Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has gone from tooling around northeast Washington in a rear-wheel-drive Ford Thunderbird to an audience with the president in 16 years.
Like her political opponent in the November election, the seven-term U.S. representative cut her political teeth in the early 1990s in the Washington House of Representatives. In 2002, she was covering dozens of miles around her district in that car as head of the minority party, part of a quick rise through Republican ranks. She would eventually turn what was a political appointment as a 24-year-old legislative aide into a position of power in the national Republican Party.
To secure that eighth term in Congress, McMorris Rodgers has been battling the same charges that dogged Tom Foley, the nearly 30-year veteran lawmaker who was ousted after becoming House Speaker: That she’s out of touch with her constituents, many of them who have been represented by the congresswoman at either the state or federal level for close to three decades. McMorris Rodgers has countered that her ascent to a position of authority is not a liability, but an asset to the people she represents.
A rural, Christian upbringing and education
On arguably the biggest stage of her long political career, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers cast herself to a nationwide audience as “a girl who worked at the McDonald’s drive-thru to help pay for college.”
It was Jan. 28, 2014, in the televised Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union. From the beginning of her public life, McMorris Rodgers has emphasized that everywoman upbringing, and the education she received through that college has defined her political experience.
McMorris Rodgers grew up in what she described to The Christian Broadcasting Network in a 2014 follow-up interview to that national address as “a cabin without electricity, without running water” in British Columbia, where the family relocated after she was born in Oregon. She moved to Kettle Falls with her family in 1984.
From there, she attended Pensacola Christian College in Florida and earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-law. The institution of now roughly 5,000 students first attained accreditation in 2013, some 23 years after McMorris Rodgers’ graduation.
The college maintains a specific list of Articles of Faith, basic tenets of biblical-driven belief that include the conviction “that God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days, and that God created all life.” That includes a rejection of evolution.
In response to a question from an audience member at a debate last month, McMorris Rodgers reiterated those views.
“The account that I believe is the one in the Bible, that God created the world in seven days,” she said in response to the question. “I’m amazed by His creation.”
McMorris Rodgers has also invoked her faith in talks with supporters. At a fundraiser in late August, the congresswoman said that this chapter of American history would be the one where we “reclaim our Constitution, and we reclaim our Judeo-Christian values.”
State Sen. Mike Padden, who served with both McMorris Rodgers and Lisa Brown in the state House of Representatives in the early 1990s, said faith is important to the congresswoman, as it is to many voters in the district. But she doesn’t flaunt it, he said.
“Cathy, I don’t think, wears her religion on her sleeve or anything,” Padden said. “But she is a person of faith.”
Those religious beliefs continue to guide McMorris Rodgers’ political action. Early in her career, she was critical of efforts to redefine traditional marriage in Washington state, and in recent years has invoked her beliefs in calling for a reduction of funds for Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health clinic that also offers abortion services.
From Pensacola, McMorris Rodgers traveled to Olympia, where she got her political start in 1994.
Voting her district
This year’s race against Brown may seem like McMorris Rodgers’ closest political battle, but another of her races was decided by just a single vote.
It was January 1994, and a 24-year-old McMorris Rodgers was trying to convince the county commissioners spread throughout the 7th Legislative District that she was the right choice to succeed Bob Morton, her political mentor, in the House of Representatives. She won the seat on an 8-7 vote.
Her freshman term found her seated next to Mark Schoesler, the Ritzville Republican who’d also been shepherded by Morton. Schoesler remembers the pair seated “in the farthest, darkest corner of the House.”
“She had to, you know, show people that she was able to serve,” Schoesler said. “Typically it was older men that represented that district.”
One of the young lawmaker’s first legislative victories was a bill that enabled certain court hearings to occur via closed circuit television, an effort to speed proceedings in far-flung rural areas of the state. Padden suggested the idea for the bill to a young McMorris Rodgers, he said, but she was the one who worked on getting the bill on the governor’s desk.
“She ran with it and did all the work,” Padden said. “You’ve got to convince the House, and the Senate, and all the committees.”
It was signed by Gov. Mike Lowry less than four months into McMorris Rodgers’ first term.
Schoesler said that typified McMorris Rodgers’ time in Olympia: A focus and position that reflected the views of the rural, conservative district.
“She knew her district, she learned her district, and she voted her district,” Schoesler said.
That doesn’t mean her ideas didn’t raise eyebrows elsewhere in the state. An early proposal that would have ended state funding for public art projects in schools and prisons, saving the state roughly $1 million, drew vocal opposition from some Democrats and the arts community in 1995. A young Rep. Lisa Brown wondered to a Spokesman-Review reporter if such cuts were necessary if the budget wasn’t being overly stressed.
But McMorris Rodgers also worked across the aisle, said former Rep. Alex Wood, a Democrat. The longtime broadcaster and talk show host was elected to Brown’s seat in the House of Representatives in 1996, when she left for the state Senate, and the Republican from Colville helped get Wood’s first bill – a piece of legislation aimed at improving safety measures on elevators – through the Labor and Commerce Committee and onto the House floor. Wood said concerns about dangerous malfunctions crossed party lines.
“We got it through,” Wood said. “It was a disaster waiting to happen back in those days.”
Wood said for the Republicans, McMorris Rodgers was a young, driven, friendly face and that it was no secret she’d go on to higher office. Most assumed it would be Brown who would challenge her, he said.
“Those of us on the sidelines were predicting this 10 years ago,” Wood said. “Sooner or later, both of them are going to go for the federal seat.”
McMorris Rodgers was first, announcing her intentions a couple of months after Rep. George Nethercutt announced in summer 2003 he wouldn’t seek his sixth term in the U.S. House of Representatives and would instead mount an unsuccessful challenge for Sen. Patty Murray’s seat.
Rise to national prominence
It’s a question McMorris Rodgers has had to answer multiple times, because of both the history of the district and her position of power within the party.
At a town hall in August, one of the congresswoman’s supporters lobbed it from a microphone at the Spokane Convention Center: Would she be interested in Paul Ryan’s job as Speaker of the House?
“I’m focused on the people of Eastern Washington, and I’m working hard right now,” the congresswoman responded, a line that she’s used in the past when questioned about any potential move upward, including swirling rumors of a Cabinet position two years ago.
Schoesler said that answer isn’t lip service. McMorris Rodgers, who gave that national address four years ago and is a weekly fixture at House leadership news conferences, is content in her role as conference chair, the fourth-ranking position in the House, a position she’s held since 2013, he said.
“The arguments against Cathy moving up in Congress are pretty lame,” Schoesler said. “Cathy and I talk privately and regularly. Becoming speaker is not her priority in life.”
The question isn’t far-fetched. First elected to the congressional seat in 2004, McMorris Rodgers rose quickly to become the fourth-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. Along the way, she’s joined efforts by Republicans to repeal all or parts of former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, introduced and pushed for passage of legislation that is intended to speed up hydropower production and provide care to people with disabilities.
The issue is personal for McMorris Rodgers. Her first son, Cole, was born in 2007 with Down syndrome, and the congresswoman formed a caucus on Capitol Hill to address the chromosomal birth defect, which now affects one out of 700 babies born in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Caucus membership now includes 55 representatives in the House, from both political parties.
McMorris Rodgers, once a rumored running mate of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has recently taken heat from political foes for the actions of a president for whom she initially offered tepid support.
Since then, McMorris Rodgers has been quicker to praise Trump. She’s brought several of his top lieutenants to town to bolster her campaign in the past several weeks, including Vice President Mike Pence, and even adopted his campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – in her introduction of Pence at a fundraiser.
In an interview in 2016, former Rep. Doc Hastings, who represented central Washington in Congress from 1995 until 2015, praised the congresswoman’s leadership abilities and said it wasn’t surprising that she’d risen to a position of power within the conference.
“I just think she brings some very quiet strength to the Republican Party and the House,” Hastings said in 2016. “Anybody that’s in leadership, has the challenge of doing that and representing your constituents at the same time.”
Schoesler said he believes McMorris Rodgers has done that for Eastern Washington, and can continue to do it better than her challenger, whose constituency during her time in the state Legislature was mostly centered in urban Spokane.
“It’s more conservative than that,” Schoesler said of the district.
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