Lone centrist Steve Hobbs likes his odds in 1st District race
State Sen. Steve Hobbs, the lone centrist in the race for the "swing" 1st Congressional District, likes his odds if he can get to November. But the Iraq war vet is a "huge underdog" in the primary after alienating Democratic allies.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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Kevin Schaul and Dean Kramer / The Seattle Times
Surrounded by fellow Democrats at a recent 1st Congressional District debate, candidate Steve Hobbs instead chatted amiably during a break with John Koster, the conservative Republican candidate, about their shared time in the state Legislature.
It is a typical gesture, however small, for the lone centrist in a contentious seven-candidate race toward the August primary. Hobbs campaigns on his willingness to alienate traditional Democratic allies and aid business interests aligned with the GOP.
It's a difficult political profile in an era of hyper-partisanship as Congress is emptying of moderates, Democrat and Republican. But Hobbs, described even by friends as "stubborn," is betting it is a winning strategy in the 1st District, redrawn this year to be a 50-50 "swing" electorate.
He contends that his résumé — Iraq war veteran, social liberal and co-founder of the centrist "Roadkill Caucus" during two terms in the state Senate — has the best appeal to independent-minded voters in November, presumably against Koster, the front-running Republican.
"I'm the guy who cannot only beat Koster, but can hold onto the seat" in future elections, which also promise to be contentious, Hobbs said recently.
He must first beat four hard-running Democrats — progressive activist Darcy Burner, former state Department of Revenue director Suzan DelBene, entrepreneur Darshan Rauniyar and former legislator Laura Ruderman — in the Aug. 7 top-two primary.
Hobbs has struggled with fundraising, and received just one endorsement vote among 95 ballots at the state Democratic Party convention, losing out to "no endorsement," which got six votes.
Former state party Chairman Paul Berendt acknowledges Hobbs is a "huge underdog" but endorsed Hobbs nonetheless.
"He's a moderate but not conservative. He is someone who works with everyone, which is what people are yearning for, especially in Congress," said Berendt.
"Calm" under fire
Hobbs, 42, lives just three blocks from his alma mater, Lake Stevens High School, with his wife and three sons, in a home he said is "underwater," worth less than he owes.
His mother was a Japanese immigrant who learned English watching "Sesame Street"; his father was an Air Force veteran. They divorced when he was a child. Hobbs continued a family military tradition, joining the Army Reserve at 17, with permission from his dad.
Initially, Hobbs was a Republican, interning for the Snohomish County GOP. But after graduating from the University of Washington in 1994, he switched to the Democrats, turned off by Republicans' social conservatism. He lost badly in a 1994 run for the state Legislature.
He enlisted in the regular Army in 1997, amid financial woes and with his first son on the way. In a seven-year career, he was deployed to war zones in Kosovo and, in 2004-2005, to Iraq.
Hobbs was assigned to a multiagency anti-terrorism team assessing the vulnerability of key Baghdad buildings and Army bases, replacing a team member who had been shot by a sniper, said David Bankston, a fellow team member and now a major in the Oregon National Guard. He also helped with the Iraqi elections, ferrying ballot boxes to U.N. outposts.
Roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades were constant threats. "The most dangerous part was getting to and from where we had to go, across Baghdad," said Bankston. "He is calm, collected and professional under fire. He does what he has to do."
Hobbs left the Army in 2005 but remains in the state National Guard. He remains hawkish on defense — "I'm a Scoop Jackson Democrat" — and supports airstrikes in Syria. "We are the world's only superpower and beacon for democracy. We shouldn't be the world's policeman, but we have a role," he said.
Building "Roadkill Caucus"
In two terms in the state Senate representing Lake Stevens, Hobbs co-founded and named the "Roadkill Caucus," a group of centrist Democrats that has voted with Republicans on some economic and labor legislation.
Sen. Brian Hatfield jokes it is a group of "misfits and mavericks," with Hobbs as a leader who drinks milk at cocktail hour and is an unabashed fan of Huey Lewis and the News.
The caucus helped pass, against strong headwinds from labor unions, changes to unemployment insurance, workers' compensation and health-care coverage for state employees. A union-backed independent political group targeted Hobbs in two previous elections, and labor support has consolidated behind other Democrats in the 1st District race.
On the campaign trail now, he calls for Congress to balance the federal budget, supporting both "targeted tax breaks" for businesses and rolling back Bush-era tax cuts for high-wage earners. He is more conservative than Democratic rivals on financial regulations, urging no further legislation until the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act is fully implemented.
"Steve probably would have a lot more traditional Democratic support if he didn't take the more centrist overall approach," said Hatfield, D-Raymond. "But the irony is, in the 1st District, Steve is clearly the best Democrat to win and hold the seat."
Sen. Ed Murray, a prominent liberal Seattle Democrat, doesn't always agree with Hobbs on fiscal matters but endorsed Hobbs nonetheless. Hobbs' district voted strongly to roll back a domestic-partnership law for same-sex couples, Murray notes, but Hobbs has consistently voted for gay-rights legislation including the gay-marriage bill this year.
Those votes took "courage," said Murray. "Those of us in the gay community, when people vote for us, especially in a difficult district, we need to stand with them."
Hobbs, who supports abortion rights, said he "wouldn't be able to look my fellow service members in the eye if I denied them" the right to marry.
Support from business, lobbyists
Hobbs' campaign for the 1st District has gained support from state councils for police and firefighters, the timber industry and even the state Dairy Federation — a surprise, given Koster's history as a dairy farmer.
But Jeff Johnson, head of the state Labor Council, said Hobbs' fiscally moderate pitch would be a liability if he is matched against Koster, a fiscal conservative.
"Steve doesn't reveal as much contrast with Koster" as other candidates, including DelBene, whom the council endorsed, said Johnson. "Steve would be seen as Koster-lite."
Hobbs' campaign has struggled with fundraising, falling further behind DelBene, a millionaire from Medina who is partially self-financing; Burner, who has broad online support among progressives; and Ruderman, a professional fundraiser. Also running in the 1st District, which stretches from Redmond to Canada, is independent Larry Ishmael.
Hobbs' campaign draws heavily from business, including more than $43,200 in PAC contributions, $20,000 of it from banking interests, according to campaign-finance records. He also has collected more than $14,000 from registered lobbyists in Olympia or people working for lobbying firms. In all, he raised nearly $200,000 through March, the most recent figures available.
"I have always been very open that this money doesn't buy me," Hobbs said.
"Clearly it doesn't or I wouldn't have all these folks opposing me on all sides."
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmartin206.