August 25, 1996 in Nation/World

Democrats Battle To Challenge Nethercutt Sue Kaun, Judy Olson Follow Different Paths Toward Same Goal

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Sue Kaun and Judy Olson are two very different women who want the same thing: George Nethercutt’s congressional seat.

Both are wives and mothers. Both are first-time candidates seeking a big-time office so they can “build consensus” on major national issues.

Beyond that, there are few similarities between Kaun, 54, a sewer district manager turned outspoken Spokane government activist, and Olson, 50, a soft-spoken Garfield farmer who rose to the top of the National Association of Wheat Growers.

They struggle through the political doldrums of August trying to get a disengaged public to focus on the primary less than a month away.

They rarely mention each other, or long-shot Don McCloskey, on their different paths.

Both know those paths must meet after Sept. 17 to have any chance of beating Nethercutt, the first-term Republican.

Sue Kaun walked the sidewalks of a north Spokane neighborhood one recent morning with a list of registered voters in one hand and a stack of yellow fliers in the other.

At the home of each voter who answered the door, she thrust out a flier, which had a packet of black-eyed Susans stapled to one corner.

“Plant these Susans, and vote for Susan in September and November,” she said to wary residents behind screen doors.

“You have to have something to give them to get (the brochure) inside the door,” she said of the seeds. The campaign has gone through some 10,000 packets of seeds, and has ordered more.

Those who took the time to talk that morning were about equally divided: some feared the federal government will cut services they need, such as Medicare or Social Security; others complained it spends beyond its means.

Front porches are not good spots for long policy discussions. Kaun talked briefly about the need to protect those two programs for the elderly. She warned of the dangers of the tax cut by Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole to those worried about spending. Most took her brochure and promised to read it.

She readily admitted later in an interview that she doesn’t have answers for many of the difficult problems facing the country. She views her job in Congress as working toward a consensus.

“Had Congress put together a balanced budget by consensus, the Republicans wouldn’t have a thing to worry about this year,” she said. “Consensus doesn’t mean everyone’s going to agree, but it does mean everyone has a chance to be heard.”

Kaun needs the votes in neighborhoods like this, the residential streets northeast of Hamilton and Indiana. It is the heart of the blue-collar, solidly Democratic 3rd Legislative District, which has the second-highest spending on social services in the state.

Many of the district’s voters stayed home in 1994. Had they turned out in numbers equal to Spokane’s more Republican districts - the Valley’s 4th and the South Side and northwest Spokane 6th - Tom Foley might still be in Congress.

Kaun thinks Foley lost touch with these voters and some of the people she met that morning agreed. The owner of an in-home day care pressed Kaun about support for her industry, saying she felt Nethercutt and the GOP Congress neglected it. But so did previous sessions, she added.

“You’re not a Tom Foley fan, are you?” Kaun asked politely.

“That’s a loaded question,” said the woman, rolling her eyes and promising to think about voting for Kaun.

Outside the iron skeleton of what will be the Spokane Valley Mall, Judy Olson politely asked a dozen construction “hardhats” if she could interrupt their lunch break.

“This is my first time on a construction site,” she told the ironworkers gathered around a makeshift table. “But my husband and son are doing the exact same thing on our farm now, eating outside on their lunch break.”

She explained she’s running against Nethercutt, which drew some approving nods. She talked about the need for good-paying jobs so they can feed their families.

Tommy Flynn, a Carpenters Union official who escorted Olson on the construction site, cut to the chase for her.

“This woman supports Davis-Bacon,” Flynn said. “Nethercutt voted against Davis-Bacon.”

The hardhats said later they have spent little or no time studying the candidates for Congress. But support for Davis-Bacon may be enough to secure their vote, they said.

The 65-year-old law requires contractors to pay “prevailing wages” on federal projects. Although it doesn’t require work to be performed by union members, it keeps non-union contractors from using cheaper workers to underbid union firms.

Nethercutt and other Republicans tried unsuccessfully to repeal the law in 1995, arguing that the prevailing wages, which are determined by the federal government, are artificially high and jack up the cost of public projects. That costs taxpayers more, he said.

Davis-Bacon is a way to use the taxpayers’ money to create living wage jobs in a community, Olson said. Eliminating it could result in firms importing cheaper, less experienced labor at the expense of local craftsmen.

A few nights later at the Carpenters Hall, Olson made another pitch for union votes. There was more talk of Davis-Bacon, and Medicare, which the AFL-CIO charges in a nationwide television campaign that the GOP tried to cut.

Nethercutt and other Republicans say that’s a lie, that they are only trying to reduce the rate of increase for a system that will otherwise go bankrupt.

Asked later about the accuracy of the ads, Olson demurred.

“I haven’t seen them - I haven’t seen any TV for months,” she said. Whether the Republicans are making cuts is open to interpretation, but she faults them for trying to change Medicare without a full debate.

“This was done as an appropriations process, rather than a serious discussion of how we were going to resolve the Medicare problem,” she said.

Don McCloskey waited his turn for three minutes at the microphone in front of some three dozen Democrats picnicking in Franklin Park. “Our next candidate, for Congress, is Dan McCloskey,” said the master of ceremonies.

“Hi, I’m Don McCloskey. Dan stayed home tonight,” he joked.

With almost no campaign money and a shoestring organization, McCloskey struggles just to gain recognition in the fight to challenge Nethercutt.

“Nobody seems to know me, but that will change,” predicted the former priest who became a psychologist, a college instructor and most recently, a mediator. “It’s frustrating at times. But I’m doing this because I think politics is a good place to be.”

McCloskey coordinates mediation teams in the West Central neighborhood and served on the county’s Dispute Resolution Board in 1990. Mediation is a campaign issue for him; he wants to set up several centers in Eastern Washington to help settle long-running disputes.

Loggers and environmentalists could meet to “engage in the process” rather than argue with each other, he said.

He denounced the high cost of campaigning, but said his lack of funding has one plus. If elected, “I won’t be beholden to anybody.” Without the money for commercials, or even yard signs, he tries to buy ads in small community newspapers, appear on talk radio shows and attend forums.

“I don’t know how I’m going to (win) but the more exposure I get, the better I feel,” he said. “If I didn’t think that I had a chance, I’d quit.

Eastern Washington Democrats got so accustomed to having Tom Foley in the House that they didn’t know how to run a congressional campaign from scratch.

As 1996 opened, no one with a political resume stepped forward to challenge Nethercutt, who united Republicans and independents to beat Foley in 1994.

There were, however, two groups with enough political clout to give a challenger a chance: the Democratic Party leaders in Spokane County, which holds about two-thirds of the district’s voters; and labor unions, with money, members and a nationwide ad campaign to hammer at GOP freshmen.

Most of Spokane’s warring Democratic operatives united behind Kaun, the former manager of Liberty Lake Sewer District, who had no history as a Democrat.

The unions endorsed Olson, a Palouse area farmer with ties to national agriculture organizations, who had no ties to organized labor.

Her work with state and national wheatgrower associations taught her to “disregard some preconceived notions.”

“I was ignorant” of unions, she said. “I worked very hard to meet their membership. They’re middle-class, hard-working people who pay their taxes.”

She described herself as non-partisan before serving as an executive for state and national wheatgrowers and bipartisan while in those positions. In 1994, she supported Foley.

She was slow to enter the race, fearing it would jeopardize the family farm operation. She, husband Rich and their sons own 300 acres and lease 2,200 more in the Palouse. She believed they would have to give up the leases if she took office. A check with the House Ethics Committee revealed that wasn’t true.

Still, she wavered.

“My husband gave me the final push. He said if you’re not willing to try, you may as well stay home and hide under a rock.”

Kaun had served on the Spokane County Board of Freeholders, but was among the sizable minority that opposed consolidation of the city and county.

When the board voted to place that on the ballot without the option to take smaller, interim steps, Kaun campaigned against the charter. She impressed local Democrats with her ability to go toe-to-toe with city leaders in debates.

The charter failed decisively. Kaun’s opposition led critics to charge that she is inflexible, and takes a “my way or no way” approach to problems.

“The charter would have failed anyway, because we did not bring the public with us,” she said.

Kaun said she is flexible enough to manage competing needs, such as environmental protection and economic development while the manager of the sewer district.

“I think I’m becoming more flexible,” she said. “At 20, I believed everything was black or white, right or wrong.”

She was a Vietnam War protester in her 20s, wearing a button that said “another mother for peace,” but said she broke with those who tormented the returning troops.

“Those men and women who served our country carried out other people’s decisions to the best of their ability,” she said.

The winner of the Democratic primary faces an uphill fight to find the issues, recognition and money to defeat Nethercutt seven weeks later in the general election. Olson will need to tap the Democratic organization in Spokane; Kaun will need labor support. McCloskey will need both.

Political observers wonder if any of the three has a chance. But they are usually quick to add they said the same thing about Nethercutt’s chances two years ago at this time, when he was just one of three Republicans trying to take on Foley.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Color Photos

MEMO: These 4 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. GEORGE NETHERCUTT (R) Resume: 51, lifelong Spokane resident … law degree, Gonzaga University … freshman member of 104th Congress, serving on the Appropriations Committee; lawyer, formerly in private practice in Spokane and Seattle; former chairman, Spokane County Republican Party, coordinator, George Bush campaign, 1992 … former president, Juvenile Diabetes Chapter of Spokane, co-founder Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery … married, two children. Finances: Raised $451,300 as of June 30, 1996, with $164,000 on hand. Largest donors include AT&T; and Service Group of America PACs, and the state Republican Party, all at $5,000. Why running: “I want to work to cut wasteful spending, make government programs more effective and simplify the tax system to provide tax relief.” Top priority on taking office: “Focus on the drug problem by introducing legislation that will be a deterrent to drug use by kids.” Job description:Member of the House of Representatives in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District. The two-year term comes with a $133,000 salary, and is one of 435 seats which each represent about 550,000 people. The district covers all or most of 11 counties, stretching from the Canadian border to Oregon, and from Idaho to the center of the Columbia Basin.

2. SUSAN KAUN (D) Resume: 54, Spokane area resident since July, 1974 … associate arts degree, Glendale City College … interim manager, Modern Electric Water District, 1991-92, general manager, Liberty Lake Sewer District, 1976-90 … Spokane County freeholder, 1992-95, member, New Century Task Force, Vision Spokane; former member, Washington State Lakes Protection Association, Citizens Advisory Board. Married, three adult children. Finances: Raised nearly $40,000, with about $6,000 on hand as of Aug. 23. Largest contribution - $2,000 from the National Education Association. Why running: “I don’t like what the Republicans are doing to the country. They are dismantling the government and it’s time for women to be in Congress at the same proportion they are in the country.” Top priority on taking office: “I’d work for campaign finance reform - if necessary a constitutional amendment to have publicly financed campaigns.”

3. DON MCCLOSKEY (D) Resume:58, Spokane resident since 1970 … masters degree, Gonzaga University, bachelors degrees from Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s colleges … mediator and trainer for gender diversity programs; previously worked as painter and roofer, retail supervisor, alcohol counselor, former Catholic priest … former member, City Human Services Advisory Board, County Dispute Resolution Board, co-chairman, Mayor’s Youth Commission, hospice volunteer … married, two adult children. Finances: Has raised and spent less than $5,000. Why running: “What motivated me to run … was the desire to bring a higher level of conversation to political campaigning and the holding of office.” Top priority on taking office: Set up conflict resolution centers in Eastern Washington.

4. JUDY OLSON (D) Resume: 50, lifelong Palouse resident … 3 years of college at Washington State University and University of Idaho … farmer, 24 years, former bank teller, school library assistant, member of EPA water advisory board, 1991-92 … past president, state and national Association of Wheat Growers president, member, Dry Pea and Lentil Association, Grange, Farm Bureau, Eastern Star, board member, Bank of Whitman … married, three sons. Finances: Raised about $74,000 as of Aug. 26. Largest donor AFL-CIO, $2,500. Why running: “I’m running to represent middle-class families of this district. George Nethercutt’s failed abysmally at that.” Top priority on taking office: “Ask for a seat on the Agriculture Committee.”

These 4 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. GEORGE NETHERCUTT (R) Resume: 51, lifelong Spokane resident … law degree, Gonzaga University … freshman member of 104th Congress, serving on the Appropriations Committee; lawyer, formerly in private practice in Spokane and Seattle; former chairman, Spokane County Republican Party, coordinator, George Bush campaign, 1992 … former president, Juvenile Diabetes Chapter of Spokane, co-founder Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery … married, two children. Finances: Raised $451,300 as of June 30, 1996, with $164,000 on hand. Largest donors include AT&T; and Service Group of America PACs, and the state Republican Party, all at $5,000. Why running: “I want to work to cut wasteful spending, make government programs more effective and simplify the tax system to provide tax relief.” Top priority on taking office: “Focus on the drug problem by introducing legislation that will be a deterrent to drug use by kids.” Job description:Member of the House of Representatives in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District. The two-year term comes with a $133,000 salary, and is one of 435 seats which each represent about 550,000 people. The district covers all or most of 11 counties, stretching from the Canadian border to Oregon, and from Idaho to the center of the Columbia Basin.

2. SUSAN KAUN (D) Resume: 54, Spokane area resident since July, 1974 … associate arts degree, Glendale City College … interim manager, Modern Electric Water District, 1991-92, general manager, Liberty Lake Sewer District, 1976-90 … Spokane County freeholder, 1992-95, member, New Century Task Force, Vision Spokane; former member, Washington State Lakes Protection Association, Citizens Advisory Board. Married, three adult children. Finances: Raised nearly $40,000, with about $6,000 on hand as of Aug. 23. Largest contribution - $2,000 from the National Education Association. Why running: “I don’t like what the Republicans are doing to the country. They are dismantling the government and it’s time for women to be in Congress at the same proportion they are in the country.” Top priority on taking office: “I’d work for campaign finance reform - if necessary a constitutional amendment to have publicly financed campaigns.”

3. DON MCCLOSKEY (D) Resume:58, Spokane resident since 1970 … masters degree, Gonzaga University, bachelors degrees from Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s colleges … mediator and trainer for gender diversity programs; previously worked as painter and roofer, retail supervisor, alcohol counselor, former Catholic priest … former member, City Human Services Advisory Board, County Dispute Resolution Board, co-chairman, Mayor’s Youth Commission, hospice volunteer … married, two adult children. Finances: Has raised and spent less than $5,000. Why running: “What motivated me to run … was the desire to bring a higher level of conversation to political campaigning and the holding of office.” Top priority on taking office: Set up conflict resolution centers in Eastern Washington.

4. JUDY OLSON (D) Resume: 50, lifelong Palouse resident … 3 years of college at Washington State University and University of Idaho … farmer, 24 years, former bank teller, school library assistant, member of EPA water advisory board, 1991-92 … past president, state and national Association of Wheat Growers president, member, Dry Pea and Lentil Association, Grange, Farm Bureau, Eastern Star, board member, Bank of Whitman … married, three sons. Finances: Raised about $74,000 as of Aug. 26. Largest donor AFL-CIO, $2,500. Why running: “I’m running to represent middle-class families of this district. George Nethercutt’s failed abysmally at that.” Top priority on taking office: “Ask for a seat on the Agriculture Committee.”


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