Jock vs. nerd

In the 1st District, ex-QB Jay Inslee takes on Republican nerd Rick White.

Jay Inslee is a large, athletic man—a former high school football star. And he's running after me.

Seconds earlier, the former Eastern Washington congressman was out on the Boeing Field tarmac, on the far side of a wall of Secret Service men, shaking hands with Al Gore. The vice president posed for the photo op and quickly slipped into his waiting limousine, and as police motorcycles led his flag-bedecked limo and a line of town cars off the runway toward an education forum in Burien, Inslee's car sat stalled. The irony in the predicament of the ambitious young pol—who lost his seat in 1994 to Doc Hastings—being left behind by Gore and the state's entire Democratic congressional delegation was lost on no one.

I obliged Inslee's request for a ride, and he squeezed his 6-foot-plus frame into the back seat of a small Toyota. We arrived at the Burien rally just in time for Gore to introduce Inslee as "my friend," without missing a beat.

If only Inslee's bid to return to Congress could go this smoothly.

In fact, those few DC party bigwigs who are not distracted by Monica Lewinsky or campaign finance inquiries are extremely attentive to Inslee's campaign against Republican Rick White for Washington's 1st District seat in the House of Representatives. The district, which arches from Bainbridge Island through Shoreline and around the east side of Lake Washington to Redmond, is a demographic mixed bag with a history of swinging back and forth between Democratic and Republication representation.

Of 435 congressional races this fall, the Democrats need a net pick-up of 11 seats to wrest back control of the House. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, based in Washington, DC, ranks Inslee's campaign as one of the five most important races in the country this year. The national party has targeted White as one of the dozen weakest Republican incumbents in Congress, thanks largely to a third-party spoiler candidate, the ultraconservative pro-lifer Bruce Craswell (husband of Ellen, last election's GOP gubernatorial candidate). Craswell will draw at least some Republican votes that would otherwise have gone to White, and none that would otherwise have gone to Inslee. The Democrat is also a strong candidate in his own right—particularly given his past service in Washington. Recent soft-money scandals notwithstanding, the DCCC has raised a record-breaking $14 million this year, with as much as $300,000 headed for races, like Inslee's, designated as critical to the party's fortunes.

The Democratic Party hasn't always been so generous to Inslee. In 1994, when he was a sitting congressman representing Washington's Yakima-centered 4th District, he was a freshman Democrat in a heavily Republican district. The National Rifle Association was after him for supporting a ban on assault weapons, and "Clinton Democrats" across the country were being turned out of office by Republicans and their "Contract with America." A DCCC campaign organizer flew cross-country to Yakima that year to tell Inslee in person that the party couldn't afford to support his campaign, and Inslee subsequently lost narrowly to Hastings, whom he had beaten two years earlier.

In 1995, the Inslee family moved to Bainbridge Island and into a more promising congressional district. He ran for governor against Gary Locke and Norm Rice, protesting the use of government funds for the future Seahawks stadium (curiously, he remained silent on the millions for the new Mariners yard). The issue never caught on, and Inslee lost badly in the primary. "It's no secret I ran for governor," he says with good humor now. "It just seemed like one at the time."

Now thrust into the national spotlight more by the peculiar calculus of Capitol Hill headcounts than the strength of his ideas, Inslee gladly plays poster boy for the Democratic Party. He's an environmentalist and he's for health-care reform. During his brief stint in Congress, he joined the White House to vote for NAFTA, GATT, and Most Favored Nations trading status for China. Inslee says he would also have voted for the president's controversial welfare-reform package. He blasts White for voting against the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts and for opposing the Democrats' bill du jour, a slimmed-down health-care package known as the Patient's Bill of Rights. And White, according to Inslee's good Democratic rhetoric, is a "handmaiden for the insurance industry" (see sidebar).

On Clinton, Inslee is fashionably vague: "The first thing to say is that I'm not running for president, I'm running against a fellow named Rick White. The whole issue of the race is between Rick White and me, and it's a race between his values and my values, his beliefs and my beliefs." Inslee's "values" and "beliefs" regarding the president's Oval Office affair remain unspoken. "I'm disappointed and disturbed," he says. "And that's as much as I'm saying." (For the record, his opponent has refrained from calling for Clinton's resignation or impeachment.)

In an apparent attempt to distance Inslee from both the president's travails and the "Clinton Democrat" label that cost him in 1994, his television ads prominently feature his proud wife and three sons. The spot closes with Inslee promising to "fight for our families." Inslee's family emphasis also serves as a cynical dig at Rick White, who—as the DCCC delicately explains on its Web site—"has suffered some missteps at home." (White, who campaigned conspicuously with his family against a conspicuously single Maria Cantwell during his first congressional bid in 1994, was recently divorced.)

If Inslee is the popular high school quarterback in the race, Rick White is the math nerd everybody wanted to cheat off of. As much a Gingrich Republican as Inslee is a Clinton Democrat, White quickly filled Cantwell's shoes as the high-tech expert in Congress. He founded the Congressional Internet Caucus and led fights to protect online privacy, to keep electronic commerce tax-free, and to bring campaign disclosure information to the Web. White is one of the most cyber-literate people in government, unafraid to roll up his sleeves and dig into telecommunications protocols, broadcast standards, and encryption formats. These issues play well at Nintendo, Starwave, and Microsoft (Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer both personally contributed to White's campaign), all of which are headquartered in the 1st District. But do the arcane mechanics of telecommunications reform play well with other 1st District constituents, like suburban soccer moms?

Inslee insists that they don't even play that well with software engineers. "When I ask people at Microsoft 'What's buggin' you today?'" he says, "it's how to get to work." Although Inslee also argues for stricter software piracy laws, he can't hold a candle to White's credibility on the issue. Instead, he calls for more traffic lanes on 520. "Traffic is a software issue," he declares.

In the open primary two weeks ago, White took a little less than 50 percent of the vote, thanks to a significant boost from absentee ballots, with Inslee at 44 percent, and Craswell—the would-be spoiler—finishing with nearly 7 percent. Inslee attributes White's lead to money—White spent more than twice as much as Inslee—but that is hardly an indicator of a better Inslee performance in the general election: White also has more money left in the bank. And in a race with little in the way of burning issues to send voters streaming to the polls, money may be the only thing that matters.

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