Washington's 1st Congressional District is hard on politicians. It's unforgiving, unpredictable, and fickle. Republicans and Democrats both claim it "leans" their way, but it's more

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First at war

Congressman Jay "Seattle Slew" Inslee is in a horse race with state Senator Dan "Old Dobbin" McDonald.

Washington's 1st Congressional District is hard on politicians. It's unforgiving, unpredictable, and fickle. Republicans and Democrats both claim it "leans" their way, but it's more accurate to say that it sways rather than leans.

The seat is held today by Democrat Jay Inslee, 49, an energetic, boy-faced "business Democrat" hanging on for dear life in a race with state Senator Dan McDonald, 56, an affable if colorless veteran legislator, in a race in which both parties are investing national energy and money. Inslee was number seven on The Washington Post's list of the nation's 10 most vulnerable Democratic congressmen.

This revolving-door district includes the island communities of Kitsap County, blue-collar chunks of Snohomish County, and the Eastside's wealthy high-tech neighborhoods of Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland. Mostly suburban, it's a district with lots of new-tech brains, money, and votes and it includes Microsoft's headquarters.

Past representatives include Maria Cantwell (now running for US Senate). You'd think she'd have everything it takes to keep an office: smarts, legislative experience, looks. But after winning the 1st District in 1992, she lost just two years later. The guy who beat her, conservative lawyer Rick White, was reelected in '96, but was in turned dumped when ultraconservative American Heritage Party candidate Bruce Craswell ran against him and pulled seven percent in '98, giving Inslee a shaky victory with barely 50 percent of the votes.

"The fact that Inslee won with less than a majority in a swing Republican district in a good Democratic year put the race on the radar screen," McDonald says.

Inslee was originally elected to Congress in central Washington's 4th District in 1992. He was defeated in '94 when the GOP swept into power in their arrogant, short-lived, Gingrich-led "revolution." Inslee, who is an attorney, moved into the 1st District to run in '98, and Republicans are still mad. "Inslee's a carpetbagger from eastern Washington, clearly a political opportunist," snorts vociferous new GOP state chair Don Benton. But Inslee was raised in the district; the carpetbagger tag didn't stick the first time around, and probably won't have much traction this time.

The district seems to demand pragmatic, one-issue-at-a-time governance and Inslee, a "new Democrat," walks precariously down the middle of the road; like all moderates, he gets sideswiped from both directions.

A free trader, he voted for NAFTA, GATT, and permanent normal trade relations with China, and he's both criticized and supported by labor and environmentalists.

Inslee has promoted himself in both Washingtons as a leader on high-tech issues, with bills on Internet privacy, computer classroom training, immigration for foreign tech workers, and intellectual property enforcement. He's received PAC money from Microsoft, AOL, and AT&T Wireless, among others.

Recently, Inslee voted with R's to repeal the federal inheritance tax, cut taxes on married couples, and increase allowable levels of deductible contributions to individual retirement accounts and 401Ks.

That Dems like Inslee are siding with Republicans on such measures is a reflection of both the federal government's growing surplus, and that their middle class base is alarmed at seeing their tax bills rise as they become increasingly affluent.

He denies voting for the tax cuts because of the upcoming election. "I've been known," he says, "to be an independent person who votes my conscience and convictions and did so in this case."

Yarrow Point's Dan McDonald displays an aw-shucks style that's led him to be called the Jimmy Stewart of Washington politics, or maybe it's because he's the only one old enough to know what that means. He's what used to be called a "country club Republican," which may not be pejorative in this district where fairways are replacing cow pastures at an amazing rate.

He ran poorly for governor in 1992 and is considered a bit of a plodder. A "moderate conservative" in the philosophical mold of Slade Gorton or John Carlson, he's uncomfortable with the shrill moralistic social agenda of the right-wingers who have disastrously dominated his party of late. He chants the mantra of "getting government out of your life" and eschews discussion of social issues like abortion rights as much as he can.

He too gets hit from both sides. Though pro-life, his position with its exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother wouldn't satisfy the Christian conservative crowd on one hand, nor pro-choice Democrats on the other.

He needs the seven percent of the district's voters who cast ballots for Craswell in 1998. "It's true [the Christian conservatives] have no place else to go," says a Democrat, "but they could stay home like they did in '98, if they think [McDonald] is too liberal. And that could be decisive."

Another task for McDonald, who is a mechanical engineer running in a wireless district, is to show that he's up on all this high-tech stuff. No problemo, gushes GOP chair Benton. "He was the first in the state Senate to have a PalmPilot. This guy is Mr. Techno!"

Presidential politics are expected to play a role in the race. They certainly did in '98 when Inslee got national attention as the first Democrat to campaign on impeachment directly, in an ad condemning Clinton's behavior but criticizing Rick White for voting for the open-ended investigation of the president.

"It's time to get on with the nation's business," Inslee said at the time. It was a risky move, but the public seemed to agree.

The impeachment issue might be affecting tight races like Inslee's in a more subtle way this time around. Voters still like Clinton, according to polls, but indicate they're tired of the embarrassing scandals and partisan sniping and are showing signs they want a president with less luggage.

Gore's weird and tepid campaign continues to put even his friends to sleep. If he goes down, lots of Democrats will follow. Republicans are counting on it.

"If the electorate votes for change in the presidential race," says Virginia Representative Tom Davis, the Republican Congressional Committee chairman, "Republicans will benefit up and down the ticket."

Money will not be a problem for either candidate. Though Inslee is winning the money game so far with about $1.15 million, McDonald has raised over $800,000, with more than $546,000 cash on hand.

Cynthia Bergman, Slade Gorton's press secretary, says national party financial help usually comes in the last few weeks before the election, when it's clear who needs it to win. But she says it's no secret that the Republican campaign committee is prepared to inject huge sums into Washington's 1st and 2nd Districts. "They're just waiting to see how these races shake out," Bergman said. Democrats are just as willing and able to spend.

The candidates have already gone negative. McDonald paints the incumbent as out of step with the suburban district. He uses everything from Inslee's vote for a 1993 federal budget that raised taxes to his old votes as a state legislator against crime victim's compensation and for "making it more difficult to keep sex offenders off the street."

Inslee counters by calling McDonald "the NRA's handmaiden" and "in lockstep with special interests" on such things as abortion and campaign finance reform. Both men are crowding the middle where conventional wisdom says the votes are this year.

It may just boil down to a matter of style. Your choice: the carpetbagging kid lawyer or the aw-shucks Mr.Techno.

"Jay's passionate," says Democratic chair, Paul Berendt. "I've never seen Dan McDonald passionate about anything." McDonald "is a workhorse, not a show horse," growls Benton.

Stay tuned. These horses, Old Dobbin and Seattle Slew, are just coming out of the gate.

 
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