July 15, 2008 in City

New primary complicates race for Congress

Voters can choose candidates from range of political persuasions
By The Spokesman-Review

With a half-dozen candidates running for Eastern Washington’s seat in Congress, voters have more choices than for any primary in 30 years.

It’s not simply the number of candidates that makes the 2008 primary unusual. It’s the way they spread across the political spectrum.

Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who jumped from the Legislature to Congress in 2004, faces more challenges from the right than the left. She shares the ballot with a trio of Libertarian-leaning conservatives as well as two Democrats.

Kurt Erickson, of Clarkston, lists his party preference as Republican, but is definitely from the wing of the party that backed presidential candidate Ron Paul. John Beck, of Spokane, a Gonzaga University economics professor, lists his preference as Libertarian. Randall Yearout, an operating engineer from Otis Orchards, lists the Constitution Party, which also espouses smaller government, fewer taxes and immigration reform.

They’re seeking votes that traditionally would be part of a Republican incumbent’s base.

Democrats have endorsed Mark Mays, a Spokane psychologist and attorney who is challenging McMorris Rodgers’ support of President Bush and the Republican caucus. The endorsement didn’t clear the Democratic field, however; perennial candidate Barbara Lampert of Spokane, a retired nurse’s aide, got into the race as a way to talk about universal health care and more jobs.

Mays thinks the large number of candidates – the most for the district since 1978 – reflects a dissatisfaction with Congress and President Bush in general, and McMorris Rodgers in particular.

Eastern Washington residents are worried about the economy, unhappy with the Iraq war and upset about $4 a gallon gasoline, he said.

“I think that everybody agrees there’s a problem and it needs to be changed,” he said.

McMorris Rodgers acknowledges the low approval ratings for Congress and Bush may be a factor in drawing candidates to the race. But she sees two bigger factors.

One is the Republican Party’s presidential race, which went to John McCain fairly early in the year, but generated a significant, and vocal, minority for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

“They want to get a message out to voters and they’re not enthusiastic about the (Republican) party’s nominee for president,” she said.

The other is the rules for the new top-two primary, which make it easier for minor party candidates to get on the ballot by eliminating the need for conventions or signed petitions.

The new primary rules also mean that the general election ballot won’t automatically have one Republican and one Democrat. The first and second vote-getters in the August mail-in primary move to the general regardless of party. The district trends Republican – a Democrat hasn’t received more than 44 percent in the general election since House Speaker Tom Foley was ousted in 1994. But splitting the conservative vote four ways, with independents free to move back and forth among the different races as they did in the old “blanket primary,” injects some uncertainty into the outcome.

Lampert, Beck, Yearout and Erickson are running low-budget campaigns, either by choice or necessity, and Mays expects to spend less than the two previous Democratic candidates, who both topped $1 million in contributions and expenditures. He’ll probably spend about $650,000 and hope for a strong boost by young voters drawn to the presidential race.

McMorris Rodgers has already raised more than $1 million, and had $524,000 in the bank at the end of June, the last day for the most recent reporting period.

Here’s a quick look at the candidates:

John Beck, 59, said he was motivated to run in part by continued federal prosecution of medical marijuana users in states such as Washington that have made the practice legal. He thinks Congress should cut off federal funds for such prosecutions, and “our whole war on drugs needs to be re-examined.” A Libertarian, he’s opposed to the Patriot Act and the Iraq war on constitutional grounds, and has proposed a system of campaign financing that would keep candidates from knowing who contributes to their campaigns, thus reducing the influence of big contributors.

Kurt Erickson, 45, who invests in precious metals and buys houses to remodel and sell, was a Ron Paul delegate at Republican conventions. He, too, is opposed to the Patriot Act, as well as any kind of national identification card. He calls for “fair trade” rather than free trade, and is opposed to many of the recent trade agreements. He’d also like the country to pull out of the United Nations, saying “our sovereignty is secondary to U.N. mandates.” While he believes he’s in line with many of the Libertarian and Constitutional Party principles – his fliers describe him as 100 percent Constitutional – he said he recognizes this is a two-party system and he opted to run as a Republican.

Barbara Lampert, 62, worked a series of jobs including nursing assistant, medical insurance claims examiner and telephone solicitor but is best-known now as a candidate. She’s run for some office, from City Council member to U.S. senator, every year since 1996, primarily as a way to discuss issues. This year she’s calling for universal health care, stronger schools, secure borders and more jobs. “We can have full employment because there is work that needs to be done,” she contends, and points to Franklin Roosevelt’s public works programs of the 1930s as a model. If she wins, she believes she’s ready to serve; if not, she’ll run for something next year.

Mark Mays, 60, is juggling his campaign with a career as a psychologist and an attorney; staff says he’s now at the point where he’s campaigning five days a week and working with clients and cases two days. He said he supports a strong military but opposes the Iraq war, which he believes diverted attention from Afghanistan. He advocates bringing the troops home from Iraq, but adds that will probably take about 18 months to avoid endangering the troops and destabilizing the country. He wants more federal aid for college and apprentice programs, and for so-called green jobs.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers, 38, says she hasn’t changed her basic principles since being elected to the House in 2004, but she does think many Republicans in Congress did stray from the tenets that got them the majority in 1994 – smaller government and lower taxes. “We lost in ’06 because the party lost its way,” she contends. Now in the minority, she says GOP leadership is pushing for fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget, which are among the items on the lists of her conservative competitors. She differs with them on trade agreements, tougher rules for driver’s licenses, which some fear will lead to a national ID program, and the Iraq war, all of which she supported.

Randall Yearout, 54, a heavy equipment operator and former saddle shop owner, has taught classes for the Constitution Institute. He contends the federal government overreaches on everything from the way it collects money through income taxes to the way it spends it on programs and agencies. The one place it’s falling down, he adds, is in its failure to rein in activist judges. Many candidates, including Erickson, say they are 100 percent in support of the Constitution, Yearout is skeptical: “When the rubber meets the road, we don’t see people in office defending the Constitution.”

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