Why Jim McDermott Thinks Global, Disdains Local

Seattle's nine-term representative in the House seems more like an appointed ambassador of leftist good will than the elected representative of a Pacific Northwest city.

The annual August recess is bread-and-butter stuff for D.C. politicians. Even those in the farthest-flung districts head back, staff in tow, to shake hands, kiss babies, and give a general "what's up" to the folks back home.

Dave Reichert cut ribbon in Auburn; Jay Inslee pitched biotech in Woodinville; Brian Baird hosted town halls on the Iraq war; Patty Murray talked No Child Left Behind in Tacoma; Maria Cantwell and Norm Dicks (and Murray) helped open a biofuel plant in Grays Harbor; and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers broke bread with seniors in Spokane.

Where was Seattle's Jim McDermott? Being knighted by the king of Lesotho, a monarchy about the size of Maryland located in the middle of South Africa.

McDermott has now joined the Most Dignified Order of Moshoeshoe (named for the kingdom's founder). King Letsie III recognized McDermott for his work on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which helped make Lesotho Africa's No. 1 exporter of apparel to the United States and created 50,000 new jobs in the country, according to McDermott's office. (A few weeks later, the king issued another decree, asking his populace to spend the next three Sundays praying for rain.)

It was standard M.O. for McDermott, whose district extends south to SeaTac and north to Shoreline. While many members of Congress stay busy filling potholes (or the equivalent), Seattle's nine-term representative in the House can more often be found trotting the globe, visiting the world's most impoverished, ignored, or outcast countries, seeming more like an appointed ambassador of leftist good will than the elected representative of a Pacific Northwest city.

Data from D.C.-based research service LegiStorm (which tracks the trips paid for by private and public interests) indicate that, since 2000, only six of the 535 members of Congress have traveled more than McDermott. His prewar trip to Iraq in 2002—where he declared, "I think the president would mislead the American people"—made national headlines. And in 2006, he became one of the first U.S. lawmakers to set foot in North Korea. This year he's been to Germany and has checked in with heads of state in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Later this month, he'll travel to Cuba to research its health care system (recently celebrated in Michael Moore's Sicko).

His legislative agenda is similarly internationalist in scope. This spring he introduced a bill to prevent the deportation of a California resident who'd been convicted in Bangladesh of murder in connection with a 1975 coup in Pakistan. And this session he is again the co-chairman of the Congressional India Caucus, which advocates for issues important to India and Indian Americans.

Is this the representation Seattle actually desires? Or are Seattleites no more active or engaged than the voters in countless other districts who lazily return their incumbents year after year, regardless of their record?

With the Democrats back in control of the House, McDermott now a subcommittee chairman on Ways and Means, and a growing list of local needs, at least some in Seattle are starting to wonder if they still prefer a representative more in the mold of Bono than Warren Magnuson.

Being knighted wasn't actually on McDermott's August itinerary; it was just a happy surprise. He had gone to Africa on his own dime to see his wife, Therese, a Seattle trial lawyer who is currently living there and working to promote AIDS awareness. The couple went whale watching off the coast of South Africa, saw gorillas in the jungles of Rwanda, and sampled wine at South African vineyards. McDermott also took time out for more serious pursuits, including an informational visit to eastern Congo, where the AIDS epidemic and battles over natural resources have claimed millions of lives in the past decade. The call to be knighted came as he was in Lesotho to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a medical clinic run by Paul Farmer, an American doctor known for his efforts in Africa. Unprepared for an audience with the king, McDermott says he had to borrow a shirt and jacket.

Over coffee last month at his favorite downtown cafe—Senso Unico, though McDermott calls it Mario's, after the owner—McDermott says it was hard to return to the States, particularly since he roamed Africa untethered by e-mail or the Internet after his BlackBerry charger broke. "You hear people talk about culture shock," McDermott says, his grandfatherly features settling into a soft smile. "It was being away from this, seeing the problems of AIDS, poverty, all that's going on, and then coming back to Washington [D.C.] and realizing you could pick up the paper and it was almost like the day you left."

He's in town now to attend the wedding of a staff member and to speak in Bellevue at the annual dinner of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Explaining his globe-trotting ways, he says, "You can sit at home and vote your prejudices, but it always helps to go and see what's going on. A major part of the reason for travel is so that Americans can understand what the impact of their behavior is on the rest of the world."

Indeed, you don't have to talk to McDermott long before he refers to Americans in a way that sounds almost like he doesn't include himself among them.

"Most Americans have no idea what's going on in eastern Congo," he says. "Most of the world doesn't care about what Americans spend so much time talking about."

Later that night, the atmosphere at the Anti-Discrimination dinner is akin to a family reunion, with old friends greeting each other warmly and parents showing off their grown children. About a hundred people are gathered, in cocktail attire, in a nondescript hotel ballroom with a live band. McDermott is the opening act for former South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, who founded the group in 1980.

During his brief, prepared remarks, McDermott describes American newspapers as "almost worthless," but says his staff clips out for him articles that too often are about Islamic militants and Muslim extremists being arrested. He talks about his post-9/11 campaign to declare Seattle a "Hate-Free Zone," and gets enthusiastic applause when he says he'd like to extend the effort nationwide. His style is commanding, yet casual. The audience nods and smiles.

The emcee notes that McDermott has a better voting record than most Arab-American congressmen "on our issues." Another dinner organizer, who says she first met McDermott in 1998 while protesting Israel's 50th birthday, adds: "It was the first time we had an encounter with an elected official who was interested in what we had to say."

McDermott might be just another lefty congressman representing a true-blue town if it weren't for the war. His early and vocal opposition to our invasion of Iraq earned him a rock-star reputation (and a cameo in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11). Since then, McDermott's been involved in other films, most recently hosting a screening for Charles Ferguson's Iraq documentary, No End in Sight, at the Capitol in August. His spokesperson says movie requests have become the norm, and that inquiries from the national media flood the office almost every day.

One local official, who declined to speak for the record, says that before the war, McDermott would show up to an event and be introduced to a smattering of claps. "Now," says this official, "The roof comes off."

Of course, McDermott wasn't alone in his stance on the U.S. invasion; more than a quarter of the House (mostly Democrats) voted against authorizing the use of U.S. forces in Iraq—including Washington Reps. Rick Larsen, Baird, and Inslee—as did Sen. Murray. But McDermott's early and sustained criticism has closely identified him with the opposition. Of his past 30 speeches on the House floor, more than half have been about Iraq or about preventing war in Iran.

Even advocates focused on other issues can't help but mention it.

After noting that McDermott votes 100 percent in line with her organization, Karen Cooper of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington adds, "And of course we all know where he's been on the war."

"He's taken really strong stands against the war, which is what people want him to do," says King County Democrats chairwoman Susan Sheary. "People want this war ended."

But just as the "war on terrorism" served, for a while, to insulate President Bush from questions about his policies, Iraq may have spared McDermott from closer scrutiny as to what he has and hasn't done for his district. Will voters start looking beyond Iraq for McDermott's accomplishments now that his party is back in power?

"Because he was dead right, early on, on Iraq, McDermott has a certain untouchability," says Washington Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman. "But if, heaven forbid, we suffer some sort of infrastructure collapse on his watch and people's needs turn inwards, he could be vulnerable." (McDermott's up for re-election next year.)

"We'd love him to be more present and more engaged," says Paul Benz, who runs the Washington state office of Lutheran Public Policy, which has lobbied for causes such as regulation of the payday lending industry and health insurance for kids.

Benz says McDermott has been responsive on issues like health care. But he's been looking to the congressman for more help in getting the federal government to recognize the Duwamish tribe, a move that was started under President Bill Clinton but then quashed by the Bush administration.

While the congressman has twice introduced a bill to that effect, the effort's gone nowhere. With McDermott, Benz says, a lot of people in Seattle are "between a rock and a hard place. Would we like him to be more front and center? We would, but we recognize he is our friend. We really struggle. We've got a good relationship with his staff and him. How do you say to a friend, 'We'd like to get you to step up to the plate more'?"

Like it or not, one way to gauge the effectiveness of a member of Congress is by the money (yes, pork) he or she brings home. There are three factors that typically determine how successful a lawmaker will be in the dash for cash: which party is in power, how long the person has been in office, and which committees the member sits on. And McDermott has all these in spades: The Democrats now run the show, he's been around for 18 years, and he's the fourth-ranked member (by seniority) on the Ways and Means Committee, which because of its jurisdiction over taxes and tariffs is second only to the Appropriations Committee in raw power.

The upshot? McDermott should be able to bargain for just about anything he wants. "In general, someone on Ways and Means is pretty well positioned to affect public policy overall and provide things he thinks are important to his district," says James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Since you have a wide jurisdiction, you're in a position to help other members of Congress."

But the reality is that McDermott is near the back of the pack when compared to the rest of the delegation in bringing home the bacon. Thanks to new ethics rules approved by the Democrats, it's easier than ever to trace the origin of the pet projects (earmarks) that appear in appropriations bills. And in a comparison of total dollars earmarked for local projects in four of the meatiest appropriations bills this year, McDermott was outdone by most members of the delegation, including Republicans Reichert (who represents the Eastside) and Doc Hastings (whose district includes the Tri-Cities and Yakima)—both of them in the minority party with many years' less seniority.

Rep. Dicks, who brought home more than four times the money that McDermott did in those four bills, calls himself a "project person"—a description certainly helped by the fact that he chairs the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee and has represented District 6 for 30 years. "I think the voters appreciate that approach," Dicks says by cell phone while crisscrossing the Olympic Peninsula in August. In fact, Dicks has brought home so much money that the city of Bremerton in 2004 named the new government services building after him. (No similar monument to McDermott exists in Seattle.)

"Jim takes a different view of the job," Dicks says of McDermott. "He pays a lot of attention to what's going on in India and Africa. There's a lot of important issues there, too. We're all covering the waterfront."

Dicks says he's even stepped in to help secure money for Seattle—McDermott's responsibility—when it counts. He recalls the following instance—intended to be an illustration of how the delegation works together, but also, perhaps, a rare example of a senior member calling out a colleague for not getting it done.

At the end of the Clinton administration, Dicks says there was concern over whether Sound Transit had secured its share of federal funding. "It came down to crunch time, and Patty [Murray] and I had our people down in the [transportation] secretary's office making sure there was dedicated funding before Clinton left," he remembers. "Even though it was not my district, I tried to help. That's the way we do things. Jim would call and say he supported it, but we have a different style."

The situation remains true today, says Steve Leahy, president and CEO of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. When it comes to transportation and infrastructure funding, Sen. Murray, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, "is the go-to person. She has the state's relative share—and Puget Sound in general—in her thinking. We're hoping that Jim, frankly, will see the logic for increasing his level of activity in that area."

McDermott's style (translation: interest in things other than bringing home pork) is something that's widely recognized back home. Sandy Brown, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, says Murray is the one they rely on for appropriations. "We rely on [McDermott] to speak truth to power." (Translation: Iraq.)

McDermott, by his own admission, prefers to stick to the high-level issues, observes Sinderman. However, the consultant says the district has short-term needs as well—particularly when it comes to transportation funding for projects like the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the 520 bridge, and Sound Transit.

State Sen.. Ed Murray, D-Seattle—who makes no bones about his interest in the 7th District seat should McDermott ever step down—says he was thinking about the congressman the last time he walked by the decrepit Capitol Hill post office on Broadway. "I've been meaning to call him and find out how we could get federal funds for that," he says.

For his part, McDermott says he's never claimed that money is his focus. "I suppose that somebody could find something I should have done, something I should have gotten," McDermott says during a telephone interview from the House cloakroom shortly before the August recess. "I pay attention to local needs, but if all you did was spend your time trying to get overpasses for the Seattle Art Museum or money for the African museum in Coleman School, and you considered yourself a good congressman for doing just that, that would be a waste of what the people are asking you to do," McDermott says. "They have to live in the world and breathe the air. There are 1,000 ways the external world is affecting us on a daily basis. Someone's got to be paying attention to that."

Of course, paying attention to the world at large does not always mean having an impact back home. McDermott, like many Democrats who have served much of their time in the minority, has had a mixed record of getting things done.

McDermott got no other sponsors for his bill to prevent the deportation of Mohuiddin A.K.M. Ahmed, the Bangladeshi convicted of murder. On the Daily Kos, Virginia-based blogger Mashuqur Rahman called the effort (which received no local press) McDermott's "Terry Schiavo" moment—referring to then–Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's crusade in 2005 to keep alive a Florida woman who'd been clinically brain dead for 15 years. "The congressman should explain why he believes a convicted terrorist deserves permanent residence over all other immigrants who have been patiently waiting in line," Rahman wrote.

McDermott argues that he was motivated by his broader interest in immigrant rights. "I believe we're in a very dangerous period in this country when we are threatening and minimizing the contribution of immigrants," he says. "I don't know whether the facts are right or wrong in this situation, but I wanted to make sure [Ahmed] was kept here long enough to finish his due process. There are things I can't do, but I can make sure that we give people the protections of this country at least, so that they have their day in court."

Ahmed was deported this summer after the Judiciary Committee failed to hear McDermott's request.

McDermott had more success on the issue of depleted uranium. He got an amendment inserted into last year's defense authorization bill that orders a comprehensive study of the harmful effects of the U.S. military's use of depleted uranium in armor-piercing bullets and shield armor for tanks.

McDermott's campaign against the use of depleted uranium may not get him a lot of local attention, but it got him the respect of Pittsburgh punk band Anti-Flag, who asked McDermott to do a voice-over in their song "Depleted Uranium Is a War Crime." Anti-Flag also flew him to Los Angeles in March 2006 for a news conference on the substance, which McDermott calls "the Agent Orange of this generation."

McDermott, a psychiatrist who provided medical services for the State Department in Zaire before coming to Congress, has long been an advocate for economic development, AIDS awareness, and other causes in Africa. He shepherded the African Growth and Opportunity Act (the one for which he was knighted) through the Republican-controlled Congress in 2000. The law gives sub-Saharan countries that don't have a free trade agreement access to the U.S. market. And in recent years, he's sponsored a number of bills to help alleviate poor living conditions on the continent, promote economic diversification and private sector development, and improve AIDS education and testing. But these measures, low priorities for Democrats in the minority, never saw the light of day.

With the D's in charge, McDermott says he'll work to extend the African trade measure to include Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He says opening up markets is a touchy issue because it's often seen as taking away American jobs, but that the effort is one of great importance to a city like Seattle that's becoming increasingly dependent on international commerce.

McDermott has also paid a lot of attention to India. As chairman of the India Caucus, he was influential in getting Clinton to visit the country near the end of his first term, the first U.S. president to visit since Jimmy Carter went in 1978. "My feeling has always been that our relationship with India should be a strong one," McDermott says. When pressed for why, he says simply, "Look at a map," and adds that for strategic and economic reasons we should pay at least as much attention to India as we do to China.

In advancing these causes, McDermott has done plenty of traveling—some 59 trips worth more than $200,000 since 2000—much of it paid for by the countries and private parties that stand to benefit from his efforts. His $3,500 trip to Bangladesh, for instance, was paid for by a group of garment manufacturers and exporters. His three trips to India have been sponsored primarily by Indian business groups.

McDermott is unapologetic about the time he spends overseas, who pays for it, and what he does while he's there. "I have nothing to be ashamed of," he says. "In all the travel I've done, I haven't spent much time in Paris or in the Riviera, or lollygagging around in the spas of the world."

Seattleites, for the most part, seem to agree. "Look at the places he's traveled. These are the places that need help," says Matt Bergman, a local lawyer who has also worked as a political organizer for the AFL-CIO. "If you think we as a country have an obligation to engage around the world, I think what he's been doing has been great. He's been a good ambassador."

Thanks to the Democrats' efforts earlier this year, it's now against the rules for private firms or citizens to pay for trips, but there are some exemptions for educational institutions and other nonprofits.

McDermott says he hasn't had a chance to look at the new rules closely, but he doesn't expect they'll have much impact on his habits: "If people don't want me to travel," he says, "they can pick someone else to stay home and go to all the Seafair parades."

Of course, Seattle doesn't want a representative who only comes back for parades. But is it enough that McDermott was right about Iraq and is passionate about places like Africa and India? That all depends on whether Seattle voters want someone who not only represents an ideology but also looks out for their more immediate interests—and exerts his influence.

"He's a smart politician," says Democratic consultant Jason Bennett. "In terms of delivering results, people [in Seattle] have an ethereal idea of what he's done instead of major legislation that he's passed."

Earlier this year, Congress.org—which annually assigns lawmakers power rankings based on position, influence, and legislation—put McDermott at 115 (out of 435 House members). Certainly respectable, and an improvement over his 2006 position (245). Consider, though, that Inslee—McDermott's colleague to the north, who has less seniority and is not a member of Ways and Means—comes in at 63.

Inslee's ranking, a massive jump from last year's position (354), is helped in large part by the fact that he's already passed two bills this session—one related to kidney donation, the other to give national park status to the site on Bainbridge Island where the first Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. McDermott's legislative score is zero so far for 2007, though he has managed to get amendments into House-approved legislation that cancel tax credits for big oil companies and promote energy efficiency.

Sinderman, the local Democratic consultant, says a lot of people see Inslee as an "effective hybrid" between the big picture and the particulars. "He's someone who champions very progressive ideas, but he's also there when the rubber meets the road."

Like McDermott, Inslee often speaks passionately on the floor about the Iraq war. And he made headlines by calling for the impeachment of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. (McDermott has aimed higher, calling for Vice President Dick Cheney's impeachment.)

But Inslee is also active on three House committees and four subcommittees. McDermott's on one committee and two subcommittees. Inslee has only missed 1 percent of floor votes since he's been in office, the smallest number of any Washington representative. McDermott has missed 415 over the past decade, or a modest 6 percent of votes, according to nonpartisan database GovTrack.us. And Inslee regularly comes home. Last month alone, he hosted three town hall meetings in his district. McDermott held one town hall this year and doesn't have any others planned, though he was back earlier this month to speak at the Sustainable Ballard Festival and participate in the Seattle AIDS Walk.

Many observers are tuning in and pulling for McDermott to get some weighty domestic initiatives accomplished, namely universal health care, the cause that drew him to politics in the first place.

"I've admired the things he's tried to do in Congress. I'm hopeful he can get something accomplished on health care reform," says Phil Talmadge, a former Washington State Supreme Court justice who served with McDermott in the state Senate. As he has in the past, McDermott introduced a bill this year to provide universal, single-payer health care for every American. Talmadge recalls McDermott as a skilled legislator in Olympia who helped craft, and pass, a law providing basic care to the unemployed and uninsured.

Blair Butterworth, a local consultant and a longtime friend of McDermott, also contends that McDermott knows how to operate within the system: "how to put together those votes, how to listen to his colleagues, how to trade. He plays the game."

McDermott seems enthusiastic about making something happen on health care, though there's not a lot he can do until the White House changes hands. For now, as chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, he's working to expand health care for children in foster care. He also plans to focus this fall on extending unemployment insurance to part-time workers, expanding benefits for low-income workers, and making unemployment available to those who must leave their jobs due to things like loss of child care and sexual harassment. His results here will be good barometers of how effective McDermott will be in the new Congress.

Many observers thought that if the Democrats hadn't won back the House last year—and if McDermott didn't need his position in Congress to help raise funds for his legal defense—he might have stepped down after this term. (McDermott recently asked the Supreme Court to take up his appeal of a lower court's ruling on the decade-old case involving a taped telephone conversation between Republican leaders that he leaked to the press.) But now, unless Seattle says different, its ambassador isn't going anywhere.

"Frankly, it's a heyday for him," says Democratic consultant Cathy Allen. "McDermott seems to be having the time of his life. He's got that cat-with-a-canary look."

"Someone once told me if you come up to Capitol Hill, look at the dome, and don't get excited, you shouldn't be here. I still get excited," says McDermott, over coffee at Mario's. "Sometimes it's harder. Some days you get more done than others. But I'm still energized by being here. When I don't feel like that, I'll bag it and let people know that I'm going home."


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow