I feel as if I've been to this pancake house before. A familiar American flag hangs over the entryway. The same elderly couples arrive in grumpy silence. The same half-and-half waits in tiny plastic containers.
I sit at a table near the door and order the Ladies' Plate (one egg, two strips of fat-bubbled bacon, a small portion of soggy hash browns, one slice of toast) and a cup of coffee.
The coffee arrives. I take a sip. Yep. I'm awake. Not a nightmare. I'm actually, unhappily, back.
Back in the 8th Congressional District. Back on the breakfast beat. How many times can I cross Lake Washington and drive down Bellevue Way Southeast and sit in some artery-hardening diner or other because I need a backdrop, some "color"? How many times can I write the same fucking story about the Democrats' flailing efforts to win an Eastside congressional seat that they should own by now but have never, ever won?
The last time I was here at Chace's Pancake Corral, I'd ordered a waffle and sat in a back corner as Darcy Burner, the former Microsoft manager turned Democratic politician, ate the Eggs Cashew and explained to me why she'd lost—twice—to the 8th District's now-entrenched Republican incumbent, Congressman Dave Reichert. Four years previous, I could've sat in the same booth and had the same conversation with Dave Ross, the liberal KIRO radio talk-show host who in 2004 tried to win the same congressional seat but lost to Reichert, who at the time was a newcomer to national politics.
Burner's loss was heartbreaking, since she came closer to victory than any Democrat ever has, but it was a brand of heartbreak with a long history. The 8th Congressional District was drawn up after the 1980 census, and in all the years since, no Democrat has ever won it. Mercer Island mayor Beth Bland kicked off the Democratic losing streak in 1982 by failing to beat former TV newscaster Rod Chandler. In 1992, lawyer and history professor George Tamblyn lost to former state Republican Party chair Jennifer Dunn—launching Dunn into six straight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, matriarch status within the Republican Party, and, after her death in 2007, beatification in local conservative circles. Beginning in 1998, Heidi Behrens-Benedict, an interior designer, was defeated three elections in a row by Dunn. Then, when Dunn retired from Congress in 2004, Reichert arrived to take her place—and Ross and Burner added their names to the long list of Democratic losers.
Now Reichert, the former King County sheriff, is riding a three-term stint in the House, where some of his recent votes include no on President Obama's economic-stimulus plan, no on ending gender-based pay discrimination, and no on preventing taxpayer money from being used for paying outrageous bonuses to executives at bailed-out banks.
And here's the crazy part: The same Eastside voters who sent Reichert back to Congress to vote against Barack Obama's agenda voted for Obama, giving him 57 percent of their vote last November. That's more than the 51 percent they gave to John Kerry in 2004, more than the 49 percent they gave to Al Gore in 2000, and more than they've ever given to Reichert.
Excuse me, Eastside voters, but that doesn't make any sense.
And believe me, I've tried to make sense of it. I've tried to take you seriously. Because you're serious suburban and rural people, right? You're not the senile Mercer Island blue hairs and shallow Bellevue richie-riches and horse-fucking Enumclaw hicksters that some snotty-ass urbanites think you are, right? Except that any serious reading of your collective voting record shows you to be, well, either senile or shallow or too busy with your horses to think much about what your votes really mean. You're all over the place. Which, I know, is typical of "swing districts." But still. Get it together. Grow up. As a district, you're almost 30 years old now. Your messy, swinging ways were a lot cuter when you were younger. Now you're just trying everyone's patience. Anyway, I'm over it—and you should be too.
* * *
I ask my waitress, Deneen Carlson, whether she's heard of Suzan DelBene.
DelBene is the former Microsoft executive turned Democratic politician (sound familiar?) who announced her candidacy in February, dropped $200,000 of her own money into her campaign war chest, and was promptly hit by the revelation—revealed on Slog (sorry about that, DelBene)—that she'd failed to cast a ballot in nine elections over the last four years. Among the elections DelBene missed: the 2006 general election, when the congressional seat she now wants was being voted on.
"Never heard of her," Carlson, my waitress, said.
She will. We're still more than a year and a half from the next 8th District congressional election, in November of 2010. And Burner, despite her losses, is proof that a newcomer can gain name recognition and political traction pretty quickly; in 2006, Burner's first time out, she won a higher share of the district's vote than any Democrat has ever received: 48.5 percent.
My waitress knew Burner's name.
So did Stan Nelson, the mailman who came in while we were talking. So did Marsha, a woman who only wanted to be identified by her first name and was eating breakfast with her husband, Allen.
"Frankly, I was surprised he made it last time," Marsha said of Reichert's 2008 victory. But for someone who felt so surprised, Marsha has a pretty good grasp of why Burner suffered her second loss last year.
"First of all, Reichert was the incumbent," she said.
That's one part of the Democrats' problem in the district. Republicans get in, and then they gain the aura of incumbency and set about cultivating reputations as moderates who are in sync with their politically mixed-up swing district. Dunn was pro-choice in a party that couldn't get enough of its own anti-choice rhetoric. Reichert voted for the Iraq war but against the Terry Schiavo intervention, and he's set about greening himself with talk of protecting local wilderness areas and combating climate change (even though, as recently as 2006, Reichert said climate change was a mere "possibility" about whose urgency "I've not been conclusively convinced"). Once these types of Republicans convince Eastsiders that they're really idiosyncratic moderates, they're pretty much unstoppable.
"I think there was a bit of a smear campaign at the end against Darcy Burner," Marsha said, continuing the explanation of why she thinks Reichert won last year. True enough—although Burner, through sloppy campaigning, set herself up for the smear. Last fall, when the current economic crisis exploded into the public consciousness, Democratic candidates everywhere began talking less about their plans to end the Iraq war and more about their plans to fix the economy, and Burner took to reminding people on the stump: "I loved economics so much I got a degree in it, from Harvard."
Which was not technically true.
Burner's Harvard degree is in computer science with a "special field" in economics. In terms of her economic smarts, this may be a distinction without much difference. But it allowed Republicans to twist Burner's rhetorical carelessness into television commercials that claimed she'd lied about her résumé—and on the very topic voters were now most concerned about, the economy. On my previous trip to the pancake corral, over my waffle and her Eggs Cashew, Burner had told me that her campaign's internal polling showed her falling off a cliff after the Harvard-degree contretemps erupted. "A significant percentage of the electorate became convinced that I didn't have a degree from Harvard and that I lied about it," she said, still clearly upset.
On this trip to the corral, when I asked Marsha what kind of Democrat could win in the 8th District, her husband, Allen, replied without missing a beat: "An honest one."
* * *
I'm sure DelBene is a nice, capable individual. She has a stronger business background than Burner and clearly has some money to throw around. But politics doesn't turn on niceties or business résumés (or even, for the most part, personal wealth), and unfortunately DelBene arrives tailor-made for the strategy Republicans have been successfully running in the 8th District for the last several cycles: Find a Democrat's weakness, turn it into an all-encompassing caricature, and then hammer it, hammer it, hammer it until everyone believes that the Democrat is a lying, bratty, know-it-all climber (in the case of Burner) or an entitled, rich former-executive who couldn't be bothered with little things like voting in local and national elections on the way to running for Congress (which will be the case with DelBene).
Listen, Democrats: Every time I think about DelBene as your candidate, I see myself back in this pancake corral two years from now, preparing to write about how you blew it again, talking to elderly voters, and ordering the Ladies' Plate in another hopeless attempt to make it all kill me a little bit less. So do me a favor. Or, better, do yourselves a favor. Listen to what Allen is saying about an "honest" candidate. Don't listen to the literal content. The literal content, of course, makes no sense. Burner didn't tell any great, big disqualifying lie; she just spoke carelessly and was turned into a liar—which she's not, at least not any more than every politician is—by the Republicans. Listen, instead, to the emotional content. The man is saying: Give us a personality we can get behind, and we'll give you the congressional seat.
DelBene is already toast. Too similar to Burner. Too many holes in her voting record. Too unknown (Reichert was King County sheriff when the Green River Killer was caught) and damaged already (she's going to be branded long before she can brand herself). Plus, she has no political experience. Give 'em somebody else.
* * *
Give 'em a personality who can win. Sure, Darcy Burner was a personality who a lot of voters could get behind—48.5 percent of them got behind her in 2006 and 47 percent of them got behind her in 2008. Sure, in the long arc that runs from Beth Bland to today, Burner was the best shot Democrats have ever had in the 8th District. Sure, she was a big liberal brain with great liberal politics. But she had big vulnerabilities stemming from her public persona: an ambitious tech nerd who oversold her (already strong) résumé, who was too chummy with the strident voices of her party's netroots contingent, and who, as a result, drew 10 percent fewer 8th District votes in 2008 than did big-brained, liberal-netroots-avoiding, charmingly self-effacing Barack Obama—in, it's worth repeating, the same election year.
You can say the difference in outcomes for Burner and Obama in the 8th District is not about public persona but about sexism—the different standards to which male and female politicians are held, the different chinks in political armor that ensue—and some Democrats have said this. But ultimately what it all comes back to is this district—and it is not a district that has evinced much of a problem with lady politicians. It elected Dunn, it voted for Patty Murray in 2004, and in 2008 it almost chose Christine Gregoire for governor despite being the home of her two-time challenger, Dino Rossi.
No, what this district has a problem with is ideological consistency, with political sense-making. Voters here don't seem capable of making logically coherent decisions at the polls. They want to pick pro-choice and anti-choice candidates, pro-Iraq-war and anti-Iraq-war candidates, pro-gun-control and anti-gun-control candidates, sometimes all in the same election. Its fast-changing demographics are one cause of this—the quick urbanizing and diversifying of what used to be monochromatic conservative suburbs and cow pastures. But also, this district is saying what the man in the corral said to me: Give us a personality we can get behind. It wants a likable pol who it can pretend it knows—the Matriarch, the Sheriff, the Mom in Tennis Shoes—more than it wants a policy platform it has to think about. That's the reality Democrats need to run with, rather than continually run up against.
Yeah, I know. Democrats tried personality politics by running Dave Ross in 2004. Wrong personality. And that was a close race, and the district is more Democratic now. "It's not clear who our candidate is going to be in 2010," Dwight Pelz, chair of the Washington State Democrats, told me the other day after I returned from the corral. "Suzan DelBene has stepped forward. We'll see if others join her."
I hope that's Pelz's diplomatic way of saying: We're going to make sure others join her. Otherwise, I'm afraid I'll be back at the corral in 2011. And 2012. And beyond.
The other potential contenders most commonly mentioned are Rodney Tom, the Democratic state senator from Bellevue who used to be a Republican, and Chris Hurst, the Democratic state representative from Auburn who used to be a police detective. Neither has yet said whether he's in or not. Neither is a show-stopping presence in any case. Which leaves people like Pelz hoping for some huge Reichert gaffe or scandal, repeating mantras like "this is the most Democratic district in the nation held by a Republican congressman," hoping the next election will somehow be different than the last one, and in the meantime trying to coax Reichert into retirement.
"Reichert knows he'll have a tough race every two years for as long as he wants to be in Congress," Pelz told me. "And he knows he's taking six-hour flights to serve in the last row of these committees as a permanent member in the minority. The Republican Party in D.C. is not poised to take back the House. They don't even know what they stand for... Retirement beckons, and I'm sure his wife does also."
Alternatively, Pelz has another hope: that Reichert will decide to challenge Murray for her U.S. Senate seat in 2010 rather than run for reelection to the House. Pelz would love that because he's sure Murray would win.
But consider what would happen if Reichert were to drop out of the running in the 8th District. Jennifer Dunn's son, now the Republican King County councilman from Maple Valley, would probably get in. "Everybody knows Reagan Dunn wants to be in Congress like his mama was," Pelz said. And who is Reagan Dunn? A familiar last name. A personality-by-association. A political known quantity with a record to run on. Probably a consistent voter.
Which is just what the district wants. Just what the Democrats haven't been good at producing. Just the man to send me back to the fucking pancake corral in two years to ask the toast-butterers—again—why Democrats just can’t win here.