Voters in Pierce and Thurston counties are about to cast their first general election ballots in Washington’s new 10th Congressional District. Government jobs are an important anchor there: the two biggest employers are the US military and the state of Washington. Combining these voter groups could make for an interesting challenge. The district’s biggest city is actually Lakewood, near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, with a population larger than Olympia’s.
It’s a district that Republicans complain was made-to-order for Democratic legislator and businessman Denny Heck. But Republican consultant Alex Hays also says that the district is more competitive than Democrats would like.
“The balance of the population is in Pierce County. It has a very high population of military and veteran voters, and is probably closer to being a centrist district than the Democrats hoped they were drawing for Denny Heck,” Hays said.
Campaign contributions do not indicate a swing district, however. Heck has raised $1.8 million, the most of any congressional candidate in the state except 1st District Democrat Suzan DelBene. It’s several times the amount his opponent, Dick Muri, has brought in.
Heck may have the lion’s share of contributions, but he says he’s not taking anything for granted. He previously served as a legislator and chief of staff to Governor Booth Gardner. He also founded the state’s public affairs network, TVW, and was an early investor in the company RealNetworks.
Heck says there’s no silver bullet to help the nation’s economy, but his focus if elected would be to invest in infrastructure and education. “Congress has a role in this,” he said. “That role is not doubling student loan rates. That role is not slashing Pell grants, both of which were at risk of happening just this last summer.”
Heck says the housing sector has always been key to economic recovery, and Congress needs to give it renewed attention. To that end, he’d press government sponsored institutions like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to stop home foreclosures. “I think that we should be more aggressive about refinancing existing mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the reason why is it will put more disposable income in peoples’ pockets,” Heck said.
Heck points to an abandoned house in his own neighborhood as the kind of thing that holds the economy back. “My wife went down there and weeded the lawn, just to try and have some semblance of being occupied,” he said.
Heck’s name lends itself to earnest posters that say, “Give Congress Heck!” But he also has an artistic side – he’s the author of a mystery novel, he did a documentary about the state Supreme Court that won a regional Emmy award, and he wrote a one-man play on Washington state history that he performed to raise money for charity. But Heck declines to provide the script and said he won’t be reviving the elderly character he played onstage anytime soon. “Lots of make-up every night,” he recalled. “I’m not doing that again, let me tell you. Theater grease, no thank you!”
The background of Heck’s opponent, Republican Dick Muri, perhaps exemplifies the northern, military part of the new congressional district, just as Heck’s reflects the Olympia region. Muri lives in Steilacoom. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force after 14 years at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He spent seven years on his local school board and has served nine years on the Pierce County Council. Muri is a fiscal conservative who says his goal if elected would be to shrink federal government.
“I’ve been listening on the radio to the Big Bird debate,” Muri said.”It really comes down to, at what point does everybody get subsidized? We need to realize that once we get a government program in place, it’s not supposed to be there forever. We need to let the private sector and the nonprofit sector somehow manage without being on the federal dole.”
Muri said he was nicknamed “Council Member ‘No’” on the Pierce County Council for his reluctance to spend money – even what he calls “other people’s money.” He said a recent federal grant to the county illustrates the problem.
“So here we got $1.3 million dollars coming from the federal government to buy an airplane for our sheriff to replace the old airplane. Well, isn’t that nice?” Muri said. “But where’d the federal government get the money? They went and borrowed it.”
Muri knows his philosophy might be a tough sell in such a government-dependent district. But he said as a veteran he’s willing to advocate for his fellow service members in District 10. Muri said the armed forces should still be a top priority of the federal government. But he said even military spending could be reduced, as long as it’s not “on the backs” of current forces.
Their differing takes on state ballot initiatives help contrast Heck and Muri even further. Heck has specifically endorsed just one ballot measure: Referendum 74 to allow marriage of same-sex couples. He said, “I think that’s a basic civil right that’s about to arrive, and I believe we shouldn’t discriminate against people who want to enter into long-term committed relationships.”
In contrast, Muri says he and everyone he knows in his local Catholic church will be voting against same-sex marriage. “The pastor’s been very clear about how this is not something this country needs or the state needs,” Muri said. “Traditional marriage has been there since the start of time and we should protect it.”
But on Initiative 502 to legalize marijuana possession in Washington, Muri has gone farther than Heck, saying the state should give the policy a try. He says his college fraternity at UMass-Amherst was split between beer drinkers and potheads, and in his opinion alcohol probably caused more damage. “I think it was the beer drinkers who caused more destruction and misbehavior, but they’re the ones who did better in school,” he says laughing.
Muri said the law could always be changed again if the initiative is a failure. Heck said he is more sympathetic to the idea of changing federal law to enable more use of medical marijuana with a prescription. It’s clear that voters in the new Tenth Congressional District have landed two candidates with different positions on nearly every issue. But unlike Heck, Muri faces the challenge of communicating his views on a financial shoestring.