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Suzan DelBene: Washington’s most endangered congresswoman

Brianne Hill and Reginald Andre Jackson rehearsing "The Mountaintop," opening Sept. 11 at ArtsWest Playhouse Credit: Photo: Michael Brunk

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.

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