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Tuesday, July 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Democrat promotes can-do ethic
By Warren Cornwall
Heidi Behrens-Benedict hasn't let a lack of experience stop her from doing a lot of things, among them painting her home, rewiring a friend's house, starting a business and running for Congress.
When Behrens-Benedict first leaped into the political fray in 1998, she was an interior designer fueled by righteous anger over recent school shootings and what she considered lax gun laws. Having never run for election, she came out of nowhere to take on U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, the Republican juggernaut of the Eastside and a darling of the National Rifle Association.
"Her gift is she just decides to do it. And that's half the battle," said her 28-year-old son, Ryan Benedict. "Certainly my mother was way over her head when she jumped into office running in 1998. But she learned a lot."
The 56-year-old now has plenty of experience running for Congress, having lost to Dunn in three consecutive elections in the 8th District, which includes much of east and south King County and east Pierce County.
Yet, in her fourth attempt, her campaign still has the trappings of a populist outsider, one driven more by idealism and a can-do attitude than by focus groups and money.
While Democratic establishment groups largely have endorsed other candidates, Behrens-Benedict remains undaunted. She is the people's candidate, she declares, the true Democrat in the race, and not the candidate of interest groups.
Once a Republican
Behrens-Benedict wasn't always a Democrat. She grew up in a conservative Republican family headed by an Air Force lieutenant-colonel father.
She first voted for a Democrat in 1976, when she backed Jimmy Carter out of dismay with the scandals of the Nixon administration, she said. But by the 1980s, her experiences as a single mother and a female business owner, and her encounters with the plight of the urban poor led her to wholeheartedly embrace liberal ideals, according to the candidate and family and friends.
Trained as an interior designer at Washington State University, where she met her first husband, she opened her own design company in the mid-1970s. But she struggled in the early years. It was not until the mid-1980s when she got a big break, she said, winning the first in a series of jobs doing interior design at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Barbara White, a close friend for more than 30 years, remembers talking with Behrens-Benedict about the challenges faced by a woman running a small business. She welcomed the help of government contracting policies designed to encourage hiring of women-owned businesses that might otherwise go unnoticed, White recalled.
Behrens-Benedict opened an office in Seattle's Pioneer Square, and came face to face with urban social problems. She had grown up on military bases and went to high school in the Eastern Washington mill town of Clarkston. Now she saw mentally ill people wandering the streets after the movement in the 1980s to shrink the number of mental institutions. She visited a halfway house so grim she was thankful not to get the job renovating it.
She recalled a pivotal moment in the late 1980s when a teenage black woman with three children came to her office to practice giving an interview, as part of a job-training program Behrens-Benedict volunteered for. The poised young woman looked at the trappings of her office with a palpable longing. Behrens-Benedict was struck by the challenges that the woman faced.
"The reason I became a Democrat is realizing that people struggle," said Behrens-Benedict.
She had struggles of her own. She divorced in 1984 and largely was responsible for raising two boys while running her company. She remarried in 1992, but her second husband died from a heart attack in 1996.
Those experiences helped forge her into an outspoken candidate who calls herself an unabashed idealist and progressive.
"She's a woman with very strong beliefs and she's very clear about things that matter to her," White said. "She mulls a lot of things over and she's a good thinker and once she decides she's going to do something she really comes out on it."
In front of her house, wooden beams in a trellis bear words she and her sons painted there nearly a decade ago: Peace, Rejoice, Embrace Life, and a host of Latin phrases, including one that translates to "Fortune favors the brave."
Once she repainted the outside of her house in three days because she didn't like the color for an upcoming party, she said. White recalled her helping repair electric circuits in White's house, armed with a do-it-yourself book and no experience.
Despite her past electoral defeats, Behrens-Benedict has shown little sign of wavering from the political convictions that prompted her entry into politics.
Early Iraq war critic
She was an outspoken critic of war in Iraq as far back as the 2002 election, at a time before the war began when many congressional Democrats avoided outright opposition. She calls for stronger environmental protections and is an ardent backer of abortion rights.
At campaign events she declares herself an old-fashioned "F.D.R. Democrat", a reference to President Franklin Roosevelt, who oversaw creation of much of the modern social safety net.
Her son, Ryan Benedict, recalled that when he worked on her campaign in 2000, his mother would sometimes grow teary during a speech when she talked about an issue like gun violence, something that she cares passionately about.
"It's the best thing about her but it's also her weakness," he said. "I don't know if I should be telling the press her weakness. She really believes it. She really believes in what she is saying."
That idealism, seasoned with outspokenness, at first made Behrens-Benedict a darling of Washington Democrats. She received a resounding ovation at the party's 1998 state convention when she fearlessly vowed to unseat Dunn.
But the party's passions have cooled with time. In recent elections the party gave her little support, predicting she stood little chance against Dunn. This year, labor unions, an abortion-rights group and others have looked at Behrens-Benedict's record of losses and thrown their support behind either Alex Alben or Dave Ross.
"I think it was a feeling that there was time to go with a new candidate," said Rick Bender, president of the Washington State Labor Council, which endorsed Alben.
Behrens-Benedict, however, said her persistence and passion over three prior campaigns will pay off this year, because voters know her name and she has attracted a core of supporters. As she pauses in her front walkway she stops at one beam and reads the word above: Persist.
"Because things don't always work out," she said. "You have to persist."
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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