They vote in the same precinct and live just 2 miles apart. Each is a maverick defying party classification. But when it comes to lifestyle, ideology, and political principles, candidates Jack Metcalf and Col. Grethe Cammermeyer may as well live on different planets—or, at the very least, at opposite ends of the sprawling 2nd Congressional District.
Both candidates are trying to modify their images in the campaign to serve as congressional representative for the district—which stretches from Snohomish County to the Canadian border and from the crest of the Cascades to midGeorgia Strait. Metcalf, swept into office by the Newt Gingrich Republican Revolution in 1994, is most widely known for being a right-wing eccentric who as a state legislator called for, among other things, the dismantling of the Federal Reserve System and a return to the gold standard. He has long been outspoken in his disdain for court interpretation of Native American treaty rights—particularly in regard to fisheries—and is adamantly outspoken in his opposition to the Makah tribe's resumption of whale hunting.
Cammermeyer, meanwhile, who argues for the standard Clinton-Democrat agenda (better funding for health care and education, use of the government's surplus to rescue Social Security) is best known for her lesbianism, which led to her being drummed out of the National Guard after a 30-year career. Actress Glenn Close played Cammermeyer in the movie version of her struggle (which ended in her reinstatement by the courts), and her celebrity status has helped her raise some $600,000 (nearly all of it from outside the 2nd District) from other celebrities, from citizens of Seattle and the Eastside, from unions, and from gay and lesbian organizations.
Inside the district, though, Cammermeyer's celebrity may be a liability. Reporters calling her office have been cautioned against writing "lesbian candidate" stories, and campaign appearances often are marred by subtle signs of bias—voters putting their hands in their pockets, for example, when Cammermeyer reaches out to shake hands. And Metcalf seems no happier with his reputation as a right-wing extremist—particularly after a close call against Democrat Kevin Quigley in the 1996 election, which Metcalf won by a scant 2,000 votes. This time around, watching him downplay his more eccentric positions while Cammermeyer downplays her notoriety is like watching two extreme opposites in a madcap race to the moderate middle.
It would appear that Metcalf is winning the race. While nearly half of his money has come from PACs—primarily conservative political organizations, and banking, insurance, real estate, and transportation interests—the bulk of his individual donations comes from in-district cities Everett, Marysville, and Mount Vernon. He garnered more votes in the primary than all the other candidates combined. He also has won an endorsement Republicans rarely win—that of the 38,000-member Boeing Machinists Union (union estimates place nearly half its members in the 2nd District), and a favorable rating from the Building and Construction Department of the AFL-CIO. Both have sided with Metcalf, because of his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a vote against allowing employers to substitute comp time for overtime pay, and a vote against restricting unions' use of dues to underwrite political activities. "We had five or six major issues, and he supported us on every one of them," says Linda Lanham, Boeing Machinists' Union political director. "I think [Cammermeyer] would support our issues, but we had someone in office who already did. We support those who support us."
While the perception outside the 2nd District is that Cammermeyer's sexual orientation is most on voters' minds, those inside the district see the race more as a contest between a '90s-style, media-oriented politician and an old-style, hand-shaking guy with detailed knowledge of his district. While much of Washington's overwhelmingly white 2nd District remains rural, it is rapidly urbanizing, and its voters are changing. This election may be more a referendum on the style of candidate 2nd District voters want than on the substance of the candidates' beliefs.
THE CANDIDATES ARE hard to typify along traditional political lines. Republican Metcalf was the first in Island County to transfer to the county development rights to the large tract he and his extended family own, allowing local residents free access to the property for hiking, horseback riding, and berry- and mushroom-picking. The move has earned him some sympathy from voters who care about natural-resource issues. Camermeyer is perceived as uninformed and indifferent when it comes to environmental issues, and has not reached out to local activist groups that might have been expected to ring doorbells and make phone calls for just about any Democratic alternative to Metcalf. Jennifer Lail, manager of the Environmental Action Network, a Langley environmental organization, was brusquely rebuffed early on when she offered assistance and local information to Cammermeyer's then-nascent staff of out-of-towners. "Your campaign staff should be your ambassadors in the community and that should be fundamental to any campaign," says Lail.
Seattle filmmaker Mark Dworkin and his partner, Melissa Young, who have been documenting the race, see it as a classic example of a general trend in American electoral politics—the waxing of the "media candidate," detached from the electorate and attuned to the national stage, and the waning of the home-centered candidate who is close to his or her grassroots constituents.
Cammermeyer freely acknowledges her lack of personal rapport with voters, but attributes it more to her own shyness and reserve than to national political ambition. Trying to connect more with voters, she has ramped up her schedule of town meetings around the district and has appeared at more local events. At one such event, though—an AIDS-walk fund raiser in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island—she stood aloof beside a registration table, talking only when approached, rather than wading into the small crowd of participants and initiating contact. "I'm Norwegian, I'm reserved," she said later. "I do have a tendency to sort of feel a little awkward about approaching people that I may not know, and I'm trying to learn to be a better politician at that."
Her lack of political common sense baffles seasoned 2nd District pols. Kevin Quigley in particular finds it odd that neither Cammermeyer nor her campaign have contacted him. "I do support her and would do whatever was asked to help her election," he says. "It worries me a bit that she's out of touch. Making calls to California and New York to raise money is not as effective as getting out to the parades, to doorbell, to talk with those people who understand the district."
Sue Ellen White is a freelance writer and editor based on Whidbey Island.