When I moved back to Seattle in 1990, I was scoping out the local political scene at about the time that the US launched Desert Storm. I remember being deeply impressed with Seattle’s Congressional rep., Jim McDermott, who actually took the time to put in an appearance at Seattle’s Federal Building with antiwar protesters. His opposition to the war seemed heartfelt, and along with his staunch support of a single-payer health plan, it seemed like McDermott was on a trajectory that made him perhaps not one of the House’s most influential members, but certainly among its most principled.
Fast forward eight and a half years. With a Democratic president in office, suddenly Jim McDermott, veteran of half a dozen or so essentially unopposed reelections, is all for it when America decides to lethally bomb a civilian population, this time in Yugoslavia. Suddenly the man who is perhaps Congress’s most articulate critic of for-profit health care is, in exchange for a mere $7,000 in campaign money, whoring for a major drug manufacturer by cosponsoring a bill that would extend the patent for the antihistamine Claritin by three years, a move worth millions to the drug maker and symptomatic of everything wrong with capitalist health care. What has happened to the Jim McDermott Seattleites thought they were voting for?
At the behest of Bill Clinton’s example and Boeing’s money, McDermott has emerged as one of the Democrats’ most ardent proponents of free trade. He is a prime sponsor of the grotesquely misnamed “African Growth and Opportunity Act,” a sub-Saharan African free trade bill that would, according to critics, essentially re-colonize Africa by requiring International Monetary Fund “structural adjustments” of two dozen African governments in exchange for their participation in the global economy. Such requirements have been a prescription for poverty and Western economic dominance everywhere they’ve been used in the Third World; the “opportunity” here is strictly for the transnational corporations extracting resources and capital, and the local tyrants that keep their populations in line in exchange for a cut.
This month, even while recovering from heart valve surgery, McDermott endorsed the Forest Practices Agreement, an enormously destructive subagreement of the World Trade Organization that would lift tariffs on wood products. The FPA was opposed by virtually every environmental group in the land, but to McDermott “free” trade was more important than rainforest destruction, global climate change, or even lost jobs at home as the Pacific Northwest converts its remaining commercial and old-growth trees into wood chips for Japan.
The question has to be asked: What the hell is Jim McDermott up to?
Even with his health problems, McDermott was considering a late entry into the race to challenge for Slade Gorton’s Senate seat next year (he announced Monday he will not seek the Senate seat). If he was trying to position himself as more centrist for such a race, it was an idiotic move; he will always be seen, in a statewide race, as a Seattle liberal. His short-term political gain for such ambitions means long-term problems for victims of business-friendly legislation like the free trade bill for Africa.
McDermott has about $117,000 tucked away, ostensibly—he certainly doesn’t need it for House reelection—to cover legal bills from his sleazy Gingrich tape fiasco. (If we object on civil liberty grounds to collecting evidence against drug dealers by invading privacy, surely we can extend that principle to the speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States.) That incident raises another theory. Perhaps McDermott has no principles beyond party loyalty—Clintonesque free trade, getting the dirt on the enemy, and supporting or opposing wars depending on which party is in the White House. He wouldn’t be the first political hack to toe such a line, but he also wouldn’t be the principled man I thought we had in 1990.
McDermott is no Jennifer Dunn; he has unquestionably done good things in Congress. But he doesn’t deserve the free ride he gets from Seattle liberals, and increasingly he’s exploiting it while he runs the other way. I want a Congressman like the 1990 Jim McDermott, who stands for something good. In 2000, Jim McDermott stands for the wisdom of term limits.
Dreaming of a council majority
If one accepts that we have two progressive City Council members now—three on the days when Richard Conlin forgets to take his meds—here’s what would need to happen to gain the mythic progressive majority activists have been daydreaming about. Curt Firestone would need to surprise Margaret Pageler in his challenge of the well-financed incumbent. Then, out of the three open seats, progressives would need to win two. That means either Judy Nicastro or Daniel Norton beating Cheryl Chow in position 1, and Dawn Mason both winning the race and proving herself an actual progressive (not a very likely outcome, but we’re dreaming here) in position 9. In the final open seat, newcomer and prodigious fundraiser Heidi Wills is running against populist Charlie Chong. Either could occasionally vote with progressives.
It’s a daunting task, but not impossible. The hardest race, and one most worthy of rallying around, is Firestone’s challenge of Pageler. The other races are dependent on the bona fides of candidates like Mason, who will at this point say whatever we want to hear. Firestone is the real article, a longtime activist from before he was running for anything. Nicastro and Norton are the next-best bets; one, maybe both, will survive the primary. We aren’t as far away from a progressive majority as it might seem. So it’s time to ask what activists want from four, five, or six presumed progressives on council. One or two clear priorities—not the laundry list of groups like the Seattle Progressive Coalition—as something to rally behind would help.