Seven years before whacking himself in the head with a tree branch, Dave Reichert was on the fast track to the governor's mansion.
This was in 2003, nearly two decades since a Republican had occupied the residence, and in the silver-haired sheriff from King County, GOP muckety-mucks were convinced they had found their savior. Brawny and photogenic, with the kind of common-folk touch that could only come from being... well... very, very common, the self-proclaimed made-for-TV "hero" of the Green River Killer case would be the Republican party's best shot at the governorship in years.
But at a meet and greet with the state House Republican Caucus, the Reichert Express quickly jumped off the rails. While the hair and the biceps were as dazzling as promised, once Reichert opened his mouth, it quickly became apparent that the candidate was not. Rambling and incoherent, unknowledgeable and unprepared, Reichert was so bad at answering even the softest of softball questions that he had his fellow Republicans literally shaking their heads in disbelief.
Then-Republican state representative Rodney Tom, now a Democratic state senator, recalls listening to Reichert in stunned silence on a caucus room couch with two colleagues when one of them leaned in and whispered, "If he's running for governor, the three of us should run too."
According to another caucus member present at the meeting, Reichert had walked into the room the presumptive Republican nominee for governor, but by the time he walked out, talk had already turned to recruiting eventual two-time loser Dino Rossi. And the rest is history.
Seven years later, Reichert is still whiffing at softball questions, only now with the added stature of being a three-term congressional incumbent representing the Eastside. But for the first time in his political career, thanks in part to that tree limb to the head (or whatever it was—he said he has no memory of the incident), concerns about Reichert's intellect (or lack thereof) are finally rising above the murmur of caucus room whispers and into the public sphere.
It's not exactly a place incumbents want to be during the final weeks of a campaign—fielding queries from reporters about whether one is or is not brain damaged—especially with recent polls showing Democratic challenger Suzan DelBene closing within the margin of error. But whether it's his head injury that's to blame or his bungled handling of it, questions of competence are starting to dominate the race, with even the Seattle Times dumping Reichert in favor of DelBene, castigating him for failing to fill his predecessor's "capable shoes."
While the Seattle Times may act surprised at Reichert's failed tenure in Congress, many of his Republican colleagues are not, which helps explain why, back when he shifted his sights from the governorship to the 8th District, no less than two future Washington State Republican Party chairs—Diane Tebelius and then–state senator Luke Esser—declared with him, creating that rarest of beasts since Republican Ellen Craswell's debacle of a run for governor in 1996: a contested Republican primary. The man GOP insiders had briefly considered their party's Great White-Haired Hope had fast become an inside joke, with few expecting him to survive the public and media scrutiny of a congressional campaign.
At first, Reichert appeared to be overmatched by his less stupid primary opponents. Recalling the first time he heard all the Republican candidates speak together at an 8th District forum, a Republican ex-lawmaker said, "Dave Reichert had a heck of a nice head of hair, but said absolutely nothing of substance and really didn't know what he was talking about on any issue"—a performance he repeated throughout the campaign, including at a candidate debate where a flustered Reichert famously stormed out in anger.
Reichert's lack of eloquence, competence, or even basic knowledge didn't appear to matter to voters. "Reichert had the Green River story, the video of him chasing vandals at the WTO riot, a ton of name recognition, hair, and nothing else," the Republican ex-lawmaker continued (he would speak only on condition of anonymity). "I endorsed Esser, but the people went for the rock star instead."
Yeah, sure, they were happy to hold the seat, but the party establishment's opinion of Reichert didn't improve much even after he surprisingly won election to Congress. During a notoriously disjointed 2006 speech before the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, Reichert amazingly apologized for his handful of pro-environmental votes, explaining his cynical "strategy" to a slack-jawed audience:
"And so, when the leadership comes to me and says, 'Dave, we need you to take a vote over here because we want to protect you and keep this majority,' I... I do it."
"Of course we understand that strategy," one prominent member of the audience told me incredulously. "But you don't come right out in public and say it!" And in front of a TVW camera, no less.
Even a stalwart Reichert defender like right-wing news aggregator Orbusmax has trouble avoiding the obvious, admitting in a report from the 2006 state GOP convention that he has a "hard time following [Reichert] when he speaks."
It's not that he has a bad voice or comes off nervous or unsure of himself—it's just that sometimes I can't figure out what his point is. He mixed and mingled three stories of WTO rioting, riding with Ron Sims in the town car, and chasing down crooks that got filmed on TV... all to make the point that it's important "to try," and how that related to Reagan fighting the Cold War.
This depiction of Reichert as unstudied, confused, and bafflingly incoherent—if not, you know, kind of stupid—these are all testimonials from his fellow Republicans! So when longtime Reichert observers started speculating that his recent head injury may have resulted in permanent brain damage, the first question I had to ask myself was: "How would you know?"
I mean, honestly. Reichert makes George W. Bush sound like Winston fucking Churchill. With a baseline like that, how much damage can a hand-sized blood clot in his brain actually cause?
Well, according to the medical literature, quite a lot.
What an official statement first described as a "minor injury" turned out to be a chronic subdural hematoma, a clot of old blood on the surface of the brain beneath its outer covering. We're not talking about a little scab or something here. As Reichert inexplicably detailed on KING 5 TV, the CAT scan discovered "a pool of blood on the left side of my brain about the size of my hand; it had pushed my brain to the right side, quite a bit." According to Reichert, doctors performed emergency surgery, drilling four holes in his head to relieve the pressure.
Wow. Now try to visualize this. Make a fist, and then imagine inserting it inside of your skull. That's what was pressing on Reichert's brain for two months, resulting in persistent headaches and eventually partial paralysis before Reichert finally gathered the presence of mind to go see a doctor.
As for the prognosis, the neurosurgery FAQ on the UCLA Medical Center website suggests that 80 to 90 percent of patients do experience "significant improvement" after drainage of a chronic subdural hematoma, although factors that diminish recovery include older age (over 50) and "prolonged and difficult to control pressure on the brain." I guess 60-year-old Reichert probably shouldn't have waited two months to have his headaches checked out.
Still, those strike me as pretty damn good odds of recovery. You know, "significant" recovery. Not "total." Not "complete." Significant.
Still, given Reichert's less-than-brainy reputation before he was whacked in the head with a tree branch, it is not unreasonable to ask the question: significant recovery of what?
Indeed, according to the UCLA website, brain atrophy is as likely to be a contributing cause of a large chronic subdural hematoma as it is to be an effect:
These liquefied clots most often occur in patients age 60 and older who have brain atrophy, a shrinking or wasting away of brain tissue due to age or disease. When the brain shrinks inside the skull over time, minor head trauma can cause tearing of blood vessels over the brain surface, resulting in a slow accumulation of blood over several days to weeks.
Because of the brain atrophy, the liquefied blood clots can become quite large before they cause symptoms.
Huh. Those circumstances kinda-sorta sound like Reichert's.
Now, I'm not suggesting that Reichert's hand-sized cerebral blood clot is necessarily an indication of prior brain wasting, or that two months of walking around with untreated cerebral bleeding would have certainly caused a permanent neurological impairment. I'm not a doctor, and since Reichert's campaign has refused requests from the media to release his medical records (they didn't even reply to mine), I guess we'll never know for sure.
What I do know is that even as questions about his competency continue to eat away at his once commanding lead—prompting articles in Politico, Daily Kos, the Seattle Times, and the Tacoma News Tribune— Reichert still refuses to put the rumors to rest by putting his mental acuity on display in a televised debate. And during a usually hectic stretch of the campaign season, Reichert has been mostly reclusive, while the few interviews he has granted have generally shown him to be spectacularly unintelligible even by his own low, low standards. So perhaps his stealth campaign is unsurprising.
Reichert has mostly avoided public forums, refused to provide advance notice of the few events he's attended, and rejected DelBene's challenge to a series of debates. Only a week after the Seattle Times lauded DelBene for her nuanced and knowledgeable stance on reviving the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, Reichert admitted at a candidate forum in Newcastle that he doesn't even know what Glass-Steagall is. Likewise, it was Reichert's inability to articulate his opposition to Wall Street reform that may have ultimately cost him the Seattle Times endorsement. Yet, six weeks after that disastrous editorial board interview, when KING 5's Robert Mak asked him the exact same question, about opposing Wall Street reform, Reichert still couldn't muster much more than a maundering jumble of "ums" and "uhs" and disconnected anecdotes.
Nobody figured he'd give a wonky, Cantwellesque dissertation, but he's a three-term congressman, for chrissakes, so when Reichert is asked to comment on the most important piece of financial legislation passed in decades—a bill he presumably was at least briefed on before casting his vote—it is reasonable to expect a tad more than just some disjointed tangent about Fannie and Freddie chasing rioters in Ron Sims's town car.
Reichert says that all this speculation makes him "angry" (another common symptom of traumatic brain injury, by the way), and the Tacoma News Tribune's Patrick O'Callahan calls the chatter "vile." But while I freely admit that it's a sensitive and even insulting subject, it's also undeniably relevant—a point that Reichert might best be able to wrap his traumatized head around when expressed in the form of a sports analogy.
Let's say the Mariners were about to sign a particularly sought-after free-agent pitcher, who, a local sportswriter discovers, had failed to disclose the severity of an off-season injury to the elbow on his throwing arm. Would it be "vile" to report on the details of this injury, personal as they might be? Would it be outrageous or offensive to speculate on whether he may have suffered any long-term or permanent damage?
No, of course not. We pay pitchers to hurl balls, so an elbow injury would be rather relevant.
Congressmen, on the other hand, get paid to make decisions. To deliberate. To negotiate. To, dare I say, debate.
In other words, we hire our congressmen to use their brains in the same way we hire pitchers to use their arms.
Reichert, by his own admission, suffered a severe brain trauma—much more severe than he or his staff at first let on—an injury of the type that's considerably more common in older people with shrunken brains. And while it may be an uncomfortable subject to broach, it is completely and utterly relevant to the job he is seeking to retain.
Besides, I'm not sure the alternative is any more flattering.
If Reichert's brain is damaged or atrophied, well, at least that explains his obvious cognitive deficit. I wish all the best to him and his family.
But if there is no injury or disease, then I guess that's just who Dave Reichert is: the guy who blew a surefire gubernatorial nomination simply by opening his mouth, and who was once described by his former sheriff's department supervisor as "probably the worst detective I've ever worked with."
Embarrassing, sure. But not nearly as embarrassing as sending him back to Congress.
Goldy, aka David Goldstein, is the editor of the Washington State politics blog HorsesAss.org.
This story has been updated since it was first published.