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Wednesday, August 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

McDermott challenger knows a little something about the left

Most of us never change our political clothes, being comfortable in hand-me-downs. But Ronald Reagan stripped off his New Deal shirt to become a conservative. Whittaker Chambers joined forces with Richard Nixon. Irving Kristol, godfather of the neoconservatives, was a youthful adherent of the Socialist Workers Party.

Beliefs change, though in the believing there may be a continuity.

Which brings me to Steve Beren, the party-endorsed candidate in the 7th Congressional District. He is the most pro-war-on-terror Republican out there, and is challenging what he calls Seattle's far-left congressman, Jim McDermott.

The Republicans' candidate is interesting not because he might win — McDermott got 81 percent of the vote last time — but because of who he is.

Beren has been described in Seattle's two dailies as a former Democrat and liberal. He was that, for a while. But from 1968 to 1990, Beren was an activist in the Socialist Workers, the party inspired by Leon Trotsky. Somehow, this interesting fact has been missed by the Seattle papers, though Beren is open enough about it.

I remember the SWP. Nixon was in his first term, and the SWP was organizing antiwar marches at the University of Washington. Most of the students who turned out were long-haired and hang-loose, though the SWP guys had short hair and were not-so-loose. They were communists.

Thirty-six years later, I am sitting at the Queen Anne Cafe with Beren. His head is clean-shaven, emphasizing the dark eyebrows, wire-rimmed glasses and salt-and-pepper goatee. He is verbally assertive and does not stumble.

"My goal is to make more people realize that the war on terrorism is real," he says. Of all the major cities in America, he says, "Seattle may be the most in denial."

I want to talk about the SWP. He nods. "Everything I did as a socialist and transforming my life in the 1990s has brought me to this point," he says.

Beren says he grew up in a not-so-religious Jewish family in the South Bronx. He scored high on tests and skipped a grade. In high school, he read George Orwell's "1984," which radicalized him about the lies of governments. At City College of New York, he joined the youth arm of the SWP.

And, yes, he says, the party "made me cut my long hair."

A number of people cycled through the SWP. (One at the UW was Stephanie Coontz, who teaches at The Evergreen State College on the history of the family and marriage.)

Beren stayed in the party an unusually long time, moving from one leftist cause to another. He defended Castro, the Sandinistas and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Sometimes I would work in a factory in a union job, imagining that's what a leftist would do," he says.

In 1990, in Seattle, he gave it up. It was not the collapse of communism, he says. "I just thought, I'm too tired to do this. I'm just going to be a regular guy."

He got a career job. (He is now director of operations for ShopLocal.com, a Seattle Internet company.) In 1975, he threw off his atheism and became a Christian. He got married. He voted for Bill Clinton twice, then for Al Gore.

When Clinton sent troops into Bosnia, Beren felt a surge of patriotism. Then came 9/11. He promoted himself as a radical-turned-patriot and went on talk shows. Doing this, it struck him that he was not a Democrat. He was a Republican.

And one of strong belief.

"There is justice and nobility in the war on terrorism," Beren declares. George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani are heroes in it.

He says he will dog Jim McDermott until the Seattle Democrat agrees to debate him.

Should Republicans trust this guy? Well, the party does.

"He has looked at the world from different perspectives," says state chairman Diane Tebelius. "I'm glad he came and joined our side."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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