t competing with state-sponsored industries, like [multinational European aerospace company] Airbus, there would be no need for an Ex-Im bank.
The 5th district is one of the poorest in our state. What’s your plan for increasing economic prosperity in our region?
McMorris Rodgers (R): I think promoting legislation that will create certainly our various industries is important. I supported the farm bill this year which is important for our agriculture and I’m continuing to look for other ways to expand jobs right here in Eastern Washington whether it’s through our energy companies or expanding hydropower.
Pakootas (D): There’s a lot of federal infrastructure that needs rebuilt or managed one way or another — our bridges, our roads and our buildings — they’ve all lived past their life expectancy — and there are ways to help the private businesses and small entrepreneurs to increase their jobs markets too through certain tax structures.
Wilson (I): The first thing we need to do is get Simpson-Bowles in place. That way you have comprehensive fiscal policy reform. After you do that, after you show the world that we can be disciplined and have a comprehensive plan in place, then can you do economic job and stimulus bills.
Horne (R): This whole region, historically — all the money and jobs originally came through mining and logging. Now the Forest Service and the [Environmental Protection Agency] have effectively shut down logging and mining. … I think the first thing I would do is loosen the grip of the EPA and the Forest Service.
What’s the appropriate size and scope of welfare and entitlement programs?
McMorris Rodgers (R): I think these programs are important and an important safety net for those who really need it in a specific time in their lives. I get concerned when the programs become larger than what is actually intended and instead of really being a short-term we're-here-to-help-you-and-you-get-on-with-your-life, it becomes more of way of life.
Pakootas (D): The government is required to provide services to those people. … Some of [the programs] do need reforming, but defunding them or under-funding them is not doing justice. It’s not the humanitarian way; it’s not the American way.
Wilson (I): To me, the truth is somewhere more in the middle. When I talked to conservative people, their response is, ‘Cut them off! Throw them off in the street!’ ... On the other hand, when I talked to Democrats or liberals, it’s like, ‘Open the spigots up as wide as you can.’ ... I’m running as a centrist and I believe the way you figure those things out is you sit down and you talk about it.
Horne (R): I think the social safety net should be reduced a little bit. It should not be so attractive. I’ve run out my unemployment benefits twice in my life. ... Approaching end of your unemployment benefits — it really concentrates your mind on finding a job.
— DEANNA PAN