What’s Congressman Jim McDermott’s Real Legacy?

Legislative success—or simply the the soft liberalism of low expectations.

By Josh Feit July 18, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Luis Tinoco

Seattle’s longtime U.S. representative, liberal icon Jim McDermott, announced early this year that he’s retiring after 14 terms in Congress. McDermott, whose white shock of hair gives him the mein of Andrew Jackson on the $20, was first elected to Congress the year Yo! MTV Raps, Murphy Brown, and The Wonder Years debuted on TV, Die Hard ruled at the box office, and Guns N’ Roses and Whitney Houston climbed the charts. It was 1988. Reagan was the president of the United States, and Mikhail Gorbachev led the Soviet Union. 

What did Seattle’s representative, buoyed by perhaps the safest Democratic district in the country, accomplish in the ensuing 30 years? Well, he once leaked damning tapes of Republican house speaker Newt Gingrich, got sued for it, and lost to the tune of more than $1 million. And he’s been a longtime advocate of a single-payer health care system. Most famously, though, the now 79-year-old former physician voted against the Iraq War. He defiantly traveled to Baghdad in 2002 and announced that president George W. Bush would doctor up claims about Iraq’s nuclear weapons arsenal—which Bush did, of course. The country went to war despite McDermott’s prescient stance.

The congressman’s votes—which also include a nay on the 2008 Wall Street bailout and a yay on 2009’s carbon cap—have certainly put him on the right side of history (or at least on the correct side of Seattle’s electorate). But his legacy is more about righteousness than accomplishment: The bailout he opposed passed, and the carbon cap he supported went nowhere.

In fact, asked about his accomplishments in January, after he announced he wouldn’t seek a 15th term, McDermott simply quipped that he had “earmarks all over this city.” Earmarks are behind-the-scenes federal budget requests. A check on McDermott’s recent budget wins found eight items worth roughly $2 million in Washington state between 2008 and 2010, and there’s certainly some important stuff on his list, such as funding for the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

But let’s be honest.

Workhorse members of Congress, like legendary U.S. representative Norm Dicks—a suitable comparison to McDermott because Dicks recently retired after 36 years in office—dwarfs McDermott when it comes to bringing home the bacon. For example, Bremerton’s Dicks, as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, scored 75 earmarks between 2008 and 2010. His local haul totaled roughly $120 million. And then there’s powerhouse U.S. senator Patty Murray, the Democrats’ lead budgeting negotiator, first elected in 1992, who got 150 earmarks during those same two years, bringing in $274 million for Washington state.

McDermott’s press secretary didn’t respond to an email asking him to outline McDermott’s top achievements and comment on the notion that McDermott was not an effective congressman.

“I think he lost touch with the day-to-day concerns,” local Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman told me. “Speaking out against the war proved the value of an ideological voice, but are we getting the kind of attention we need from our representative?”

Granted, Sinderman’s working for state representative Brady Walkinshaw, who’s seeking McDermott’s seat. Walkinshaw, 31, had the chutzpah to announce he was running against McDermott back in December 2015, when McDermott still appeared intent on going for yet another term. At the time, McDermott dismissed Walkinshaw with a clunky quote in The Seattle Times about the necessity of experience, saying, “You wouldn’t give a Maserati to a 15-year-old.” 


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(From left) Candidates Brady Walkinshaw, Pramila Jayapal, and Joe McDermott are vying for U.S. representative Jim McDermott’s Democratic seat in the Seventh Congressional District. The state primary is August 2, 2016.


In some ways, McDermott’s record, if not successful when measured by traditional metrics, turned out to be as prescient as his prediction about Bush and WMDs. The McDermott political model, ideology over action, was ahead of its time. Just look at our current state legislature, where special overtime sessions have become the norm because the opposing sides would rather stick to their partisan rhetoric than strike a deal on education funding.

McDermott’s track record of thumbing his nose at Republicans (staunchly voting with his own party 94 percent of the time) presaged the new normal in 2016 when party purity—and gridlock in Congress—trumps political acuity. McDermott’s righteous failures certainly led to electoral success (he routinely won reelection by 80 percent for years).

And so the crop of Democrats running to fill his vacancy are inheriting a Seattle seat with low expectations, where the candidate who’s most ideologically pure— rather than the one who can get the most done—might be what voters want most.

That’s not to say the candidates going for his seat are simply show ponies. In addition to Representative Walkinshaw, two other well-qualified legislators jumped in soon after McDermott announced his retirement: state senator Pramila Jayapal and King County Council member and former longtime state legislator Joe McDermott. (Joe and Jim are not related, by the way. And while Joe’s opponents say the homonym inflates his polling numbers, Joe’s pollsters have data that shows he’s popular in his own right, thanks in large part to his 15 years serving West Seattle.) 

The elder McDermott couldn’t get away with likening Jayapal’s or Joe McDermott’s experience to that of a teenager joyriding in an Italian sports car. 

Joe McDermott helped usher gay civil rights protections through the legislature in the mid-2000s, helped pass a pivotal campaign finance reform law, and sits on the Sound Transit board.

Jayapal, endorsed by Bernie Sanders, is the founder of the state’s premier immigrant civil rights group, OneAmerica, which successfully sued to stop the federal government from deporting 4,000 Somalis. After she left OneAmerica in 2012 to take her seat in the state senate, the social justice group Washington Community Action Network ranked Jayapal as one of Olympia’s number-one legislators for sponsoring a statewide minimum wage bill and the ACLU’s police body cameras bill. But like those of the man whose seat she’s vying for, Jayapal’s left-leaning legislative efforts failed—neither bill passed.

On her to-do list if elected to U.S. Congress, she says: raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and comprehensive immigration reform. Walkinshaw meanwhile is running on a carbon tax—much like the failed carbon cap his would-be predecessor backed. And Joe McDermott is running on repealing Citizens United and passing comprehensive gun control, something that failed miserably earlier this summer even in the immediate aftermath of Orlando.

Are these dreamy Democratic demands doable in our current hyper-partisan atmosphere, when Republicans won’t even consider Supreme Court nominees and their presidential nominee is campaigning on a far-right, nativist anti-immigrant agenda? Don’t these grandiose campaign pledges clarify how important partisan grandstanding has become in Jim McDermott’s Seventh Congressional District?

Jayapal tells me no, noting that as the head of OneAmerica, she led a successful lobbying effort to pass the 2013 pathway-to-citizenship reform bill in the U.S. Senate, netting 14 GOP votes.

But, seemingly taking a page from Jim McDermott’s ideological and partisan playbook, she adds, “the conservative Republicans in the House blocked it from coming to the floor.”

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