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Suzan DelBene: Washington's most endangered congresswoman

The Democrat and former Microsoftee represents the bizarrely cordoned - and most equally split along partisan lines - 1st Congressional district. How's she's planning to keep herself in office and where she's willing to stick out her neck.

First district representative Suzan DelBene.

First district representative Suzan DelBene. Photo: DelBene for Congress

Suzan Del Bene talks with Crosscut writers and editors.

Suzan Del Bene talks with Crosscut writers and editors.

She’s on the endangered list of House Democrats — a natural status given that her 1st District is equally split between the parties and 2014 will be her first re-election bid — and Washington Congresswoman Suzan DelBene is accepting that precarious state with a broad smile and a heavy dose of caution.

DelBene lunched with Crosscut editors and writers Tuesday; for most, it was the first time meeting her and a few observations emerged, at least from this reporter.

The former Microsoft executive will be a force in the fields dear to the southern half of the 1st District, the half that includes Microsoft, many of its employees and a host of other tech firms. She talks eagerly and in depth about how she would use her seat on the House Judiciary Committee on privacy, intellectual property and “market fairness,” a softer term for collecting sales taxes on internet purchases.

She will be deeply involved — but learning, in this case — in agriculture interests of the northern half of the district, including rural areas in Skagit and Whatcom counties, where Republicans dominate. Her seat on the House Agriculture Committee will give her an opportunity for some bipartisan votes, not easy to come by in this Congress.

Hot-button issues, however, are not on DelBene’s plate right now. She’s hearing the advice, one presumes, from veterans who counsel freshman legislators to keep their head down, work hard in committee and don’t step on any third rails.

Take gun control, for example, moving toward a tipping point in the Senate and sure to heat up in the House as well. DelBene’s answer is “background checks”; it’s her mantra and she is sticking with it. The checks should be universal, including gun shows, and they are an answer to most questions she fields on the topic. Background checks are the first item on President Barack Obama’s list as well. Rural parts of the First are gun country and DelBene supports the Second Amendment; the southern half is liberal and background checks are at least an opener. They will have to do for now.

Even more cautious is the congresswoman on the debate over exporting coal from Washington ports. The largest and most-pressing is at Cherry Point, in DelBene’s portion of Whatcom County. Impacts of the export terminal would affect the entire state, she observes, and a “comprehensive” environmental review is needed.

But she takes a pass on whether the effects of burning American coal in Asia should be part of the study and she advocates stronger rail infrastructure. Admitting she is a “process person,” DelBene says the “worst possible decision would be an investment [in an export terminal] that won’t work” because of constraints on its business model or an inadequate transportation system. Don’t place her in any one camp on this one. At least not yet.

That “process” description also brought out a concern DelBene discovered very early in her brief career on Capitol Hill: Congress is a lousy “steward of public policy.” Big programs are adopted, but as the federal machinery moves forward, policies are not updated and, once they become outmoded, the “fix” is very difficult and expensive.

She cites patent law as one example and is concerned that the same problem could arise with health care and immigration. “Let’s fix the problems and move forward,” she advocates, as opposed to avoiding policy reviews because they are too complex or controversial. DelBene is not the first congressional newbie to discover Congress’ reluctance to follow through on its laws, but it is of particular concern to this former manager.

DelBene is learning her district, but also setting up for a campaign. She's carefully scheduling appearances in all parts of her multiple personality-laden district and she’s willing to put more of her own money into a 2014 race. She put $2.8 million into her last race. The 26 Democrats that the party has identified as vulnerable in 2014 will get party funds and help in the campaign ahead; perhaps the DelBenes won’t need to pony up as much as before. Meanwhile, it’s a balancing act from software to milking barns in District One.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 3, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

No doubt she will be the target of endless, extreme vitriol from the party that used to be the Republicans, now the party of welfare for the privileged and steadily shrinking down to a neutron star-like core of angry old white guys.

Obviously it is still early days for DelBene, but early signs of her work are encouraging. One noteworthy effort has been her sponsorship of the Murray/Reichert, now M/R/DelBene initiative to add the richly forested Pratt River valley and parts of the Middle Snoqualmie valley to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a longtime goal of conservationists.

If successful, the combination of directly adjacent state DNR lands in the Middle Fork, recently protected as Natural Resource Conservation Areas by State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, together with the National Forest federal lands in the M/R/DelBene bill, will mean the largest extent of protected lowland forests in the Cascades won't be in any of the existing National Parks or Wilderness areas, but right here next to Seattle in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie.

A quite worthy goal, IMHO, for a first term Congressmember. And also good evidence that Reichert continues as one of the rare exceptions to the decline of the Republicans.

Posted Sat, Apr 6, 10:35 p.m. Inappropriate

The GOP farm team gets weaker and weaker here in Washington...Mr. McKay sounds the alarm that Rep. Del Benne is "endangered" but is unable or chooses not to mention any possible Republican who might be able to defeat her in 2014. I've looked at the GOP members of the state legislature who live there and damned if I see one of them who could make a credible race out of it!

TaylorB1

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