Cathy McMorris had picked up her brother at the Spokane airport and was heading into town when she received a phone call that changed her life.
“Her cell phone rang,” Jeff McMorris said, “and it was George Nethercutt.”
She pulled into the parking lot of a credit union on Third Avenue and took the call. The congressman said he was about to announce he would leave his 5th District seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
“He said that if I had any interest in running, I should give it serious consideration,” Cathy McMorris said. “It opened the door.”
That was July 2003. Fourteen months later, the 35-year-old politician, who until this year had never been opposed in a primary election, defeated a state senator and a prominent Spokane attorney for the Republican Party’s nomination. Now she’s locked in one of the top congressional battles in the country, against Democrat Don Barbieri.
McMorris, a fresh-faced, free-market conservative who began her political career by stepping into a vacant state House seat and ended up party leader 11 years later, once again finds herself in the right place at the right time politically.
“I think it is special that someone with my background and upbringing could run for Congress,” said McMorris, a Kettle Falls orchardist’s daughter, who was the first in her family to go to college. “I had people that believed in me along the way.”
State Sen. Bob Morton, the 7th District Republican who helped launch McMorris’ career in the Legislature, was one of them.
“The citizens of our district invested in her,” Morton said, “and she returned good dividends.”
‘Great way to grow up’
McMorris was born in Salem, Ore., on May 22, 1969, to Wayne and Corene McMorris, who at that time leased a fruit orchard in the Willamette Valley. In 1974, when McMorris was in kindergarten, the family moved to New Hazelton in northern British Columbia, where the country is beautiful and the land affordable.
The McMorrises and their two children had moved off the grid, living in a cabin with no power or indoor plumbing while they built a log home. McMorris attended school in a two-room schoolhouse while her parents farmed their 320 acres. The nearest city was Ketchikan, Alaska.
“They were living their dream,” McMorris said of her parents, “living off the land.”
Jeff McMorris, 2 ½ years younger than his sister, remembers they had to put cowbells on their bikes because of the bears.
“Now I find it amazing,” he said of the experience, “but at the time you don’t know the difference.”
In 1981, Wayne McMorris moved his family to Quesnel, B.C., where he took a job as principal of a private Christian school. The McMorrises moved again in 1984, when Cathy was a junior in high school, to an orchard near Kettle Falls where she worked at their family’s fruit stand.
Cathy and Jeff McMorris attended school at Columbia River Christian Academy, which was established in 1973 by local families looking for an alternative education for their children that emphasized a Christian worldview. Cathy McMorris joined the school’s volleyball team and played piano in local theater productions.
Her teacher at the academy, Rick Rosin, remembers a teenager who was good at school, “very motivated and got along well with other students.”
“She showed no particular interest in politics,” Rosin said. “She did not enjoy giving speeches as a high school student.”
Cathy and Jeff McMorris look back fondly on those years.
“Our parents were always involved,” Jeff McMorris said. “They would always be the chaperones at functions and were very active in our lives. It was a small town, and our parents would know before you got home if you did something too bad.”
Their father taught younger children at the academy for a time. He was once head of the Kettle Falls Chamber of Commerce and served as chairman of the Stevens County Republican Party. The family attended a non-denominational evangelical Christian church. The children went to ballgames at the public school. The McMorrises encouraged their daughter to save her 4-H money for college.
“It was a great way to grow up,” Cathy McMorris said. “I didn’t think of myself as going without.”
A new direction
Nevertheless, when she graduated and went off to Pensacola Christian College in Florida, she had to work in housekeeping and at McDonald’s to make ends meet. The college sparked her interest in politics and she started thinking about what role a Christian should have in government. During her last year at college, she played piano in a school quartet to help pay tuition. She graduated “debt-free” with a bachelor’s degree in pre-law.
During her senior year, Morton, a family friend, contacted McMorris’ father, who was active in Stevens County politics, to find out whether his daughter would be interested in running his 1990 campaign for the state House. Her first job out of college also was her first experience in politics. After Morton’s election, she became his legislative assistant.
“I found it exciting,” McMorris said. “He was a great person to work for. I consider him a mentor now, one of those who take time to teach others.”
Morton said he was impressed with her ability to look over the reports prepared by committee staff members, finding issues that affected the district, such as natural resources, agriculture, forestry and mining.
“She has tremendous insight into issues,” he said. “We were both new, and I depended on her to research the researchers.”
In 1993, Morton was appointed to fill the Senate seat left open by the resignation of Scott Barr, and McMorris was chosen by the commissioners of the six District 7 counties to replace Morton. She was 24 years old and working toward her MBA at the University of Washington.
“She was young when she started in the legislative process, and there were those who had their doubts,” Morton said. “But our district placed its confidence in her, and there has been no disappointment.”
McMorris’ Democratic opponent in the 1996 election has an entirely different view.
“She has consistently voted either pro-insurance or pro-big business even though in the 7th District we have some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the state,” said Brad Lyons, an Odessa farmer.
He said her votes in the Legislature have made it more difficult for the poor to get health insurance.
Recent Democratic campaign ads have criticized McMorris for voting against three health care bills in particular:
“ Senate Bill 5416, providing health insurance for low-income children whose family income exceeds 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
“ SB 5404, expanding access to the state’s Basic Health Plan.
“ House Bill 2018, making Washington eligible for additional health care funds.
McMorris said she voted against the bills in part because she favors a private-sector approach over government-funded approaches to solving health care problems.
But in the case of SB5416, McMorris voted against the bill even though Washington was one of only two states not participating in the health insurance program. The state had been contributing to the program, thus forfeiting its federal allotment.
“My concern was we still had a lot of kids under 200 percent of the poverty level without health care, and this would have taken funds from kids under that level,” McMorris said recently.
She also said Democrats in the Legislature had refused to budge on competing health care bills at the time that would have given more options to small businesses to provide affordable health care.
McMorris has won re-election five times since her appointment. In 1998 she ran unopposed and in 2002, she was re-elected by the highest margin in any state legislative race that year, winning 74.6 percent of the vote.
As state representative, McMorris pursued a conservative economic agenda, defending her district’s extraction industries, particularly timber and mining, from what she calls “regulatory and tax burden.” She has consistently voted for her party’s conservative line on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control.
Last year, McMorris was chosen House minority leader, the first woman from either party to hold such a prominent position in the Legislature.
Working the tie
Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, who succeeded McMorris as minority leader this year, described her as a leader who is able to look at all sides of an issue before making a decision. Among her greatest accomplishments as minority leader, he said, was last year’s unemployment insurance reform, which “she was able to bring to the floor despite a group of Democrats who didn’t want to pass the bill.”
“She does a real good job of reaching across the aisle,” he said. “She looks for commonality.”
But Rep. Sandra Romero, D-Olympia, who was McMorris’ co-chairwoman on the State Government Committee when the House was locked in a tie from 1999 through 2001, said McMorris’ intransigence was largely responsible for holding up the civil service overhaul for state workers. In fact, the reform did not pass until Democrats regained control of the House in 2002.
“If there was ever a time Republicans and Democrats could have come together it was then,” McMorris said of the tied House. “But the opposite happened. The rules of the tie made it much easier to kill legislation than pass it.”
However, it was during the tie that the Legislature managed to pass the Critical Access Act, which kept rural hospitals viable by increasing Medicaid reimbursements. McMorris, prime sponsor of the bill, sees it as one of the most important accomplishments of her 11-year legislative career and mentions it whenever her congressional campaign addresses health care issues.
On social issues, McMorris believes life begins at conception. She opposes abortion and the use of fetal cells in stem cell research.
She supported the state’s Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The law is expected to be heard in the state Supreme Court after it was ruled illegal by King and Thurston county courts. She also voted against a 2004 bill in the Legislature adding sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination law.
“This opens up a gray area as far as potential for someone to plead discrimination based on sexual orientation when it may or may not be related at all,” she said recently when asked about her vote last February.
She cites among her biggest disappointments leaving the Legislature without overhauling the state’s workers’ compensation law, reform she sees as necessary to keeping Washington businesses competitive.
“Rates are out of control and are driving businesses out of the state,” she said.
McMorris lives in Deer Park and is unmarried. She said she is still looking for “Mr. Wonderful.”
“He’s such a great guy, I haven’t met him yet,” she said.
Her brother backs her up on this.
“Cathy has dated a lot of guys, but not the right one,” Jeff McMorris said. “To many of them, she was just Rep. McMorris.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter