by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Back in 2000, Congressman George Nethercutt's political career was at a turning point. As a first-time candidate in 1994, he had embraced the mission of limiting the terms of public office holders. He embraced it so much, in fact, that he pledged to serve only three terms as a congressman. That stand helped him narrowly defeat the sitting Speaker of the House, Tom Foley.

In 2000, that debt was coming due, and Nethercutt confirmed his critics' suspicions when he changed his mind and decided to run again -- to continue the important work he was doing for the district, he said.

The voters of the 5th District agreed that his work was, indeed, making an impact, and he won a fourth term. After passing through that political firestorm, it appeared as if the job was his for life. After all, Eastern Washington liked its long-term leaders, with only two others holding the Congressional seat between World War II and Nethercutt's tenure (Foley and Walt Horan). Perhaps the district liked the fact that Nethercutt's seniority was vaulting him up the ladder of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, giving him more power to help make good things happen in Eastern Washington.

So it was somewhat puzzling when Nethercutt made the decision last summer not to run for Congress again, but instead to challenge Patty Murray for her seat in the U.S. Senate.

"This is a big one he's biting off," says Brett Bader, a Republican political strategist in the Seattle area. "Not as big as beating a speaker, but beating any incumbent is the biggest job in politics."

Because Nethercutt has little history in Western Washington -- where most of the state's votes reside -- pundits have wondered about the wisdom of the move. Why give up a perfectly good, secure job in which he can be effective for his district for a long shot at the Senate? Was Nethercutt putting his party's needs ahead of his district's?

"When the White House calls, it's hard to say no," Bader adds. "They wanted two people -- out of a state of 5 million people, they wanted either Jennifer Dunn or George Nethercutt [to challenge Murray]."

A year ago, when his decision was in the works, it may have seemed a no-brainer. Bush was riding high, as the truth about the war in Iraq had yet to be revealed. And Murray was getting abused on right-wing radio for a clumsy attempt at explaining Osama bin Laden's appeal to young Middle Easterners.

"This all speaks to the power of Karl Rove, but it also shows you shouldn't make decisions when your approval rating is in the 80s," says Blair Butterworth, a Democratic consultant from Seattle. "If you go through that [term limits backlash] and pay the price and come out the other end, and you have the opportunity to do good things for your district, and then you go and visit the White House and pick up a hari kari knife... It's inconceivable."

Since Nethercutt has entered the race, things have changed. He created his own Murray-esque media flap when comments he made were construed as being insensitive to soldiers on the ground in Iraq. Meanwhile, the president's popularity has plummeted.

Now Nethercutt is busy introducing himself to Western Washington, where the introductions will certainly include questions about his term limits pledge and his Vietnam War draft deferment -- questions he answered long ago in Eastern Washington.

True, the party did need to field a candidate, but members of both parties are still scratching their heads as to why Nethercutt didn't simply wait two years to challenge Maria Cantwell, the state's junior senator, who is widely viewed as more vulnerable than Murray.

But don't be so quick to rule out a Nethercutt victory in November, say his supporters and party officials. The last politician to underestimate him was Tom Foley, and everyone knows what happened there.

"He's doing very well," says John Wyss, vice chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party. "He has raised more money than any other senatorial candidate since he jumped in. He's taking off like wildfire."

And fellow Republicans don't seem to be faulting him for leaving his post just when he was getting powerful; instead, they say he could do even more for Eastern Washington as a U.S. Senator.

"The last time Eastern Washington had a senator, we got the Grand Coulee Dam," says Shaun Cross, one of four Republicans who would like Nethercutt's job. "Just imagine what he could do."

"Everybody over here is focusing on Dino Rossi [the Republican running for governor]," says Bader. "But I keep telling them to watch Nethercutt. I think he's going to surprise people."

Even if he loses, he may be set up even better for a shot at Cantwell in 2006. And if politics aren't in his future, his supporters shouldn't worry; most former congressmen have no trouble finding lucrative jobs at Washington, D.C., law firms as lobbyists.

But for a handful of local public officials and businessmen, there's a silver lining to Nethercutt's departure. One of the best jobs on the local political scene is open again, and since incumbents are so hard to dislodge in Eastern Washington, this might be the last shot at it for 20 years or more. And with so many Congressional districts solidly in one party's hands or the other's, Nethercutt's exit has put the seat back in play. In fact, pundits agree it will be among the dozen most important -- meaning most watched, most expensive, etc. -- races this fall. It's a seat the GOP can't afford to lose if it wants to maintain its control of Congress.

With such a rare opportunity, it's not too surprising that five people have decided to run. (Another candidate, Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk, has quit the crowded race late last year; and KREM news anchor Randy Shaw decided against running, choosing his media careeer over politics.) What is surprising, however, is that it's the Democrats who have already settled on a candidate while the Republicans have four to choose from. The script for the past decade has been for two or three Democrats to duke it out for the chance to lose to Nethercutt. This time, the Democrats have Don Barbieri, who is free to campaign against the other party and build up a war chest.

"This feels really good for a change," says Mary Pat Laushot, chairwoman of the Spokane County Democratic Party. "Don has such a wonderful history here, and he has done great things for our community. I can't imagine a better candidate."

On the Republican side, it's Cross, a Spokane attorney, Cathy McMorris, a state representative, Larry Sheahan, a state senator, and Todd Mielke, a former state rep and current political consultant, who must find a way to win the nomination. Not only do they face the challenge of having to distinguish themselves among voters, but they must also compete for the financial support of a finite number of GOP check-writers.

"With all four candidates, they have their base support, and they're all doing well on finances," says Wyss. "But there are still [Republicans] who have not decided. Until there's a front runner, they'll just sit on the fence."

And the uncertainty about the status of the primary election has also been looming over the entire race -- at least on the Republican side, since their primary will be hotly contested. Gov. Gary Locke is deciding which primary system to adopt (and he may decide this week), but it is believed he favors the so-called Montana primary, in which voters get one ballot of all Democrats or all Republican candidates. Still, candidates fear that confusion will cause problems, as absentee voters may try to vote on more than one ballot. (Under the Montana system, voters would be sent three, including an Independent ballot.)

"It's kind of a bad year to be doing something brand-new," says Sheahan, "so it's up to the candidates to make sure people know what the rules are."

Don Barbieri is one of the region's most successful businessmen, having turned a sleepy property management firm into a massive, publicly traded hospitality corporation with more than 5,000 employees. But on the campaign trail, one of the parts of that journey he talks about the most is how much affordable and senior housing Goodale and Barbieri (now WestCoast Hospitality) was able to develop in Spokane over the years. After 32 years of leading the company, Barbieri recently left his post at WestCoast.

Despite his business acumen, Barbieri has a background in public policy, having studied urban planning as a grad student at the University of Washington. As an undergraduate at Santa Clara, he established a student outreach organization that exists to this day. He has also served extensively on various boards and commissions in Spokane and for Washington state.

He says such experiences have taught him the importance of creating consensus: "I enjoy putting people around the table who don't like each other and getting them to work together."

Barbieri believes the economy will be the defining issue of the 5th District race, and he sounds a bit like the rest of the candidates when he talks about saving the jobs Eastern Washington has and creating new ones. "We invent the future for the world," Barbieri says, stressing the importance of education. "Our future is in our innovation."

And when asked whether President Bush will be the issue come November, he doesn't take the bait. Instead, negotiating a centrist path in a traditionally conservative district, he chooses his words carefully.

"Are we viewed as a just, kind and peaceful nation?" he wonders. "We've got to turn around our perception in the world economy."

Barbieri says he will tap into his personal fortune for the campaign, and he plans to match every contribution, dollar for dollar, within federal guidelines. And perhaps taking a page from the positive John Edwards campaign, Barbieri adds: "I'm running for the community, not against anyone."

Shaun Cross is, along with Barbieri, the only candidate without experience as a paid public servant. It's something he plans to use to his advantage, although some of his Republican opponents have referred to him as a "trial lawyer."

"I'm not just a downtown lawyer," says Cross, pointing out that he actually runs a business, the law firm of Paine Hamblen, Spokane's largest with about 200 employees. "I don't think people should be involved in running the government if they've never even run a business. It's time to get back to basics."

Cross is most familiar of late for his volunteer work on the Spokane Public Facilities District Board -- the entity charged with operating the Spokane Arena and the construction of the convention center expansion. He was a key player in securing millions of dollars in tax rebates from the state for the project. Recently, however, the luster on these accomplishments has tarnished a bit as critics have worried the project may go over budget -- something he says won't happen.

Cross, who grew up in Ritzville, also sees the economy as the big issue in the race. As a bankruptcy trustee, he says he has had a front-row seat to some heartbreaking moments, like the closing of a plywood factory in Omak, which, he claims, was caused by overly strict environmental legislation.

"I've got a 20-year MBA in the region," Cross says of his experiences working with area businesses. "When are we gonna draw a line in this region? I've got four kids. Are they going to be able to come back here and have the opportunities I did?"

He also talks about the need for tort reform -- that's right, a lawyer for tort reform. Cross says that with some carefully targeted amendments to existing laws -- "laser amendments," he calls them -- he could help Congress create a more friendly economic environment.

Todd Mielke was once a rising star in the state Republican Party; if he gets his way, he'll become one on the national scene. As a state representative in the early and mid-'90s, he was widely credited for brokering significant legislation on welfare reform, for repealing the state's plan for health care reform (a good or bad thing, depending on whom you ask) and for helping engineer the Republican resurgence in Olympia by helping to recruit 32 successful new candidates.

"You have to do more than vote," says Mielke of his philosophy as a legislator, "you have to champion issues."

Mielke left the legislature when his marriage ended; he is now a single father raising a young daughter. Since leaving Olympia, Mielke, who used to own an excavating business, has become a political consultant working for clients in Northwest states like the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and even the massive Johnson & amp; Johnson.

Mielke jumped into the race because he sees it as a unique opportunity. "This is an investment for this region for a long time," he says. "Since this district has been extremely stable, it allows whoever is elected to gain seniority."

Of the four Republicans, Mielke is the only one to break with the White House -- although he says he supports the president in most matters. He does, however, acknowledge that Iraq is a messy situation: "I don't want to be the police force for the world. Let's finish the job and get out." And he also says he does not support the president's plans for immigration, nor would he support any deepening of the federal deficit.

"I'm not elected to be a 'yes' vote for any president," he says.

Mielke, like others, also mentions the need to protect Fairchild from being closed, which he says he would make a priority.

Cathy McMorris may best represent the rural parts of the 5th District, having been raised on a farm and spent her childhood helping her family sell produce from a roadside stand in Stevens County. So it's not surprising that although she agrees the economy is the big issue, her solutions often involve agriculture.

"There are a variety of forces keeping farmers from competing," McMorris says, adding that she would continue the advocacy she started in Olympia back in D.C.

Right out of college, McMorris (who also holds an MBA from the University of Washington) landed in the right place at the right time. She got the chance to finish out an open seat in Olympia, and later won her own seat in the state House of Representatives, a job she has held for seven terms now. She has risen to become the House Minority Leader. Although she says she resists labels, she doesn't mind when people call her "the conservative from Colville" -- even though she has moved to Deer Lake, just north of Spokane.

McMorris has become known as a go-to person whenever business interests are at stake. She says she's committed to lower taxes, fewer regulations, less expensive health care costs and opening up the American Dream to everyone. Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton seems to agree, as he endorsed McMorris last week.

"People are concerned about what jobs are going to be available for their kids -- they want to see more opportunities," she says. "I just want to build on the foundation George Nethercutt has created -- being accessible and responsive."

McMorris says she can help protect existing jobs and create new ones by applying her pro-business approach in Congress. She says she prefers building coalitions to putting up walls. "My approach truly is one of being a champion for certain ideas. We're more effective when we talk about issues."

State Sen. Larry Sheahan represents one of the biggest districts in the state, the sprawling 6th, which runs from Spokane County to the Oregon border. The 5th Congressional District is even bigger, but many of the issues are the same. Today, Sheahan says, that means jobs.

"The decisions we make over the next few years are going to be very pivotal to the survival of the whole economy of Eastern Washington," he says.

Sheahan says farm policy is a big part of the picture, and he's quick to say that if foreign governments persist in subsidizing their exports, the U.S. must match them. He says such supports can be justified in a variety of ways: "I'm convinced that having our own food supply is a national security issue."

But Sheahan is also engaged in business issues in the urban areas, too. He points to the developing biotech sector in Spokane -- and the new group of entrepreneurs behind it -- as an effort he would like to help with from Washington, D.C.

"We're really at the beginning of some very exciting things, and we have to smart about how we approach it and be unified as a community," says Sheahan, who has worked to secure funding for the Riverpoint campus in downtown Spokane. "We have some great opportunities, and we can't squander them."

Sheahan lists homeland security as a top priority, too: "As a Congressman, protecting the lives of our people is something I'll be thinking about every day." Sheahan says more attention needs to be paid to protecting ports and in gathering intelligence.

Sheahan, who lives on Browne's Mountain and maintains a part-time law practice with his father in Rosalia, believes his legislative experience would be an asset to the 5th District, saying he wouldn't need any on-the-job training and would, instead, compete for leadership positions as a freshman member.

So in the 5th District, at least, it looks like the economy will be the big issue. Barbieri is free to sharpen his rhetoric without worrying about protecting his flank; meanwhile, the four Republicans will have to find ways to differentiate themselves. Currently, they share a lot of issues and even admit they would all probably have very similar voting records if elected. None appear to be overly hung up on social or religious issues.

With four in the GOP mix, anything can happen -- the winner of the primary could advance with, say, 28 percent of the vote (or less if, say, a last-minute Libertarian jumps in). For now, they are playing nice and not violating Reagan's sacred 11th commandment: "Speak not foul of your fellow Republican."

"You can go after somebody on issues -- that's OK," says Wyss of the Spokane County GOP. "But if you go personally, that's where it crosses the line."

Still, as the primary gets closer, human nature dictates that voters can expect some fireworks.

"If you want to win, you do what you have to do," says Bader, predicting the race will get more spirited. "The candidate who does not separate himself from the pack runs the risk of being overlooked by the voters."

Common sense has it that Barbieri will be in better shape come the general election, since he won't have to spend as much during the primary. But as one of only a few close races in the nation -- one that could help tip the balance of power one way or another -- it's very likely that both parties will pour whatever resources it takes to win into Eastern Washington.

"There will be money," predicts Wyss, "and the other three will be there the next day to give their support to the winner of the primary."

"Nobody in either party is going to lack for money in the general," adds Bader. "And whoever wins the primary will need to get a larger P.O. box, because it's just going to flow."

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Publication date: 03/25/04

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...