Jason Rittereiser, Kim Schrier, Shannon Hader stood out among the crowd of thirsty Dems last night, again.
(L-R) King County prosecutor Jason Rittereiser, pediatrician Kim Schrier, and public health doctor Shannon Hader stood out among the crowd of thirsty Dems at a debate in Auburn earlier this week. Courtesy of the Rittereiser, Schrier, and Hader Campaigns

Wednesday night in Auburn, the herd of Democrats running for congress in Washington's 8th congressional district faced off in what was advertised as a "candidate forum and debate" organized by the 47th District Democrats.

Aaron Schuler, chair of the 47th legislative district, guessed that 350 attended the event at Green River College. Over the phone, Schuler told me the candidates realize his district "is the LD that’s more like the CD" in many ways. "If they can appeal here, they can appeal to the overall," he said.

The district encompasses the cities of Auburn, Covington, and some rural areas in-between. (Auburn edges out Sammamish as the city with the largest population in the 8th.)

Though Schuler noted a considerable up-tick in local political participation when he became chair in January of 2017, he said the kind of activism he sees in the district is less about "stirring up stuff" and more about trying to find the right approach to talking to neighbors. "A lot of people out here are ticket splitters," he said. "Even if we turn out all the Democrats, we’re still going to lose."

Thus the goal of Wednesday's event was to "get some differentiation" between candidates who are pretty generally undifferentiated in terms of policy, but definitely different in terms of personality.

Though the candidates didn't really debate each other, and though I only experienced the event via livestreamed video, three candidates clearly stood out as the major contenders. (Hint: They were the same three that didn't embarrass themselves last month in Graham, WA.)

In her opening statement, Shannon Hader—a public health doctor who headed up the HIV/TB unit at the Centers for Disease Control—started out strong, throwing shade at the haters who blasted her for getting into the race late (me!) and admonishing anyone who thinks Kim Schrier has already bagged this thing up with her money (she's leading the pack by $200,000 so far) and her early endorsements (Emily's List, the machinists union).

"We need a robust, free, and fair primary election—not a coronation. We need to make sure the general election candidate is chosen by the people of the 8th and only the people of the 8th. No DC insiders or outsiders. No party insiders. No big money interests," Hader said. Bold!

Moderators then asked questions about a whole host of local and national issues, including guns, abortion, trade, employment protections, health care, immigration, the relationship between military spending and Boeing, and, of course, their plans for defeating Republican candidate Dino Rossi.

Do they love unions? Yes they love unions.

How do they feel about abortion? They think it's a decision best left between a woman and her doctor.

Medicare for all? They wish, but until that happens, they all basically support lowering the age eligibility for Medicare.

On guns, all said (or eventually confirmed with me later) that they'd expand background checks, ban semi-automatic rifles, and ban bump stocks. Brayden Olson—a millennial entrepreneur with an apartment in Issaquah—spent his time talking about the underfunded mental health programs in our school system, and Schrier said she wouldn't accept money from the NRA, big Pharma, or big Tobacco.

Fun facts: Though national numbers suggest a vast majority of Americans can get behind sensible gun control laws, the issue plays out a little differently in the 8th. The results for Initiative 594, a measure that closed the gun show loophole in Washington in 2014, shows a pretty significant divide. Only 41 percent of Kittitas County, 43 percent of Chelan county, and 41 percent of the Pierce County portion of the 8th voted for the initiative. Almost 59 percent of the King County portion of the 8th voted to pass it. Sentiments may have changed, though, since the many mass shootings that have followed.

Anyway, Schrier had the best line on trade, and she knew it: "We need to make sure we ship 'things' overseas and not 'jobs' overseas," she said in an attempt to characterize the kinds of trade deals she'd vote for if given the chance. In his response to a question about trade, Rittereiser reminded everyone that he has cut hay in Ellensburg, WA. With his hands. Tough, thick grasses. He cut them. With his farming and his toughness. And he's ready to fight for you in Congress. And the hay. He will fight for the hay. Then he said, "We need to make sure we’re not shipping jobs overseas along with our goods.”

Would the candidates oppose trade deals that didn't include environmental and worker protections? Yes, they would oppose those deals.

Is all this agreement getting tiresome? It is.

In their answers to the final two questions, though, the candidates did a pretty good job of laying out their differences. The questions were, essentially, "1. How will you defeat Dino and appeal to Republican-leaning voters in the east? 2. What kind of Democrat are you?"

Schrier: "I have healed every baby in Issaquah, and I will bring everyone to the table. I will even bring your baby to the table." (But seriously: She's a pediatrician who's lived in the district for years. Her kid goes to school in the district, so she's invested in its future. Plus, she's a woman-physician-mom "with fire in [her] belly," 2,200 donors, and national attention.)

Rittereiser: "I AM A HAY LAWYER." (But seriously: He's an employment lawyer who stumps better than the rest of them with the exception of maybe Hader, and he says stuff like "I represent a new generation of leaders that we desperately need to take on our greatest challenges in America" in a way that garners applause.)

Hader: "I SAVED BABIES FROM AIDS." (But seriously, Hader had the best and most combative answer to this question: "Compared to Dino Rossi and frankly every candidate in this race, I’m the only candidate who has a proven track record of delivering results with federal agencies and federal resources down to community level, up to national level, and frankly at a global level," she said. "I bring proof points when Dino brings talking points. I bring results when he brings rhetoric," she said, as she was literally bringing the rhetoric.)

Olson: "I'm a pro-business Democrat from the future!" (But seriously: His internal polling shows that "69 percent of people [in the district] were looking for someone with a business background who could fix the middle class economy," according to Olson. But that's one poll, and no politickin'. This line was his best: "We need young people to turn out, so let’s give them someone who represents them.")

Hunziker: "I will only serve one term." (He actually did say that. But he also said this, which was good: “We have enough doctors and lawyers in office. We need a real working class person to represent people.")

I wasn't in the room to ask the audience questions afterwards, so I called a few people who were. Schuler noticed slight differences between the evening's clear winners: Schrier, Hader, and Rittereiser. "Kim’s positions were a little more tailored to a national democratic message, whereas Shannon and Jason's questions were slightly more 8th CDish," he said. "That mostly reflects where they come from. Jason is from Ellensburg. Kim is from Issaquah. Hader's from Auburn. Ellensburg is more conservative. The north part of the district is more liberal. Auburn is more moderate. But they all did an outstanding job. Very well spoken."

Steve Finley, a local politico who worked for former Washington State governor Mike Lowry when he was in Congress, was also impressed by Hader, Schrier, and Rittereiser. "The three of them are ready for prime time," he told me over the phone.

"Olson showed up like he wasn’t ready for the job interview," Finley said, "And I don't think he came across as likable." He added that Hunziker's "heart is in the right place," but said "you'll never get money out of politics."

Finley thinks a Democrat can win in the district, but he says it's going to be tough. "The question is: how much money is Dino going to get, how much is going to waste...and how much fire in the belly does he have?"

All of that is unclear as of now. But, lucky for us all, Democrats will have another chance to distinguish themselves soon. Indivisible WA-8 is hosting another candidate forum at 2 p.m. tomorrow, March 3, at the Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Sammamish. See you there!