News Column

Fiscal 'Cliff' a Local Issue for Congressional Candidates

Oct. 7, 2012

Brad Shannon, The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)

Democrat Denny Heck often says the biggest issue driving his campaign in Washington's newest congressional district is jobs. He says a new Congress broken free of gridlock can avoid the nation's fiscal "cliff" and help spur hiring by businesses.

Rival Republican Dick Muri says jobs are a top worry nationally and a problem locally, but he also is worried about deficits and taxes. And he thinks the No. 1 issue for the new 10th Congressional District is the care of veterans and other veterans issues.

In the closing month of their campaign, the differences between the two finalists could not be much greater -- on taxes, budget cuts, health reform, climate change and social issues. The campaigns have developed different tactics, too, as they try to connect with voters in a sprawling new political turf that spreads from Shelton to University Place and Puyallup and includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord and almost all of Thurston County.

In the primary, Heck had a huge financial edge over five rivals and easily outpolled them all. The most recent Federal Election Commission from mid-July showed he had amassed nearly $1.4 million.

That was eight times what Muri had, and it presages a huge advantage for Heck headed toward the Nov. 6 election. Barring a last-minute entry into the race by out-of-state super PACs or a large infusion of funds for Muri, Heck could be the only candidate hitting the television airwaves after ballots go out in mid-October.

Muri remains undaunted, and he's been showing up at numerous community forums and candidate nights that Heck is not attending. And he's calling attention to Heck's absences and questioning how Heck -- whose financial support includes donations from labor groups and political committees in the nation's capital -- can be free from special interest influence.

"He's 0 for 3 at candidate forums," Muri said last month at a Steilacoom Chamber of Commerce forum in his hometown, pointing to an empty chair at the end of the row that was meant for Heck. "I'd like to get to know the guy."

Heck bristles at the idea he is ducking joint appearances, arguing that he has agreed to four debates with Muri, including a League of Women Voters event Thursday in Olympia and another on KCTS 9 television that airs Oct. 22.

"What's the right number? ... Eight, 12, 15?" Heck asks.

FINDING AN EDGE IN NEW 10th DISTRICT

After a decade of population growth gave Washington its first new congressional district since 1992, there was speculation the 10th could be one of state's most competitive seats. Redistricting changed that equation, leaving the district with a lean toward Democrats. Meanwhile, political action committees have been focused instead on the state's redrawn 1st District north of Seattle, which Jay Inslee left to run for governor.

Without a barrage of negative ads, 10th District voters may find something to like about both men who are married and have adult children. Each is successful and in his second or third career, and each has a resume of public service.

Heck is a former state legislator from Vancouver who served in 1977-85 and quickly rose to House majority leader. He later served as chief of staff for Gov. Booth Gardner, ran unsuccessfully for state schools superintendent in 1988, and after leaving politics grew wealthy by investing in high-tech and starting small businesses.

Muri, a Massachusetts native, earned an environmental health degree and then joined the Air Force. He served for 22 years, much of it stationed at McChord Air Force Base, now JBLM.

Muri's entire career has been in the public sector, including stints on the Steilacoom School Board. He is now in his ninth year on the Pierce County Council where he says he worked with minority Democrats to pass unanimous budgets.

Both candidates claim advantages in the 10th District. Muri says the military base makes him a natural fit, given his long acquaintance with military issues and sensitivity to veterans concerns. He said he has earned numerous endorsements from military personnel.

"I think you'll find me going back there as a principled conservative who works well with other people," Muri told one newspaper editorial board, adding that he'll be willing "to stand up to everybody," including military contractors, while looking out for veterans.

Heck is drawing on his long and deep associations with Olympia, where he co-founded the TVW public-affairs network and has endorsements from high-profile figures like Gov. Chris Gregoire. He also is the longtime bridge partner of Dean Foster, one of four Redistricting Commission members who helped craft the district's boundaries.

DISAGREEING ON TAXES, HEALTH CARE

Muri and Heck agree on a few issues. Both want to make sure military personnel receive good medical care and are looked after once they have served. Both want to hasten the end of America's military occupation in Afghanistan. And both want to make sure budget cuts don't leave the country unsafe or harm the military base that supports the local economy.

But they disagree on most everything else: how many Bush-era tax breaks to end, how to shrink the federal budget deficit, whether to move forward on President Obama's health reform, the legalization of gay marriage and abortion rights, and how to deal with climate change.

On the budget, Muri favors a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. He is pledging to vote for a repeal of Obamacare and says he signed anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist's pledge not to vote for tax increases. On the question of Bush-era tax breaks, Muri says they all should be extended -- at least short term.

If elected, Muri said he expects to tussle with other Republicans over cutting farm subsidies and ending tax breaks. He doesn't specify which tax breaks he'll seek to end. He also says that any such reductions in tax breaks would have to be revenue neutral, balanced by cuts in other tax rates, which means they would not actually reduce deficits.

"I'll be one of those guys who'll say, 'let's have a level playing field,'" Muri said.

Heck takes a sharply different view, favoring a mixture of repealed tax breaks for the wealthy and spending cuts. He says the gridlock in Congress over deficits and the House Republicans' refusal to consider taxes -- what he calls the Tea Party Congress -- is pushing the country toward a "fiscal cliff."

Heck says a balanced approach -- perhaps $3 in cuts for every $1 in new taxes -- is what the Congress ultimately can and should move toward. Specifically, Heck says Bush-era tax rates should end only for those earning more than $250,000 a year, which is Obama's plan. But on the estate tax, which is scheduled to jump to a top rate of 55 percent, Heck says he would support a lower rate.

Both Heck and Muri say JBLM is too important strategically for the nation's Asian-Pacific defenses to be reduced in a big way. And Heck points to wanting a larger role for local contractors that serve the base.

But Muri has said in several venues he thinks everyone should "take a haircut" in the budget cuts needed to end trillion-dollar federal deficits. Even when it comes to budget cuts and the military, Muri says he thinks "we could spend less and still be safe."

On same-sex marriage and abortion, each candidate mostly sides with his party's mainline views. Heck supports Referendum 74 to legally recognize gay marriages; Muri is opposed. Heck supports letting women decide if they want an abortion; Muri makes only one exception to his no-abortion position: to spare the life of a mother.

CONTRASTS ON ENERGY POLICY

The two candidates also split sharply on energy policy and global warming, and how they relate to the economy.

Heck says the scientific argument over human contributions to climate change is over, and he favors looking for a solution. He favors tax breaks for clean energy, thinks this is the wrong time for a tax on the carbon content of fuels and sees a chance to take smaller steps that make wider use of conservation. He mentions retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and using smarter technology for the electricity grid.

By contrast, Muri said last week that he favors an all-fuels energy policy that includes coal, nuclear power and "limited amounts" of wind and solar. The candidate is skeptical of a human role in global warming and talks about threats he learned of a coming ice age when he was an environmental health student in the 1970s.

At the same time, he says it makes sense to move away from fossil fuels that have a limited life of "20 to 50 or 100 or more years."

UPDATED to clarify that Heck favors ending Bush-era income tax breaks for those earning more than $250,000.



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Source: (c) 2012 The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.)