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Originally published Monday, October 22, 2012 at 5:40 PM

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6th District candidates battle for the middle

Democratic State Sen. Derek Kilmer faces Republican Bill Driscoll in the battle to replace retiring Congressman Norm Dicks in Washington's 6th District.

The News Tribune

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Derek Kilmer isn't known for being angry. The Democratic state senator is more likely to be found extolling the virtues of tax-increment financing in wonky detail than playing a partisan attack dog.

So it was jarring March 2 to hear Kilmer's voice rise as he decried Republican-proposed education cuts. Republicans had just taken over the floor of the Senate by flipping three Democrats to their side. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen twice had to intervene to urge everyone to calm down — both times after Kilmer's passionate attacks.

"This is a bad idea," Kilmer said of the cuts, "and it's the type of bad idea that happens when you make backroom deals."

Earlier that day, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks had announced he would not run for a 19th term in Congress. Even before his populist speeches, Kilmer was looking like the heir apparent. GOP state Sen. Andy Hill prefaced his rejoinder to Kilmer: "In response to the good congressman — I mean the good senator."

Kilmer won't be a congressman unless he can fend off his Republican opponent, the well-funded and moderate Bill Driscoll, a Marine and former timber-industry executive.

The 6th Congressional District shed some parts of Pierce County in post-census redistricting and picked up Bainbridge Island. It remains narrowly tilted toward Democrats, whose candidates won an average of 53 percent of its votes in three recent contests.

Both candidates have money, about $1.5 million each including $1 million of Driscoll's personal wealth loaned to his campaign. But so far the district has not seen major independent spending by political-action committees, parties or other groups.

Kilmer has focused on his own record, pitching himself as a principled leader willing to reach across the aisle. He and Driscoll have made it a mostly mild race that sometimes seems like a contest for the most-bipartisan award.

Strays from orthodoxy

Driscoll is a first-time candidate, with no political track record to indicate whether he would be as bipartisan as he declares — although he notes he has plenty of practice at home, where he's married to a Democrat, associate professor Lisa Hoffman of the University of Washington, Tacoma.

But Driscoll highlights his support for abortion rights in a television commercial, with women promoting him as a different kind of Republican "who's more worried about jobs and the budget than our private lives."

He calls himself an environmentalist who believes humans are affecting climate change.

He told a business audience at a debate last week in Port Angeles that he favors same-sex marriage and that he hasn't signed a pledge to oppose tax increases — in fact, that he's open to finding new tax revenue to deal with the deficit as long as it's tied to spending cuts.

On some other issues, Driscoll hews closer to his party. He supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expansion of the Keystone Pipeline carrying oil from Canada. He backs the call by GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan to overhaul Medicare through private competition — specifically backing a Medicare plan Ryan introduced with a Democratic senator, Ron Wyden of Oregon. He departs from Ryan on other parts of his budget plans, arguing, for example, that military spending should be examined for cuts.

He supports renewing the tax cuts passed during President George W. Bush's administration but said he could be persuaded to scale them back with enough spending cuts.

Medicare stands

Kilmer lines up with Democrats in calling for ending the parts of the Bush tax cuts that benefit the highest earners and in defending social-services programs from GOP-proposed overhauls.

He went on offense against Driscoll over both issues in Port Angeles.

"He suggests that we should continue to provide tax breaks for millionaires like himself, and to pay for it he wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program that would increase the cost to the average senior by $6,000 a year," Kilmer said.

That refers to an analysis of an earlier version of Ryan's plan, while the later Ryan-Wyden plan would keep traditional Medicare alongside a new voucher program. "Ryan has worked very hard to make it a feasible solution, so you have the option of staying on Medicare in it," said Driscoll, calling Kilmer inaccurate in saying it would cost seniors more.

While acknowledging the difference in an interview later, Kilmer said those who switch to the new system would leave traditional Medicare with poorer and sicker beneficiaries, raising costs.

Kilmer voted for recognizing same-sex marriage and supports abortion rights. Unlike Driscoll, he supports President Obama's health-care rule that requires insurance plans to cover contraception even for employees of many religious groups.

Driscoll takes a harder line than Kilmer against a proposal supported by Dicks to expand wilderness protections to more of the Olympic National Forest. Both candidates call for allowing more timber harvests on federal land, but Driscoll says he would insist on that increase as a condition of expanding wilderness areas. The district covers timber country on the Olympic Peninsula and the coast.

Driscoll, a former Weyerhaeuser executive whose great-great-grandfather founded the company, said his top goal is a spot on the House Natural Resources Committee.

Varied backgrounds

Driscoll re-entered the military in his 40s, serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he led a civil-affairs team working with local leaders and civilians.

He says those combat tours helped steer him toward advocating a more cautious foreign policy centered on diplomacy. Working in China while in the timber industry, he said, left him with a better understanding of foreign trade.

The Oxford-educated Kilmer is a vice president of the nonprofit Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, where he says he learned how to help businesses survive and grow. He grew up in Port Angeles and represents the Bremerton area. He lives in Gig Harbor with his wife, Jennifer, the director of the Washington State Historical Society.

Kilmer was elected to the state House in 2004 and jumped after one term to the Senate, where he has focused on higher education and capital-construction budgets.

Kilmer told the Port Angeles crowd that 80 percent of the measures he has sponsored had Republican co-sponsors. He pointed to a constitutional amendment to slow the growth of state debt, a measure that was a top GOP priority and is on this year's statewide ballot.

Driscoll has said in campaign fliers that Kilmer voted with Democrats 97 percent of the time and passed "Big Union liberal policies" while getting low ratings from a small-business group.

The conservative National Federation of Independent Business has given Kilmer poor marks, as it does most Democrats, and the more moderate Association of Washington Business gives him a lifetime score of 54 percent for his votes. In contrast, the Washington State Labor Council gives him an 80 percent lifetime rating.

Kilmer said he isn't afraid to buck his party, recounting how he voted against a 2005 reinstatement of the estate tax and a 2010 package of tax increases including higher business-and-occupation tax rates. That same year, he voted against the budget written by Democrats and the suspension of voter-approved rules for supermajorities to raise taxes.

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