Exit Sunny Jim

When I moved back to Seattle in 1990 – sick of work and life in Washington, DC – George H. W. Bush was the new president, and Seattle had just elected a new congressman from the 7th District, a former psychiatrist and state legislator named Jim McDermott.

I tried hard to like McDermott. He was always friendly to me (and everyone else), and I agreed with him on most issues. I admired his opposition to U.S. wars (at least when a Republican was in the White House), and I appreciated his staunch advocacy for a single payer health system. But over the years I couldn’t help but notice that McDermott, in one of the safest Democratic seats in the country, never actually did anything.

Nearly three decades later, McDermott, now 79, has finally announced his retirement. After an entire generation in Congress, he’ll primarily be remembered for three things: his unsuccessful push for single payer, his illegal exposure of illegal activities by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and his staunch, if futile, opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which earned him the nickname “Baghdad Jim.”

In hindsight, McDermott was right about Iraq. But for all his noisy, usually fruitless advocacy, he was remarkably ineffective at the normal things long-term congresspeople achieve. He has no signature legislation to his name. If Seattle interests wanted money, legislation, or favors from Congress, they went to one of the senators, Patty Murray or Maria Cantwell, because they got things done. For all his seniority, he never rose to any position of real power even in his own caucus, let alone the House.

His only real utility to his party colleagues in three decades was his illegal takedown of Gingrich and, in 2009-10, being one of the only Democratic physicians in Congress – meaning that he got a few improvements to the Affordable Care Act done behind the scenes, a bill that never even seriously considered a public option, let alone single payer/ In return, he was used as a visible, “expert” Congressional advocate for a bill he was ideologically opposed to. It was sad, really. For at least the last decade, a lot of local Democrats have been quietly, impatiently waiting for Sunny Jim to go away.

Now he has, and the Democratic vultures who would replace him have wasted no time circling, smelling a rare chance for a lifetime sinecure in Congress. Rep. Brady Walkinshaw got in first last month, announcing even before McDermott formally announced his retirement. Mayor Ed Murray had been angling for the job for years, but he has another new job now. Since he and a number of his allied city council candidates share Walkinshaw’s political consultant, Christian Sinderman, it’s a safe bet Walkinshaw checked with Murray before announcing. In short order, he’s already raised over a quarter million dollars, and at 31, he’s young enough to pile up lots of seniority in a long congressional career. As an appointee to the state house who has never actually faced a competitive election, Walkinshaw is also exactly the kind of “moderate” Democrat the local establishment loves: a reliable vote who doesn’t really ever do anything and is notably more conservative than Seattle voters. Jim McDermott, at least, had a personality and took strong progressive stances on issues. That, not his ineffectiveness, was why he never got much traction in his own party. Walkinshaw is much more their style.

A number of other Democrats are reported or rumored to be interested in the seat, including two who share Walkinshaw’s blandness: Sen. David Frockt (ZZZ-46), who has a similarly undistinguished record in Olympia, and county councilman Joe McDermott. Former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan is on most observers’ lists, but that’s been true for most prominent local jobs in recent years, and her window of opportunity has likely passed. Sen. Pramila Jayapal is relatively young, progressive, extremely ambitious, and has a formidable local network – the only question is whether she’ll run this year or wants to wait for a U.S. Senate seat to open up. There’s a strong push for local socialist icon Kshama Sawant – including a post urging her to run from Bernie Sanders’ office, which, especially this year, would be a huge advantage. At least one prominent local Democrat thinks there is “zero down side” to her jumping in the race, but as yet she’s expressed no interest.

Other names being bandied about: former mayor Mike McGinn, Reps. Reuven Carlyle and Gerry Pollet, city councilman Mike O’Brien, county councilman Rod Dembowski, and ambitious Port of Seattle commissioner Courtney Gregoire. Jayapal and Sawant don’t live in the district (which no longer includes South Seattle), but, amazingly, that’s not a requirement for Congress.

To wage a competitive campaign, candidates will likely need to raise at least a million dollars. Local voters will likely skew left this fall, with a presidential race and potential ballot measures on a statewide minimum wage hike, paid sick leave, and a carbon tax driving progressive turnout. The best case scenario? A crowded primary with real choices. The worst case? A choice between two mainstream Democrats in November, either of which would spend the next three decades enriching their friends and blandly continuing to use Seattle’s safe, wealthy district to do absolutely nothing.

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