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Thursday, May 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Party chair's left jabs put Cantwell on the defensive

When Dwight Pelz was elected chairman of the Washington State Democrats, he promised to reach out to moderate and rural Democrats all across the state. It didn't take long for him to revert to form — a reflexive liberal playing to a narrow Seattle base.

Pelz is living proof Democrats love to eat their young — or at least work against their own candidates. Pelz last week did a disservice to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and the moderate wing of the party by effectively challenging her Democratic bona fides.

Pelz, longtime King County councilman and party chairman not long enough to have a clue, lobbed one at the state's No. 1 Democratic candidate running this fall. Cantwell faces a vigorous Republican challenge in Mike McGavick, former CEO for Safeco and former aide to U.S. Sen Slade Gorton.

"Definitely right now there are a lot of activists who are not signing up to work on her campaign and that's very clear," Pelz said last week, explaining that her position on the Iraq war is making it difficult to recruit volunteers to support her.

Who's he working for?

Even if Pelz' declaration were true, and apparently it is not, a party chairman is supposed to bolster a candidate, not publicly berate her because she is not a pure-enough liberal.

Pelz is an old-time, Seattle lefty who often sees issues in black and white. It is a stretch for him to broaden himself enough to truly represent the range of positions in the statewide party.

Polls show this could be a big year for Democrats nationally and in our state — that is, if Pelz and the national party chairman, Howard Dean, don't blow it with overheated rhetoric and all-or-nothing politics.

Publicly stating that Cantwell doesn't have enough volunteers is an inappropriate way of saying she needs to craft a position on Iraq as far left as his.

Cantwell's continued support for the occupation of Iraq and her refusal to express regret for the 2003 invasion is perhaps more middle of the road.

Like Cantwell, U.S. Reps. Adam Smith and Norm Dicks voted for the war resolution. Unlike Cantwell, they subsequently admitted they made a mistake, though for different reasons. I much prefer the Smith-Dicks approach.

I go perhaps a little further. I believe we have to establish a clear timetable and get out of Iraq.

Cantwell has tried to smooth things over by explaining her position in newspaper op-eds and by meeting with families of fallen soldiers. Her vague words — "In Iraq, 2006 must be a year of transition" — don't say much or help much.

But, once again, strident liberals damage their cause. A lot of Seattle leftists righteously will vote for the Green Party candidate, Aaron Dixon, and further promote the politics of George Bush.

Even if Cantwell does not toe the perfect liberal line, does Pelz really think he is serving the party by publicly denigrating her campaign's vigor?

To his credit, Pelz later called the Cantwell campaign and apologized. That's a start. He is new in the job, but some damage is already done.

Pelz says he also botched the assessment of volunteer strength. He refers now to numbers provided by Cantwell showing that in spring 2004, roughly the same point in Sen. Patty Murray's 2004 Senate campaign, Murray had about 175 volunteers, a number that grew considerably after recruiting intensified.

Cantwell has 534 volunteers, but her campaign started its recruiting effort earlier than Murray's did. The Cantwell volunteer effort, by that tally, is sturdy — neither overwhelming nor underwhelming.

Pelz has a lot of reaching out to do. He promised to be active not just in Seattle. This month, he is visiting a few Eastern Washington counties, including Chelan, Douglas and Spokane, to pump up party faithful. He recruited Peter Goldmark, an Okanogan rancher from a famous family, to run against Cathy McMorris in the 5th District. Pelz should have recruited a more A-list candidate to challenge Rep. Doc Hastings, the ineffective chairman of the House Ethics Committee, in the 4th District. A relatively unknown businessman, Richard Wright, is running against Hastings.

If Pelz wants Democrats to take advantage of epic dissatisfaction with the Republican regime, he has to be more thoughtful. He has to pause and think before he speaks.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

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