Gunning for Dunn

Can the Dems' new soccer mom wrest the Eastside from the GOP's pro-gun powerhouse?

DAVID IVERSON is a 52-year-old small businessman who lives on the Sammamish Plateau and occasionally votes Democratic, but once served as a Republican precinct chair. In other words, he's the sort of right-leaning swing voter who predominates in the 8th Congressional District, a huge swath of eastern King and northern Pierce counties that's probably the wealthiest district in the state. Republicans consider the 8th one of their safest congressional seats in the entire nation—a seat not just held but owned by national star Jennifer Dunn, a figure so imposing that Democrats for years never bothered to put forward a real challenger. But the Dems claim that this year is different.

If David Iverson is any bellwether, they may be on to something. Sometime ago, after a rash of publicity about guns in schools, Iverson called Dunn's office to voice his concerns about her following the National Rifle Association's anti-gun-control agenda. He felt he got short shrift from the aide he talked to. Then came another round of school shootings, and Heidi Behrens-Benedict, a 50-year-old commercial designer, gun-control advocate, and political neophyte, announced she would challenge Dunn as a Democrat. Iverson decided to volunteer for her campaign.

"I called her and was impressed that beyond the gun issue, she was a small businessperson who had experience meeting payrolls," he explains. But "the gun issue" was crucial to his decision: "I've got a representative who seems to be in the back pocket of the NRA and if I can do anything to get her out of here, I'll do it."

Democrats hope enough David Iversons are out there to unseat Jennifer Dunn—a feat that only a couple of months ago seemed unthinkable. Dunn is no. 5 in the House Republican chain of command, a legendary fund raiser, and a savvy politician with a sturdy base of support built in her previous job as GOP state chair.

BEHRENS-BENEDICT HAS nevertheless captured considerable attention in her first bid for office—thanks to her unlikely route to that bid. She says she was prompted to enter politics by the outpouring of support she received after her May letter to the editor appeared in The Seattle Times, condemning the NRA's muzzling of politicians and the "facile psychobabble" of public figures in the wake of the Springfield, Oregon, school shooting.

But is Behrens-Benedict really a viable candidate? Not at all, Republicans insist. "Jennifer Dunn is a political giant in this state and is unassailable," says Republican political consultant Brett Bader. GOP county chair Reed Davis concurs: Behrens-Benedict "is going to keep hope alive and give Democrats in the district something to live for. But I don't think she's any threat to Jennifer."

The three-term congresswoman herself appears as unflappable as ever. Asked how the race is going, she replies serenely that she's been running in the district "for some time now." Her calm demeanor may owe something to her coffers: As of the end of last month, she had raised more than $1 million, against a piddling $27,000 for Behrens-Benedict (who had gotten a fund-raising list only a week before).

Behrens-Benedict may be a long shot, but she has made the race interesting—an event in itself in the 8th District. Dunn's last two challengers were an unknown doctor and a Lyndon LaRouche devotee, each of whom garnered about a third of the vote.

Behrens-Benedict portrays herself as more in touch with the district than Dunn—a bold claim for a left-leaning Democrat who supports single-payer health care and affirmative action, proclaims herself in "awe" of labor, and opposes both charter schools and vouchers. (She does, however, depart from liberal orthodoxy in endorsing welfare reform.) At the same time, she plays on her political-outsider advantage. A mother of two who has lived in the same Bellevue house since 1972, she says: "I care about Little League and school and doing things with family. I'm literally the neighbor up the street. Jennifer's been more involved in being Republican than doing normal-people things."

Though that sounds a lot like Patty Murray, Behrens-Benedict comes off as more informed and professional than Washington's junior senator, without Murray's "mom-in-tennis-shoes" hokeyness. She's a working mom, as is Dunn, but women may find it easier to relate to her than to the privileged and immaculately polished Congresswoman Dunn (whose mother hails from the same family of seafood magnates as Sen. Slade Gorton).

AS THE "SOCCER MOM" phenomenon suggests, suburban women voters—and especially their distaste for the harsher side of the Republican agenda—have become an influential force in politics. That could prove a stumbling block for Dunn, who serves that agenda as faithfully as any, even as Speaker Gingrich has her labor to make the party's message more palatable to women.

And then there's the gun issue. Gun-control leaders say that young mothers and college-educated women have long been a vital constituency of their movement. In the wake of school shootings, fathers and other demographic groups are entering the picture too. "I think there is definitely a surge of interest by people who have never been at the table," says Pam Eakes, founder of Mothers Against Violence in America and an 8th District resident.

While concern over youth violence has in the past fueled the "tough-on-crime" politics of Republicans, Eakes believes public consciousness has shifted toward gun regulation and other forms of prevention—the disastrous performance of the poorly written Initiative 676 notwithstanding. Consider: Peace Action of Washington, which lobbies for gun control, has seen its membership grow almost 20 percent in the past year, to approximately 16,000 families.

Those who feel strongly enough about the issue, such as campaign volunteer Iverson, will have problems with Dunn. Though she points out that she has never taken money from the NRA, the gun group rates her voting record at 100 percent. She voted against the Brady Bill (because, she says, "I'm a supporter of states' rights") and for repealing the assault weapons ban ("you're moving into the area of the Second Amendment").

Now Dunn seems unlikely to vote for new legislation circulating in the House that would require trigger locks and other safety measures aimed at protecting children (separate from the trigger-lock bill that went down in the Senate last week). "As I sit down and look at trigger locks," she says, "I am not convinced that they are an effective solution. People believe they are going to work, and then they explode on their own. What I'm looking for are real solutions." What might those be? Dunn mentions a Senate bill that would jail children for up to 72 hours if they come to school with a gun—a bill that eschews any actual gun control.

In contrast, Behrens-Benedict supports the trigger-lock legislation. Though her candidacy is in large part based on her promotion of gun control, her positions on the issue seem unformed.

Such vagueness is not surprising, given that Behrens-Benedict has been a politician for less than two months. Even so, voters will get a good sense of where she's coming from.

The question is: Will the 8th swing enough to go there?

 
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