Skip to comments.As he ponders race against Murray, Nethercutt hard to define
Posted on 05/14/2003 12:15:08 PM PDT by LdSentinal
WASHINGTON George Nethercutt is contemplating the seemingly impossible as he considers a run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Patty Murray.
But he has handled the seemingly impossible before.
In 1994, the Republican from Spokane toppled House Speaker Tom Foley, the first time a sitting speaker was sent home since 1860.
Now, with a possible run in 2004, Nethercutt is toying with the idea of piercing the Cascade Curtain, the barrier splitting Washington politically and geographically. No Senate candidate from Eastern Washington has done it in 70 years.
No matter, Nethercutt says: "Voting is an emotional act. And the voters are less likely to make judgments about geography and are more likely to make judgments on substance."
If substance is the key, Nethercutt won't be easy to define.
To some, he's a Republican as reliable as they come, helping the National Rifle Association, demagoguing efforts to remove the four lower Snake River dams and voting for President Bush's tax cuts.
To others, he's a more unpredictable and defiant congressman, willing to buck his party's leadership. He successfully fought to have the trade embargo against Cuba loosened and voted to yank the United States out of the United Nations in 1997.
To still others, he's a duplicitous politician who makes promises including a pledge to serve no more than three terms and goes back on them.
Lance LeLoup, political scientist at Washington State University, said it comes down to spin: With his quirky voting record, he can wear a progressive label. But "his record seems a little opportunistic."
Nethercutt's motivation for normalizing trade relations with Cuba, for example, was to help farmers in Eastern Washington.
A taste for politics
In 1994, Nethercutt was a Spokane attorney who worked on wills and adoptions. He had two children, a wife and a taste for politics, having served almost five years during the 1970s as an aide to Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Nethercutt didn't have much name recognition or funding as he launched a campaign to take down the House speaker. But he said he worked hard and stayed optimistic a pattern he will draw from again if he runs against Murray.
"You go into it assuming you are going to win," the 58-year-old congressman said.
During the campaign, he said he would reform government by shrinking it and staying no more than three terms.
In 2000, he broke that pledge and ran for re-election. U.S. Term Limits launched a campaign against him, complete with a heckler in a weasel suit at every stump.
Nethercutt's decision to run was typical of his tough-to-define motivations: Was he optimistic, as he says, to think he could meet his goals in six years? Or was he willing to say anything to get elected in 1994?
Nethercutt said it was up to his voters. He won handily. Today, he doesn't think his pledge is a problem: "I think term limits has been decided."
In his run against Foley, Nethercutt criticized the former speaker for bringing home too much federal money. For beating him, the incoming freshman was rewarded with a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee.
Nethercutt vowed to keep his office on a tight budget he returns money to the U.S. Treasury every year and went to work with Republicans fresh from the 1994 "revolution," who had control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
He signed on to the Contract With America, a 10-point package developed by Newt Gingrich and the GOP leadership to reform government with fiscal discipline, anti-crime and pro-family legislation.
And he has been a steadfast Republican ever since.
But critics, such as Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, aren't impressed with Nethercutt's votes to subsidize sugar growers, ranchers and wool and mohair producers.
"A lot of Nethercutt's spending is normal Boys & Girls Clubs, transportation, airports," Ashdown said. But overall, "he has been very good at bringing home specific money after the district lost the speaker of the House."
Sid Morrison, a former Republican congressman from Yakima who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1992, said Nethercutt's constituents rely on established government programs, such as wheat subsidies.
His views "reflect the political realities of representing what is primarily an agricultural area," Morrison said.
Nethercutt said he's proud of every vote he has cast, decisions made for job creation or to support the economy. "You can always pick out a vote that is subject to some criticism," he said.
The message "don't look at my votes in a vacuum" is a refrain.
For instance, despite his aggressive attacks on advocates for removal of the four lower Snake River dams, he notes that he supports money for habitat conservation and salmon recovery.
And though he has pushed for more flexible trading rules with Cuba, Nethercutt recently introduced legislation to prohibit the United States from contracting firms in France, Germany, Russia and Syria to rebuild Iraq. His spokeswoman April Gentry said the amendment wasn't an issue of free trade, which he supports, but an opportunity to give Congress members "a chance to vent" against countries that opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Nethercutt was also one of 54 House members to vote to pull the United States out of the United Nations in 1997. Yet he has voted repeatedly to provide assistance to the United Nations.
"My vote was geared toward saying to the U.N., 'Please don't waste the dollars of Americans or other member nations by being so bureaucratic that you are ineffective,' " he said.
The vote got him headlines in Seattle, Spokane and Lewiston, Idaho. Other issues, though, have garnered him national attention and one landed him in the doghouse with the party leadership.
That was his work in 2000 to end sanctions on Cuba and other countries out of favor with the United States, allowing the trade of food and medicine. Breaking with his party leadership, Nethercutt had a change of heart and decided the embargo should be partially lifted.
The timing was perfect: Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban refugee who was rescued from an inner tube, put a human face on the plight of Cubans. And struggling U.S. farm interests wanted new avenues of trade with an end of the 40-year embargo against Fidel Castro.
Nethercutt recalls opponents making cracks that he was expressing respect for Castro and that his position was solely to bolster his record for re-election.
Late one night, Nethercutt remembers slamming his hand on the negotiating table. "Quit assaulting me," he said.
Later, Nethercutt and his allies reached a compromise with the GOP leadership and representatives of the Cuban exile community: tighter restrictions on Americans' ability to travel to Cuba and the trade sanctions on agricultural products and medicine would be lifted, with rules on how the transactions could be done.
Since the law was signed, Cuba has purchased $136 million in agricultural products, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. That includes Washington state peas, apples and lentils.
Nethercutt said he had no regrets about the deal, and today his adversaries are largely over the dispute, including House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
'Not changed one iota'
Nethercutt's best friend in Spokane, Eric Johnson, still sees him as the neighbor he has known for 18 years, whom he can joke with about the fact that Nethercutt drinks his milk with ice.
"He has not changed one iota," Johnson said.
Perhaps that guy-next-door demeanor is how Nethercutt with his medium height, medium build and generally even keel manages to blend into a 435-member House, at least until he takes on forces like the Cuban lobby.
At home, Nethercutt said dinner conversations revolve around school or his son's track meets not politics though his wife, Mary Beth, has a legislative job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Nevertheless, Nethercutt's politics are at times quite personal. As co-chairman of the House Diabetes Caucus, he helps land funding for research into the disease his 22-year-old daughter was diagnosed with in 1987.
On the campaign trail, when he needs to get tough, he contracts with fierce political strategists, such as Ed Rollins, who worked for President Reagan and orchestrated Foley's 1994 defeat.
Now, as Nethercutt considers a Senate run, he's having conversations with leaders on the Appropriations Committee, his family and voters. There will be plenty of people to meet. For every resident east of the Cascades, there are four west.
And that's a major challenge facing east-side candidates in statewide races, according to Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, who ran for governor in 1996 and lost decidedly.
Inslee, who used to represent the 4th Congressional District just east of the Cascades, said candidates there have to overcome an inherent unfamiliarity with voters.
Though media from the west breaks through to the east, the reverse doesn't happen.
"It could be overcome with an infinite amount of dollars and an infinite amount of time," he said. But "it is significant."
Murray already has a significant financial edge $1.6 million to Nethercutt's $82,000. The congressman thinks he'll have to raise as much as $12 million. And opponents are already lining up.
Spokane Democrats have launched an online "Nethercutt Watch," which his allies say is full of quotes taken out of context. And the Service Employees International Union is buying ads in Spokane, urging Nethercutt to "protect health care for our families."
If he does run, Nethercutt said his job is to make sure voters get to know him: "If I am anything, what you see is what you get."
This will haunt him. The Dems will make sure of it.
Two-way races are won from the center. If Talmadge, a member of the Hard Left, gets the gubernatorial nomination, a Republican can win (for the first time since 1980) by positioning himself in the center and isolating Talmadge to the Left. Nethercutt could do that. In fact, I thought Nethercutt could take Locke out in 2000, but he didn't run.
However, Nethercutt is being approached by both the state and national party to take on Patty Murray.
So advancing the interests of his constituents while a Republican is demagoguing? Jeez, no bias here.
dem·a·gogue also dem·a·gog ( P ) Pronunciation Key (dm-gôg, -gg)n.
A leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace.
Maybe the Republicans should haunt him also. A lier is a lier, be they Democrat or Republican. He ran on a promise of a self imposed limit on his term. He lied. There are enough liers in the Senate without adding another.