MAN on a MISSION
Jim McDermott goes his own way
It's the 10th annual Warren G. Magnuson awards, and many in the crowd have paid $100 to get in. Seeing their hero, they jump to their feet. "A real Democrat," some shout, fingers folded into peace signs.
McDermott's Irish eyes light up. He's going over big.
"Two-thousand-four is going to be the most important presidential election in certainly my life, and probably in the last 100 years. Mr. Bush and his cronies and the junta have taken off to the right in a radical change for this country unlike anything anybody ever thought the Democrats would do," he bellows into the mic.
But "if you've been watching the polls in the last few weeks" he drops low and loud "the American people have awakened to what's going on. And in my view, this election is ours to lose."
Then, revving up to his punch line: "Now, George Bush is going to have all the money in the who-o-o-le, wi-i-i-de world. We're going to have to beat him the old-fashioned way. One door at a time . . . It will be done by people like you!"
The crowd goes wild, many popping back to their feet, cheering and waving those peace signs.
Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase "bully pulpit" a superb platform from which to advocate an agenda and Jim McDermott has mastered the art of using it on behalf of his passions: Delivering health care to all Americans. Improving the lives of people in the Third World. And, right now, dumping George Bush.
He concedes he may not spend oodles of time on things like getting money for the area's most intransigent problem, transportation. But he says the work gets done by his staff and others. That frees him to take up causes and say things that no one else will.
"Just think about what goes on in the 7th District and how much money I can bring to bridges and the roads and the schools and the University of Washington. There are a lot of congressmen like that, a lot of them. They last a long time," he says.
"But that's not how I chose to play the game, and I think you make a choice and you see what happens."
Seattle touches communities around the globe, he says, so why shouldn't he?
MANY LAWMAKERS go home for the congressional recess in August, and occasionally take educational trips with other members of Congress. McDermott, who has visited 75 countries and logged 3 million frequent-flier miles in his life, often heads to the places his colleagues avoid about a quarter of the time on his own dime.
"It's the old business of lighting a candle. You have to light a candle where you are, and then maybe a light will spread," he told an audience at the UW, explaining why the daunting work to stop AIDS and tuberculosis isn't futile.
McDermott laughs heartily, and self-consciously, when asked where his impulse to save the world comes from. But the 67-year-old does have an answer: It's the way he was brought up.
McDermott was raised in a Chicago suburb "the best house in a very marginal neighborhood" the oldest, by far, of four children.
His mother worked at the phone company. His father was an insurance underwriter in the city and ran a fundamentalist church out of his garage.
Not your average Midwestern welcome mat. Nor were the McDermotts' houseguests your average dinner companions religious missionaries with stories and treasures from around the world.
By age 8, McDermott had decided to be a medical missionary.
He paid his way through public-spirited Wheaton College in Illinois to become the first in his family to graduate, then went one better, going on to medical school to earn a degree in psychiatry.
Politics really didn't interest McDermott until he was drafted into the Navy and began treating Vietnam veterans in Long Beach, Calif. Already against the war, the experience solidified his opposition and pushed him to get involved.
When his two-year tour ended, he moved to Seattle, where he'd done a residency, and ran for the state Legislature, serving first in the House, then the Senate. In 1987, he felt called to the U.S. Foreign Service and signed up for duty as a medical officer, based in Zaire.
In 1988, his brother and a friend urged him to return to the States and take a shot at the U.S. House seat left vacant when Mike Lowry decided to run for the Senate.
Eight terms later, McDermott is still representing one of the most liberal districts in the country, and he reflects that district well. He can be counted on to support the Teamsters or a woman's right to choose. The owner of a hybrid car, he's a consistent vote for the environmental community.
Those are solid McDermott issues. Then there are his passions.
In 1989, McDermott founded the International HIV/AIDS Caucus in the House to educate legislators and develop responses to the disease. He remains its co-chairman. McDermott also helps health interest groups all over the country share information and negotiate the government bureaucracy. Peggy Morrow of PATH, a Seattle-based philanthropic group that uses technology to find ways to reduce communicable diseases, says organizations rely on him to make connections. "He sits down and says to people, 'Here's where these bills are, and here's what you need to be telling folks.' "
McDermott believes the fight is linked to improving the economies of Third World countries, so after President Clinton took office, he began work on what became the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade bill that cut U.S. tariffs on African products to create tens of thousands of jobs there.
With as much energy as he promotes health care, he opposes military action. In his desk drawer, McDermott still keeps the stamps he used to mark patients qualified, or not, for duty in Vietnam. He's not against all wars, just most of them. He voted in favor of invading Afghanistan, for instance, but feels strongly that Bush's foreign policy is a disaster, especially on Iraq. In the fall of 2002, he traveled there and earned the nickname "Baghdad Jim" after saying that Bush would mislead the American people to justify the war a violation of an unwritten rule against criticizing the U.S. government on foreign soil.
He got into hot water again in December when, on talk radio, he called it "funny" that the Bush administration found Saddam Hussein after weeks of bad news, suggesting the announcement of his capture was timed.
Still, plenty of constituents remain grateful for his positions.
"Congressman McDermott, can I shake your hand?" UW graduate student Alita Pierson asked when she ran across him on campus this past fall. "Thank you for everything you have done."
ON SUNDAYS, or whenever he can find the time, McDermott likes to try his hand at Sumi painting. He enjoys using brushes and ink to create images of bamboo, symbolizing "the perfect gentleman that bends in the wind."
But his way of expressing himself has even some Democrats wondering if his views and methods for sharing them are so polarizing that he can't form the alliances or do the horse-trading that gets results in legislative work.
"I do believe, in many ways, being the voice in the wilderness is more important to him than transforming the wilderness," says Jenny Durkan, a politically active Democratic attorney in Seattle who personally likes McDermott but says he's become one of Congress' most ineffective members.
"Jim McDermott has always been willing to take positions of leadership, even if they were unpopular, but saw the purpose of being effective as well. Now it's enough for him to take positions, even if they are unpopular."
Health care is an example. McDermott has long championed a federal system modeled after Canada's. But during the 1994 Clinton push to pass health-care reform, he was among the first Democrats to peel away, saying he was concerned the White House was caving to Republican demands and insurance companies, just to get a bill through.
"The theory that perfect should not be the enemy of the good is something I accept," McDermott says now. "But from very early on, I felt I didn't want to sign off and give in just to have a bill. You could make things worse."
In the most recent health-care fight to overhaul Medicare circumstances were different. The Republicans were in charge and excluded Democrats from the final bill writing last fall. McDermott and others took to the bully pulpit to object that the bill would seriously undermine the program. But in the end, the Republicans prevailed.
Not that McDermott is the guy Republicans typically turn to for compromise. He is, after all, the one who acquired and, in 1997, leaked to the media an illegal recording of House Speaker Newt Gingrich planning to spin an ethics probe.
McDermott, who is still fighting a lawsuit over his leaking of the tape, says some Republicans want him to apologize. But he won't. Gingrich, he says, had agreed not to play politics with a House sanction against him. "I felt like the speaker had signed an agreement and turned around and undid it before the ink was dry. I felt people had to know that."
He says 99 percent of Republicans are over it. But the questions about his effectiveness linger, especially in view of his lack of leadership on the basic business of his district. He's not Mr. Sound Transit, the regional transportation agency building a rail line right through his district. He's not Mr. Boeing, one of his constituents' main employers. Simply put, he's not Mr. Pork for Seattle.
That job is done by the state's senior senator, Patty Murray, and by Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton, Democrats who are both on appropriations committees where the money deals are made. And while McDermott has a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which handles taxes, health care and trade, he's largely stymied as a minority player on one of Congress' most partisan panels.
To be sure, McDermott sounds frustrated by some of the region's transportation issues. When he first took office, he started convening conferences in Seattle to develop a mass-transit plan for the region. But these days, he says the issues are so local they're almost impossible for him to handle, given the time he has to spend in D.C.
Joni Earl, head of Sound Transit, says when she really needs help for instance, breaking free a crucial $500 million grant she goes first to Dicks or Murray. McDermott does say he'll help, Earl offers, yet when she starts ticking off the names of congressional transportation aides, she can't come up with McDermott's man.
Sometimes colleagues in the delegation don't even call on McDermott for help in moving legislation. When Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Bellevue needed support for her bill to finance forest conservation, she went to other Democrats, even though McDermott sits on the committee handling the legislation. Local Democrats generally won't say on the record that McDermott's disinterest in these issues bothers them. Many sound like King County Executive Ron Sims, who adores McDermott, professionally as well as personally. He credits McDermott with helping detect his adult asthma. "Is Jim perfect?" Sims asks. "The answer is no. Is he guided by a set of principles he cares about and acts on? Yes."
If there's a consistent complaint against McDermott, it's about staffing. One of the most basic jobs of a congressman is constituent services and sometimes it's not getting done.
On big issues that should be no-brainers for McDermott, such as supporting a Teamsters' highway-safety bill, one of his aides concedes his offices in Seattle and D.C. can be hard to navigate and slow to respond.
On smaller issues, Carolyn Cooper, a volunteer at Children's Alliance in Seattle, says her organization often can't even get a form-letter reply on issues important to the advocacy group, such as child obesity.
"It's his apathy. A lot of times he doesn't take a position," she says, speaking for herself, not her organization. "He's not very accessible."
A FEW MONTHS ago, moderate 20- and 30-something Democrats quietly toyed with the idea of finding a challenger to run against McDermott. One insider says party stalwarts thought the idea was ludicrous. "It was like walking into the Microsoft campus with a Linux box and saying, 'What? It's just another operating system.' "
Durkan, who admits in the abstract she has thought about running against him, agrees with other critics who say, if anything, his actions on the war and the Bush administration have made him all the more formidable by strengthening the support of his base. Folks here like what he stands for.
And with re-election numbers that are the envy of any lawmaker 74 percent of the vote in 2002 the conventional wisdom is that the job is McDermott's as long as he wants it. "He'd have to run across Safeco Field naked with his middle finger up toward the crowd before people would vote against him," says Jed Lewison, a former congressional staffer who lives in Seattle. "And that's not going to happen."
He's a man so loved that some people who can't vote for him wish they could. "We're from Bellevue, and as far as I'm concerned, you're our congressman," Sue Boone told McDermott on her way to the Magnuson awards.
McDermott could retire to his Queen Anne home, spend more time with his wife, Therese Hansen, two grown children and granddaughter. But he seems determined to press on. Last year, he quickly squashed rumors that he might hang it up next time. "Hell no," he says, adding that he thinks there's a good chance the White House will soon have a Democrat who cares about health care.
So he's going to keep at it for now, for his passions, until the sight of the Capitol dome doesn't excite him anymore.
Katherine Pfleger is a former Seattle Times Washington bureau reporter. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.
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