On May 5, the campaign of Alex Alben, the retired RealNetworks executive running for Congress for the open Eighth Congressional District seat on the Eastside, issued a press release citing the fact that powerful figures in Washington's Democratic establishment--Governor Gary Locke and Congressmen Brian Baird, Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, and Adam Smith--were all endorsing Alben. "The contrast between the two political parties could not be greater.... Democrats are united on winning in November," campaign manager Ben Vaught wrote in announcing the endorsements.

Vaught's timing could not have been worse. The same day, the Seattle Times ferreted out the explosive news that state party chair Paul Berendt is actively lobbying popular radio host Dave Ross to jump into the race against Alben (and perennial challenger Heidi Behrens-Benedict). For months, Berendt had been touting Alben, citing the socially progressive, pro-business Democrat as the right fit for the district.

Courting Ross was only the latest in a series of controversial moves from Berendt, who has long been known for letting his personal political convictions, and his gut instincts about candidates and campaigns, shape his actions as chair. But with the 2004 election shaping up as a high noon showdown between left vs. right, and with Democratic hegemony in Washington State facing the most unified, muscular Republican challenge in two decades, Berendt's hands-on approach has generated a backlash from those who portray his moves as angering key party players and exposing intra-party tensions that could hurt the Democrats' chances in November.

Berendt's courtship of Ross certainly ruffled feathers, with Locke and other party heavies reportedly calling him to express their strong disapproval. Several Democratic sources say they were mystified by Berendt's move. Ross has not yet decided whether to run, but if he does, they say, Democrats will face a bruising, costly primary; Ross has high name recognition, Alben has already raised more than $500,000. Alternatively, if Ross passes on the race, as most observers expect, Berendt has essentially issued what appears to be a pointed vote of no confidence in the likely Democratic contender.

Campaign manager Vaught would not comment on Berendt's flirtation with Ross beyond stating that it "has solidified people around Alex and his message of bringing jobs and better representation around his district. Paul is very much a minority opinion in this whole thing."

Berendt, for his part, says he has done nothing untoward--feeling out a formidable potential candidate like Ross is a crucial part of his job. He has had a "pretty overwhelmingly favorable response" to his recruitment of Ross, and is convinced the KIRO host "would be the best possible candidate we could get to run in this district. I encouraged him to run, and did so proudly." Still, he claims no ill will toward Alben's candidacy. "I still think the world of Alex," he says.

Nevertheless, the Ross imbroglio highlights one of the main criticisms of Berendt: that he undercuts Democratic unity by aiding those he supports while stymieing those he doesn't. King County Executive Ron Sims' campaign manager, Tim Hatley, says that Berendt has openly favored Christine Gregoire in the governor's race. Hatley cites a recent state party fundraising phone solicitation pitch that talks about the need to get Gregoire elected governor. "We don't feel welcomed in the state party. The chair in no way makes us feel welcomed," Hatley says. "If you could have him return my phone calls, I'd appreciate it."

Former gubernatorial candidate Phil Talmadge, who recently dropped out of the race for health reasons, is also not a fan. He describes Berendt as "ham-handed" in his favoritism. "Paul went out of his way to give us difficulty. He was supposed to get us lists of Democrats. We didn't get them. We called him. We e-mailed him. And he wouldn't give them to us," Talmadge says. "For my money, we need to get a new state party chair."

Political consultant Christian Sinderman, who works for Gregoire, says Berendt has reason to disapprove of Sims and Talmadge: "Paul doesn't tolerate slash-and-burn negative campaigns in the primaries, and those guys have broken that unwritten rule." Asked if it is right for Berendt to play favorites, Sinderman points out that Berendt has always been an activist chair: "To his credit, he's been right more than he's been wrong."

Berendt is unafraid to pick his horses early. He was the first state party chair in the country to endorse Howard Dean, angering those backing John Kerry. A major state party financial backer, attorney Matt Bergman, cut off his giving as a result last November, and centrist Rep. Adam Smith, state chair of Kerry's campaign, reportedly blew up at Berendt over what he considered the state party's tilt toward the Dean campaign. The two reached a détente after Kerry won the February 7 primary.

The second-longest-serving chair in the country with close to 10 years in office, Berendt is said to have the respect of national party officials in Washington, D.C. On his watch, state Democrats have regained four congressional seats lost in the 1994 Republican landslide, knocked off Slade Gorton, and regained many legislative seats lost in 1994. Richard Kelley, 43rd District Democratic chair and former rival for the state chairmanship, says Berendt has done a good job recently of reaching out to party activists.

Berendt freely admits he's a polarizing figure, but testily dismisses criticism of him as the whispering of either "DLCers," a reference to the Democratic Leadership Council, the prominent centrist Democratic group, or alternately of "people who want my job and don't have balls enough to say that." He contends that his close ties with "the anti-war segment" of the party has "created some grumbling out there," and argues that his actions, however controversial, are driven by his willingness "to go to just about any lengths to defeat right-wing Republicans. That is my core value."

If he chooses to run again next January, Berendt is likely to face opposition from King County Democratic chair Greg Rodriguez, according to several sources. Rodriguez will say only that "there are many people statewide who are encouraging me to run and it is under serious consideration." Berendt too will not say if he'll run again, but asserts that he is unconcerned about possible rivals: "I assure you that regardless of how controversial I am I'd beat the pants off of anyone running against me."