Mr. Smith Goes to (Seattle) Washington
Our Most Colorful District Meets Our Least Colorful Congressman
For ultraliberal residents of South Seattle like me, who took a (sometimes perverse) pride in being represented for more than two decades by the flamboyantly lefty, Republican-baiting "Baghdad Jim" McDermott, it's been a bit of a shock to hear that our new congressman is Adam Smith, a guy who's as dry and deliberate as the classic economics text penned by his better-known 18th-century namesake.
It's also not exactly what minority groups and their advocates had in mind when they lobbied the Washington State Redistricting Commission to carve out our state's first "majority minority" congressional district.
By shoving McDermott north and grabbing some of his territory, Smith's newly drawn 9th District became what the people were asking for, a majority minority district—but it's one in which a bare majority of constituents are nonwhite. "I think it's a big first step," said immigrant advocate and OneAmerica founder Pramila Jayapal, who sees the new district as an opportunity to elect someone who truly represents minority communities. "If Adam can show that he is the guy, fine," says Jayapal. "But he will have to prove it."
Roughly speaking, the Seattle portion of the new 9th District is bordered by Madison Street to the north and I-5 to the west (plus a tendril that takes in the International District). These new boundaries peel off many of our city's most diverse neighborhoods—including the Central District, Rainier Valley, Rainier Beach, and Beacon Hill—and join them with all or parts of Bellevue, Mercer Island, Renton, Tukwila, SeaTac, Kent, Des Moines, and Federal Way. The result: a district that is 50.3 percent nonwhite.
The new 9th District also encompasses a sliver of Tacoma, just enough to include the home of eight-term incumbent Smith—who is, if not the whitest member of our Democratic delegation, certainly its least colorful.
"I welcome the diversity," the 46-year-old Smith said recently during an obliging but stiff hour-long wonkfest at The Stranger's offices.
When asked whether a white guy like himself can successfully represent a majority minority district, Smith responded, "Without a doubt."
His old district, he pointed out, was already relatively diverse. "It's up to me to do the work to reach out to my district," Smith explained, "just like I had to reach out to people in Yelm and Lakewood and DuPont."
But it's not Smith's lack of color—pigment or personality—that has many Seattle liberals concerned; it's his reputation as a devout centrist. The congressional rating site Progressive Punch rates Smith as the least progressive Democrat in the Washington delegation, with an 82 percent lifetime score and a ranking as the 166th most progressive House member, compared to McDermott's 96 percent score and 23rd place ranking. On the flipside, the American Conservative Union gives Smith and McDermott 14.4 and 2.5 percent lifetime conservative ratings, respectively (for comparison, 5th District Republican Doc Hastings earns a whopping 95.2 percent).
But if Smith's not progressive enough for McDermott's old district, you wouldn't know it from our conversation. On question after question, Smith came out on the right (i.e., left) side of the issue.
Marriage equality? Check. Don't ask, don't tell? Smith led the charge to repeal it. Immigration? He's for comprehensive reform and supports the Dream Act, legislation that would provide permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who arrived as minors and achieve college degrees or military service.
Are taxes too high? "Heavens no," exclaims Smith, who says he would prefer to reform the tax code in a more "sensible way," but would happily let the Bush-era tax cuts expire if that's the only political option. "If revenue was at the level of GDP now that it was in 2000, that would be about $900 billion in additional money coming into the federal treasury," explains Smith. The 2010 decision to extend the Bush tax cuts two years, says Smith, was the "one big disagreement" he's had with Obama. "That was the moment to fight," insists Smith, who describes income inequality as "the definitive issue of our time."
It was a surprising but welcome proclamation from such an alleged centrist.
"By national standards, he's not conservative," explains local political consultant Dean Nielsen, who says that Smith's rhetoric is usually more conservative than his votes. "In politics, words are important," says Nielsen, "and Adam chooses his words carefully. He's not a bomb thrower. He doesn't anger the other side."
It was a record and demeanor that fit his old 9th District well, a district that was a 50–50 split when he first took it from Republican incumbent Randy Tate in 1996. But given his new safe-Democrat, more liberal-leaning district, Nielsen expects Smith to shift further to the left, an analysis with which Alex Hays, the executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, totally agrees.
"There is an organic tendency for elected officials to reflect the values of their district," says Hays, and given the shift in his district, he expects Smith to shift more than any other member of the delegation. "It is absolutely predictable."
It's a shift that even Smith predicts. "I will probably wind up with a more progressive voting record," says Smith, who insists that he's always tried to strike a balance: "People ask me, do you vote your own mind or do you vote your constituency? And the truth of the matter is that you try to find a point between the two."
It's an admission that, coming from another politician, might sound craven, but that from Smith comes off as perfectly sincere. The son of a Sea-Tac baggage handler ("a totally blue collar family," says Smith) who worked his way through college, law school, and King County politics to become, at 25, the youngest state legislator in the nation, and ultimately a US congressman, Smith is one of the least pretentious politicians you'll ever meet. His words may be carefully chosen, yes, but they can also be blunt, and when he shrugs off a question—like one on marijuana legislation—by claiming to be "a little out of my depth on the specifics," there's no hint of evasiveness.
And while he might have earned a reputation for being less liberal and less exciting than our beloved Baghdad Jim, Smith has earned a reputation for being an effective legislator. He's also got a lot of seniority, having recently skipped over several fellow members to become the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. "He's pretty skilled politically," says Nielsen, who doesn't expect Smith to draw a viable challenger.
And political skill is something Seattle could use.