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Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:22 AM

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Reichert's shade of "green" depends on issue

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Sierra Club's Cascade chapter has not endorsed a Republican for Congress in more than a decade. But this summer, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert hoped he'd break the streak.

In his first term in Congress, Reichert voted against oil drilling in the Arctic, helped scuttle a plan to bring more oil tankers into Puget Sound and secured money to expand Mount Rainier National Park.

The Sierra Club liked that work, but at an endorsement meeting at an Issaquah brew pub in June, its panel also wanted his views on the group's top priority: global warming.

His answer surprised the members: He's still waiting to be convinced it's real.

Last week, Reichert, of Auburn, said he remained unsure about climate change or what role humans might play.

"The problem is, you have some scientists who say it's happening, and some who say it's not happening. The problem is the Sierra Club says that every scientist says it is," said Reichert, a member of the House Science Committee.

"I'm going to wait until all the facts are in. There were many scientists who used to say the world was flat."

Amid a hotly contested re-election campaign, Reichert is trying to court his district's independent-minded voters with an image as a "green" Republican. He tells of hikes in the woods with his grandkids and touts his environmental votes on his Web site. A biodiesel entrepreneur recently hosted a Reichert fundraiser.

But Reichert's record on the environment is at times enigmatic. As a candidate, he supported oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness under certain conditions but has opposed such drilling as a congressman. He voted against higher fuel-efficiency standards but later signed onto a bill that would raise those standards by 2016.

Despite his efforts, it is Reichert's opponent, Democrat Darcy Burner, who is getting the environmental endorsements.

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Their battle for the 8th Congressional District — the suburbs and woods of east King and Pierce counties — is considered by national pundits as one of a handful of "toss-up" races in the country.

In a poll released Tuesday by the left-leaning EMILY's List, Reichert and Burner were virtually neck-and-neck. Burner, a former Microsoft manager and political newcomer, and the national Democratic Party expect to spend about $2.5 million on ads the next five weeks, more than Reichert and the GOP.

Stuart Elway, a nonpartisan pollster in Seattle, said the race will turn on the voters' mood toward President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress. Environmental issues will be a factor only if they are portrayed as a negative for a candidate, he said.

"You certainly don't expect someone who could get tagged as anti-environmental to do very well here," he said. "It's a given."

Lowest — and highest

Reichert's rating by the League of Conservation Voters is the lowest among Western Washington members of Congress but is highest among Republicans on the West Coast.

Burner has no public record but describes her views as closest to U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, a darling of environmentalists. She's made the push for renewable energy a signature of her campaign and calls for stricter air- and water-quality standards.

Reichert has said ratings such as the League's "cherry-pick" his votes, and do not give him credit for bucking GOP leadership when evidence leads him to a contrary position.

"To be honest, you get a little frustrated. It seems like you never do enough," he said. "I think I've done a lot for the environment. I'm going to continue to do what I think is right."

James Schroeder, a senior analyst for the National Wildlife Federation's Seattle office, said Reichert's "scattershot" record suggests he listens to the last person who bends his ear.

"It gives you the impression that his vote is negotiable," he said.

Reichert was a virtual blank slate on the environment when he first arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2005.

He had not wrestled with questions of air, critters or the land in his three decades with the King County Sheriff's Office, and gravitated toward law-enforcement and homeland-security issues as a freshman in Congress.

Jim DiPeso, a Republican environmental activist from Shoreline, said Reichert is "somebody who is moving in the right direction," especially on land preservation.

"He's following the old Teddy Roosevelt approach: These special places are part of our heritage and should be protected," said DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, which is endorsing Reichert.

DiPeso points to Reichert's support — along with other members of Washington's delegation — for carving a new, 100,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness Area from the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest.

That proposal remains bottled up by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee and the nemesis of environmentalists.

Voices back home

It was 3 a.m., the week before Christmas 2005, and Reichert was in a pickle.

In the preceding weeks, his office was flooded with 1,600 calls and e-mails from constituents asking that he vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As a candidate, Reichert had backed drilling.

The proposal was up for a middle-of-the-night vote, with GOP leadership strongly pushing drilling, framing it as a national-security question by tacking it onto a defense-appropriations bill.

In a pair of back-to-back votes, Reichert joined with 20 other Republicans and voted to remove ANWR drilling from the defense bill.

When that attempt failed, Reichert voted for the overall defense bill, saying he must back troops in a time of war.

His position against drilling prompted Hugh Hewitt, an influential conservative blogger, to accuse Reichert of having "deserted the GOP" and called on voters to "bounce him" from Congress.

In an interview, Reichert said he is against drilling in the Arctic because it would not wean the U.S. from Middle East oil.

"We're not drilling in all the places we can drill right now on the North Slope," he said. "Why ruin a pristine area in Alaska and drill there if it's not going to get us where we need to be?"

Thea Levkovitz, a staffer with the Washington Association of Churches who helped coordinate the flood of constituent calls, said it is unclear if environmentalism is "embedded in his psyche." But she praises him for keeping an open mind.

"To his credit, he's listened to his constituents, regardless of what his view may or may not be on the environment," she said.

He apparently hasn't alienated the oil industry, either. Reichert's re-election campaign has received $21,300 in donations from ExxonMobil and other energy companies.

Greening up

Reichert's ANWR vote, according to environmentalists, suggests he is gradually "greening" as he learns more about their concerns.

In June, Reichert appeared to change his views on auto fuel-efficiency standards. Although he had earlier voted against higher standards, he signed onto a bill that would require an average of 33 miles per gallon by 2016.

Reichert sees such energy issues in the context of national security. He advocates using coal until renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are more viable.

"Right now, we're using Middle East oil as a bridge to renewable energy sources," he said. "We've got to move away from Middle East oil and to our strength: our huge cache of coal."

But coal-fired power plants are also a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions, which most scientists say contribute to global warming.

Reichert's questions about the existence of global warming are contrary to positions taken by the U.S. Senate, Goldman Sachs, the insurance giant Swiss Re, the National Academy of Scientists and the 100-nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"[Reichert] is either denying or doesn't understand the overwhelming science on the table," said Kathleen Ridihalgh of the Sierra Club's Cascade chapter.

Reichert said global warming is a "possibility" but views the science with the same sense of skepticism he held as a homicide detective for the King County Sheriff's Office.

"I will be convinced when I'm convinced," he said. "As an investigator, I've not been conclusively convinced."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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