January, 26th 2010

Meet Jaime Herrera, candidate for Congress in Washington's third district

– Liz Mair

Jaime Herrera may not be a supporter of President Obama’s agenda, but in her run to succeed retiring Rep. Brian Baird in Congress, she is fired up and ready to go. 

The former high school basketball player turned legislative staffer for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) was appointed to serve in Washington’s House of Representatives in 2007, and elected in 2008 with 60 percent of the vote.  Now, she’s in a contest with several other contenders, seeking to move her district from the blue column back into the red.  I spoke to her last week, asking the same questions that I did of David Castillo, plus one specific to her candidacy, in what I understand was her first ever blogger interview.

Most political observers, and certainly those at the national level, started hearing Herrera’s name associated with the phrase “third district” immediately after Baird announced that he would not seek another term in Congress, and it was rumored she would jump into the race.  But, she told me, she began thinking about running long before then—as early as the infamous “town hall” period last year.  Herrera and her then-fiancé (now husband), Dan, “were actually on our way to the town hall in Clark County that Brian Baird had had and I received a phone call from a constituent at the time—he’d left a message and said ‘I really think you need to take on Baird,’ and I shared it with my husband and we kind of smiled about it and went into the town hall.”  Afterwards, she said, more of her constituents echoed that caller’s sentiments.  Her initial reaction?  “Well, I’m very happy with what I do, I love representing the people of the 18th district so this is not a decision I’m going to take lightly,” she thought, adding that she did begin talking to friends, family—and those that she represents.  But, “when Brian Baird announced he was going to retire, that really escalated our decision-making process and we decided now is the time.”  During our conversation, Herrera conceded to me that “It’s a big risk to do this,” but quickly added that she felt that it was a bigger risk not to run. “Quite frankly, the people of Southwest Washington don’t exactly fit with the views of Nancy Pelosi and the liberals that are running Congress and I’m tired of having our vote being cast to support that agenda.  And so this is important enough to put everything on the line and to run.” [intro]

Herrera’s biggest worry—and that of her constituents, she told me, is “jobs—hands down.  The three biggest counties in the district, two of which I represent—Clark, Cowlitz and Lewis—are all hovering around 14 percent unemployment and are battling for the distinction of the highest unemployment in the state.”  Deepening worry surrounding unemployment figures cuts across party lines, she added.  “It doesn’t matter, really, if you’re Republican or Democrat, you’re worried about and rightfully so whether we’re going to have opportunities for employment with this economy and quite frankly with this administration.” 

But in talking with Herrera, I got the impression she’s pretty focused on health care, too, and not merely from the perspective of blocking or repealing Democratic health care reform.  In the state legislature, she told me she ruffled some feathers during an early, internal debate among Republicans where some of her colleagues seemed to be defending insurers in terms one conjectures might strike average voters as a bit overzealous.  Said Herrera, “I raised my hand and said, ‘look, I’m going to be honest with you, I’m not going to go back to my constituents and say a 19 percent raise on your health insurance premiums has nothing to do with the health insurance companies.’”  This might strike some as an insignificant point, but in a contest where efforts will undoubtedly be made by Democrats, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to tie Republicans to “special interests” including insurers, Herrera’s willingness to openly note that they are not blameless this early on could prove helpful. 

So too could her willingness to criticize not just Democratic health care reform efforts (which she does), but also Republicans’ failure to achieve much meaningful on health care when in power.  Of her constituents she hears from, she told me “People are kind of like, ‘yeah, well, Republicans say this, but when they were in control, they didn’t pass across state lines, they didn’t pass association health plans, so why now, why do you think your ideas are better?’”  Like many fresh faces stepping forward to run this year, however, Herrera believes that she can argue the point and win.  “The grab-bag of programs that has been put together and been called health care reform isn’t going to get us any closer to lowering costs or increasing access, it’s just going to create a system where more people are dependent on the government, which if you look at Medicare or Medicaid or Social Security, the government isn’t doing the best job with those programs.  So, I do support the free market solutions that Republicans are pushing, but I also think we’ve still got a long way to go to build that credibility with the public, that we do have solutions, and that we’re willing to stick to them.  Because we didn’t demonstrate that in the past.”  She also argues she brings some practical experience of working on the issue.  During our interview, Herrera reminded me “I was a staffer in Congress.  I worked on bills like [those to facilitate purchasing insurance] across state lines and association health plans and some of these bills.”  She told me that at the end of the day, should Democratic health care reform be passed, she’d vote to repeal it—but quickly added, “I don’t just want to repeal it and go back to the status quo because the status quo isn’t working, either… I’d vote for a pretty hefty comprehensive [free market] package that I think would take us in the right direction.”

Like many Republicans running this year, Herrera also wants to rein in spending—and like many Americans, she is worried about the deficit.  “When it comes to spending, obviously the first thing you do when you’re in a hole is you stop digging.  We continue to borrow on America’s credit card, and those bills are coming due, and whether it’s deficit spending or selling our debt to China or Saudi Arabia, we have to stop.  I think about my future children and my future grandchildren and I want them to have the same opportunities here that I had and I see that rapidly disappearing.”  She is also adamant that Republicans, should they experience victories in 2010, must be careful not to break promises to the public on spending.  “I recognize politicians think they can continue to print money and everything will be great, but I don’t support that.  Republicans got nailed in ’06 and ’08 because they had strayed from those principles,” she told me.  Herrera also describes herself as firmly opposed to higher taxes, though opponents already appear to be trying to cast doubt on that.   It has been pointed out that she has not yet signed Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, with some suggestively raising the question as to why not.  Herrera, who has not been a declared candidate for lengthy period of time as yet responded by saying “I’ve pledged that here in the state, so I probably would have no problem with that at the federal level.”  She also noted in speaking with me that in the 2009 election, she voted for I-1033, a lower property tax initiative.  But whether it’s the wording of that initiative or the wording of a pledge document, Herrera seems clear in insisting that she read things carefully and think through them thoroughly before signing them—an approach many would no doubt view as simply sensible, responsible and respectable, and not indicative of a favorability or openness to increasing taxes.

With Baird retiring and Democratic fortunes waning, the third district of course now looks suddenly much more competitive for Republicans—a good thing in Herrera’s view, together with the fact that Washington’s “top two” primary system may suit her as a candidate who says she doesn’t like the idea of tacking one direction for a few months, and then tacking another for a few more.  “I’m not going to be promoting certain ideas in the primary and then different ideas in the general,” she says.  And, she thinks her personality and character will be an advantage to her throughout.  “I feel like if you’re the right person for the job, who you are is going to stick…  What I’ve done here in the state Capitol as a representative is to work hard to bring a fresh perspective and something of an independent voice, someone who’s not afraid to say ‘hey look, that doesn’t fly.’  I’m going to stand up for what I think is best for folks in our region.” she explains.

In the state house, that included voting against a domestic partnerships bill, also the focus of R-71, a ballot measure that passed last year (Herrera voted against it).  Herrera is conservative on other social issues, too—she says she is pro-life.  On the subject of climate change, she says “the crises that we’re seeing are not solely the result of man’s life here on Earth.”  But while this may make her sound somewhat Republican standard, Herrera is another Republican who shies away from the obvious answers to who her political heroes are and offers up Abigail Adams and Margaret Thatcher.  Of Adams, she says, “she was one of the most forward-thinking, not a feminist, but probably one of the most influential women in our nation’s history.”  But while observers might posit that she admires Adams, with regard to Thatcher, one gets the sense Herrera views her as more of a role model.  “[Thatcher] showed that you can stick to your principles and that leadership, people gravitate to it.  We need leaders in Washington, people who are completely unafraid to get on with what they think is right.”  Of course, that is something that undoubtedly Democratic leaders like President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have been doing, though their preferred approaches rankle Herrera’s conservative sensibilities.  How does she grade them?  Of Obama, she says “it’s not going to be any B+” and charitably offers up an “incomplete.”  For Pelosi, she urges an F, adding that “There are people who are completely unpolitical and it takes them about 10 seconds to form an opinion on Nancy Pelosi.”  Hillary Clinton does slightly better in her book, earning a C-.  Of Clinton, she adds, “She’s made trips to places, but has it actually effected change?  I’d say no.”

Herrera cops to being a PC in practice, but someone who has a certain admiration for Macs.  However, she unreservedly endorses the BlackBerry over the iPhone, saying “I know everyone’s got an iPhone, but I’m a BlackBerry person.  I need to have the buttons.”  For a former congressional staffer no doubt used to hammering out urgent emails quickly using that keypad, and looking to run flat-out from now until November, it’s not too much of a surprise she’s sticking with what’s tried, tested and familiar—though she’ll hoping third district voters might be in the mood for a little change.



Editorial note: The second paragraph of this post was updated, after it originally went live, to reflect that after having been appointed to Washington’s House of Representatives in 2007, in 2008, Herrera was elected with 60 percent of the vote.



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