Give ' Em Heck Or Satisfy Them With Sound Bites

LONGVIEW, Wash. The Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in Washington's 3rd District, Denny Heck, talks non-stop of creating economic opportunities for suffering Southwest Washington.

He would even deploy the district's volcano. Mt. St. Helens which blew its top, memorably, 30 years ago. Its namesake national volcanic monument has yet to produce even a dome-building eruption of tourist interest.

"The federal government should do for Mt. St. Helens what it does for Mt. Lassen in California," Heck, 58, argued at a candidates' debate. The Lassen volcano is a much-visited national park.

Heck is facing off against 31-year-old Republican State Rep. Jaime Herrera.

Questioned about jobs and economic recovery in the debate, Herrera answered: "Folks, it is time we break the federal government's stranglehold on the free enterprise system."

"Her answer to every challenge facing the country is cut, cut, cut! 'No!' is not a plan to create jobs," Heck countered.

Heck then turned to Herrera and asked what specific programs she would cut. Would she slice Pell Grants to students at Lower Columbia College? Army Corps of Engineers dredging of the Columbia River? Sediment retention dams on streams below Mt. St. Helens? Herrera smiled, did not answer, and noted that Heck's time was up.

The 3rd District is classic swing political turf. George W. Bush won here in 2000 and 2004: Barack Obama carried the district in 2008. A Democratic congresswoman was swept out of office by the Republican tidal wave in 1994. Four years later, the district picked a Democrat, Brian Baird, to fill the seat.

Southwest Washington is a land of political variety. The state capital, Olympia, is a liberal bastion. Just south is ultraconservative Lewis County, a John Birch Society hotbed in the 1960's and just as right-thinking now. Cowlitz County and Pacific County are centers of a long-ailing timber industry. Clark County is a fast-growing extension of Portland, its big neighbor across the Columbia River.

Herrera once worked for Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, an Eastern Washington congresswoman who is a junior member of the House Republican leadership. McMorris-Rodgers is a highly visible presence at Capitol Hill press conferences where John Boehner and Suits of the GOP leadership declare what they are against.

The National Republican Congressional Committee was out with a release boosting Herrera within two hours of Baird's retirement announcement. The NRCC has outspent its Democratic counterpart by six-to-one on Portland TV. Two ts GOP-aligned non-profits have pounded at Heck.

Heck has, however, made a race out of it. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has committed $650,000 to his campaign, and its national press secretary Andy Stone was on hand for this week's debate.

Dr. Jim McLaughlin, president of Lower Columbia College, wanted to hear specifics at the Longview debate.

At his college and nearby Clark College, noted McLaughlin, federal job training programs and Stimulus grants have retrained more than 1,000 people in new skills and "put them back to work." Would the candidates work to continue such programs?

"One of the highest returns on investment you can get is to allow people to develop their skill levels," Heck replied. He wondered, if the federal budget is slashed, "What's going to happen if you turn off the escalator?"

Herrera talked about working her way through college, knowing the value of an education. She then launched into a denunciation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

"Answer the question!" shouted a member of the audience. "She doesn't know how!" said another spectator.

"How 'bout a little respect?" asked one of the outnumbered Herrera backers.

"She has to earn it," came the rejoinder.

Herrera still leads in the polls. The question, however, is what kind of representation Southwest Washington wants in Congress.