Michael Baumgartner’s been around. After graduating from Washington State University, he spent a year in Mozambique working with disadvantaged children. He later met his fiancée in Afghanistan while both were working under contract for the State Department. And he worked as an economics officer for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the surge in Iraq.
After his recent vacationing around Europe and Africa, he’s been to more than 70 countries.
But, say his detractors, there’s one place where he hasn’t spent a lot of time: Spokane, Wash. Specifically, the 6th District, where the political newcomer is trying to unseat state Sen. Chris Marr.
“The representation that he’s a Spokane guy just isn’t true,” says Don Barbieri, a local Democrat heavily involved in races across the state.
“He has zero connection to the district other than going to Gonzaga Prep” for a couple of years, says Chris Gregorich, executive director of the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “He wasn’t voting in Washington except for one election in 2008 … the presidential election by absentee ballot.”
It’s a political label dreaded by most first-time candidates: carpetbagger. Sweeping into town with little knowledge of local issues, fueled only by political ambition. But Baumgartner says it’s untrue and doesn’t matter.
“It’s where I shop. … It’s the airport I fly out of. It’s where I tell people I’m from” when overseas, he says. “I always intended to come back.”
To set the record straight, Baumgartner gave a lengthy chronological accounting of his life. He’s lived here a few different times, but never for an extended period of time. (And, contrary to what’s being alleged, Baumgartner says he never lived in Florida, but just spent three days there.)
Mainly, he was reared in Pullman. But when he was a child, he basically lived in the Ridpath Hotel for a couple of years while his brother was hospitalized and receiving chemotherapy. Years later, he moved back to Spokane to attend Gonzaga Prep for his freshman and sophomore years.
In 2006, he spent a few months here (shuttling between Pullman and Venezuela) working for the Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining.
And that’s about it. He moved here in January, registered to vote and launched his campaign.
And if Democrats want to talk about outsiders influencing local politics, Baumgartner says, he’s fine with that.
Though Marr has outraised him by a wide margin — $273,000 to $89,000 — a quick search of the state’s Public Disclosure Campaign database shows that 58 percent of Baumgartner’s donations come from Spokane and the Valley. Less than 40 percent of Marr’s have come from these two cities.
On top of that, “I was running Bloomsday before Chris Marr set foot in the state,” he says.
Curt Fackler, spokesman for the Spokane County Republican Party, says Baumgartner’s experiences in war zones make him more than prepared for Olympia.
“If he had been working for BP down in the Gulf, that’d be one thing. But he worked for the State Department overseas. … And he was working on [public] policy,” he says. “If he can sit down with the Taliban, maybe he can sit down with Lisa Brown.”
On top of that, Fackler says, Baumgartner’s relative inexperience in Spokane allows him a “nice fresh look at things.”
Marr says it’s not about labeling Baumgartner a “carpetbagger.” It’s more about how Baumgartner represents himself.
“Is he a local guy? Is he military?” Marr says, referring to campaign literature that shows Baumgartner in fatigues, saying he “served” in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Baumgartner says this is a non-issue: He says the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, thanked him for “serving.”) “To me, it feels like home,” Baumgartner says about Spokane.
“Whether the public perceives that or not, I don’t know. But what it comes down to are the issues.”