Spokane in the Spotlight

Cathy McMorris Rodgers put Eastern Washington on the national political map last week; the reviews were not kind

“She was not nutty, but I believe she was trying to sell me a dinette set.” That was Esquire magazine’s Charles Pierce on Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ Republican response to the president’s State of the Union speech last week.

Then the reviews got worse. Her story about “Bette” from Spokane? This malarkey brought out the boo-birds from across the country — and a front-page debunking from the Spokesman-Review.

Her performance should be cause for concern inside the GOP leadership: If, as reported, they have the intention of parading her out under the national media spotlight — “See, America, we have a female leader, too!” — the question becomes, is it only a matter of time before they see another Sarah Palin-like moment?

First time on the national stage, and she manages to come off as vacuous while creating questions from her oft-told personal churchgoing, orchard-girl story. Did she live in Canada until she was a teenager, with its Canadian-style government-run health care? Does she really believe the world was made in six days and that the “man-made” theory of evolution is phony; that God made the earth 6,000 years ago? (That’s what Pensacola Christian College, her alma mater, has on its website under “Articles of Faith.”) Do we want to buy this dinette set?

All this will sort itself out, but the New York Times op-ed column written in response by Spokane-bred Timothy Egan has drawn the most attention. His column, which focused on her policy positions, drew more than 500 comments. Here are some representative responses:

“What makes this story tragic for the country, as well as for Eastern Washington, is that this is the district that sent Democrat Tom Foley to Congress for 15 two-year terms, 1965 to 1995.” (Virginia)

“As much as Ms. McMorris Rodgers pains Democrats with her vacuous platitudes, I am pained by an uninformed electorate that keeps electing those without their interests at heart.” (Massachusetts)

“Although her speech was substance-free, Ms. McMorris Rodgers, continuing the unrelenting GOP attack on the Affordable Care Act, did offer us ‘Bette,’ a Spokane constituent who, the congresswoman reported, ‘hoped that the president’s healthcare law would save her money — but found out instead that her premiums were going up nearly $700 a month!’ Unsurprisingly, the claim couldn’t withstand even a whiff of scrutiny.” (Wisconsin)

“I have relatives in Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s district. …their chief source of income and health care (beyond Social Security and Medicare) is a union retirement pension and health care plan. You cannot get them to see the irony in this.” (Connecticut)

Egan’s criticism of McMorris Rodgers’ record as a congresswoman can be summarized like this: She represents one of the neediest districts in the state, yet votes against the needs of the neediest — her constituents. For example, we know that she voted to seriously reduce Community Development Block Grant funding — Spokane has 10 needy, CDBG neighborhoods. We know that she avoided voting on the DREAM Act even though the important agricultural interests in her district rely on immigrant labor. She voted to cut SNAP funding (food stamps) at the same time she voted to continue providing farm subsidies. (Note: America is spending $20 billion more a year just in Afghanistan and Iraq than on the total annual SNAP program.)

With all this — her display on national television, together with her record of voting against interests in her district — wouldn’t you think that local Democrats could amount a serious challenge for once?

She has run and won five times. Two of the five candidates — Don Barbieri and Peter Goldmark — had the name recognition and experience to at least make a run of it. But Barbieri didn’t successfully campaign outside the city of Spokane. Goldmark? Well, Peter Goldmark was, and still is, the perfect profile of a successful candidate in the 5th District. He’s a rancher with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, but back in 2006? He campaigned against her on the “hot button” issues of veteran’s benefits and her failure to push canola oil. I kid you not. And McMorris Rodgers’ most recent challenger, Rich Cowan? Instead of campaigning against her, Mr. Cowan went out and won the “Mr. Congeniality” award.

To be sure, 5th District Democrats don’t get much help from the national or state parties, and that’s a big mistake. Back in 1994, the GOP seized on public unrest to nationalize the 5th District election. With the assistance of Ed Rollins (Ronald Reagan’s version of Karl Rove), Republicans focused not so much on Foley but more so on defeating the Speaker of the House. It was a hugely symbolic win, and Republicans made the most of it. Defeating Cathy McMorris Rodgers, while not of the same magnitude, would likewise have national significance.

But first, the Democrats need a candidate who has name recognition — and who will actually make a case.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.