The unbearable lightness of Jim McDermott

On the trail with the congressman-for-life: What's the safest seat in the House worth if you don't have any power?

IT TOOK GOV. LOCKE'S JOKE about all Asians looking alike to crack the awkward silence that hung over the state's top Democrats, as they huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in a Secret Service­secured terminal at Boeing Field. Greeting the vice president at the airport is supposed to be an honor—instead, it's a fruitless exercise ruled by a White House advance woman with teased hair who reads "tarmac instructions" like a substitute teacher: "Excuse me... people! Can I have your attention? Where's the mayor?... You'll be in Car Three with Congressman McDermott. Where's Congressman Dicks?" And so on.

"Nobody wants to be here," Mayor Paul Schell whispers to me once he's received his assignment—a small Ford toward the rear of the vice president's motorcade. "Your presence isn't appreciated, but your absence is noted." He scans the room in vain for Ron Sims. Jim McDermott laughs at this because he had said much the same thing 10 minutes earlier: "All politics is personal relations."

When Gore's plane finally lands, Sen. Patty Murray is first in line at the bottom of the "air stairs" to greet him. (The vice president's cross-country trip to Hazel Valley Elementary School in Burien conveniently coincides with her $250-per-plate fund raiser at the Westin Hotel.) But as the vice president steps lively from behind the open door of Air Force Two, before he even glances down at the queue of dignitaries neatly lined up below him, he gives an appreciative and hearty campaign wave to an imaginary crowd of well-wishers. By the trajectory of his smile, the non-crowd would have been pressed against the chain-link fence just behind the TV camera operators (who play along and air the triumphant shot at 6 and 11). The audience of seven lawmakers actually on hand applauds.

I have to believe Congressman McDermott loathes the artifice. His 7th District, which stretches from Burien to Shoreline and west to Vashon Island, is one of the safest seats in Congress. Last time around, he won re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote, and the national Republican Party admits it won't spend a dime trying to unseat him this year. If money and sound bites and pork-barreling and posing with the vice president before a fake crowd are ruining politics, then McDermott ought to be free to become one of the most creative, prolific, and outspoken members of Congress. Right?

"SOME MEMBERS spend all of their spare time down at the D-triple-C"—the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—"on the phones... paying off campaign debts and raising more money," McDermott explained as we passed pro-life protesters outside Gore's powwow at Hazel Valley Elementary. "A district like mine, it does give me more flexibility than most and I guess more time to focus on more issues."

In DC, McDermott is pegged—even by Democrats—as a typical tax-and-spend liberal. He votes with NARAL, the ACLU, the AFL-CIO, and the president nearly every time; never with the NRA. A medical doctor by training, his big issue is health-care reform, a carryover from days in Olympia spent hammering out the country's most progressive state-sponsored basic health plan. He founded and chairs the Congressional Task Force on International HIV/AIDS and currently sits on Congress' Medicare Commission. He backed single-payer universal coverage when Clinton was pushing a more conservative reform in 1995, and though it was one of the biggest legislative disasters in memory, McDermott still lists his single-payer plan as an accomplishment. "The government has to protect us from the health-care industry," he says. Of the 10 bills sponsored by McDermott this session, three addressed health care (tax credits, privacy, and universal coverage—again) and three addressed tax exemptions for snowboards and skis made at Vashon's K2.

"I do have to stay in some bounds of what my district wants," he says. "Even me. I'm not completely free." Still, McDermott felt secure enough to take on the powerful (and popular) term-limit movement, which eventually ousted its prime opponent, Speaker of the House Tom Foley after Foley filed a lawsuit challenging a voter-approved term-limit initiative in 1993. "I told Tom Foley I ought to be the plaintiff in the term-limit case," McDermott says. Instead, Foley took the heat and became the first Speaker to loose re-election in more than 100 years.

NOBODY STOPPED THE BULLET for McDermott last year, when he picked a fight with current Speaker Newt Gingrich by allegedly—and, Republicans say, illegally—leaking to The New York Times an incriminating tape of a cell-phone conversation between top Republicans. Gingrich's cronies cried foul (diverting attention from the contents of the recording) and filed lawsuits, and McDermott eventually resigned from his seat on the House Ethics Committee. Although he won't discuss a pending suit filed by Ohio Republican John Boehner, McDermott knows he's untouchable: "[If the Republicans] continue to pound on me," he told the Times, "they'll make me into a hero—I'll get 99 percent of the vote next time."

Despite his undeniable popularity among Seattleites (people stop to thank him on the street), fewer are showing up at the community meetings he holds for constituent feedback. Hundreds of people used to jam these events three years ago, but no more than 30 were on hand at the Meadowbrook Recreational Center two weeks ago. Adding insult, one questioner at a likewise lightly attended meeting of the World Affairs Council asked McDermott, who had served in the Foreign Service in Zaire, what he thought of Rep. Phil Crane's African Growth and Opportunity Act. "That's my bill!" McDermott exclaimed. In fact, the trade incentive package, which passed out of the House and currently awaits Senate approval, is one of his proudest accomplishments—hijacked by Crane and the Republicans, who control what gets voted on and whose name is on top.

"It's frustrating," says McDermott. "Being in the minority, the best you can do is keep putting up the alternatives... but people have fallen in love with the free market these days and are not looking to government to solve problems." Without even a chance of getting his legislation to the House floor for a vote, McDermott focuses on the trying business of constituent service—not because street-level politics keeps him elected (that's a given) but, it seems, because it's the last venue in which he actually wields power. He believes his minority status gives him nothing more productive to do.

And so his days tend to look like the one that began in Lake City at the Meadowbrook meeting and went on to a ribbon cutting and tour of the International District Village Square, then to the Seattle Center for Pagdiriwang '98, the Filipino independence festival. He graciously fielded questions about salmon streams and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, hemp defoliant and a line-item appropriation for the Northwest Asian Museum, water-main infrastructure in Indonesia and Supplemental Security Insurance, block grants for the homeless and the wisdom of sanctions for India, Pakistan, and China—none of which he can do much about.

"Making yourself accessible," McDermott explains over noodles in the International District, "listing to constituent problems, being seen—it's part of the job.... If I can't communicate with the 585,000 people in the 7th District, they won't know who I am. It's like sprinkling your lawn all year long. In my view, the Seattle office is more important than the work done back in Washington."

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