TENINO – U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez scored Congress’ biggest upset win last November and has upset some in her party by positioning herself in both Washingtons as a “blue-dog Democrat.” She has taken the faith to conservative corners of Southwest Washington and held her 11th town meeting before 65 constituents in this “red” corner of progressive Thurston County.
“I’ve been mayor for more than a decade and we’ve never had a visit: This is the fourth time you’ve been around,” said Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier, who served as master of ceremonies. Words welcomed by MGP, who stresses her independence. “I vote with my party eight out of ten times,” she told constituents. “I vote with my constituents ten out of ten times.”
It’s not your Seattle town meeting. Gluesenkamp-Perez has traveled the 3rd District talking about her work on the House Agriculture Committee and the upcoming Farm Bill. The former co-owner of a Portland auto repair shop has found a defining amendment, with which she has a Republican co-sponsor. She calls it “the right to fix your stuff.”
MGP has aligned herself with a grassroots protest by farmers against John Deere, the manufacturing giant. The company makes a new generation of high-tech tractors with computer systems. But the company has proven secretive with information, forcing farmers to return to dealerships when repairs are needed.
The industry-aligned American Farm Bureau Federation reached an agreement early this year. Deere promises to divulge technical information to farmers and independent repair shops. But the accord has no enforcement provisions. Moreover, the Farm Burau promised not to support “right to repair” language in the Farm Bill.
The blue-dog Democrat says that dog don’t hunt. A rainstorm or hailstorm can ruin a crop, or damage a crop, in a few hours. “Millions of dollars of hay are lost” due to delays caused by having to take equipment into the dealer, MGP told listeners.
Gluesenkamp-Perez narrowly defeated MAGA Republican Joe Kent, after Kent ousted six-term GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in last year’s primary. Kent took controversial stands, saying that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be tried for murder, and opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine in language that sounds like Kremlin talking points. Ads for MGP’s campaign featured longtime Herrera Beutler supporters saying they couldn’t bless a candidate backed by right-wing militias.
Kent is running again. The far-right challenger of 2022 has been endorsed by the Washington State Republican Party. He has held a fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club, the watering hole across the street from House office buildings where Congress’ Republicans stage events and dial for dollars. Kent has described Gluesenkamp-Perez as a “woke extremist.”
In a polarized America, as MGP has discovered, those in the center take incoming fire from both extremes. Gluesenkamp-Perez was criticized in a snarky Slate piece, saying she has “opposed and undercut the president” and has “alienated activist groups.” The same day, Fox News sought to link MGP with the Antifa, the far-left anti-fascist street movement embroiled in Portland street battles.
“Do you support the Antifa?” said a question from one Martin Miller. “I have a real bone to pick with left-wing violence,” replied Gluesenkamp-Perez. She explained that such violence drove her parents from Mexico, adding: “I believe political violence is one of the largest threats to our country.”
She later took a shout-out against polarization and in defense of centrist politics. “Both sides have a lot at stake in preventing that middle,” said MGP. “This polarization has made us lonely as a nation.” Thanksgiving dinner has become “a minefield,” Gluesenkamp-Perez lamented, in which families’ political differences are laid bare.
MGP won her seat, in part, by carrying populous Vancouver’s Clark County. The other tactic was to outrun other Democrats, most notably Sen. Patty Murray, in Washington’s “rust belt.” Gluesenkamp-Perez stumped rural areas and ran about five points ahead of Murray: She carried Pacific County, which the six-term senator lost.
The Democratic Party has neglected Southwest Washington. Gov. Jay Inslee has spent more time preening at climate conferences overseas than he has in places like Cowlitz County. He touts biofuels projects in Moses Lake but never bothers to show up at Pacific County Democrats annual crab feed, oldest continuous political event in the state.
The result is that counties carried long-ago by liberal presidential candidate George McGovern are now solidly in the Trump column. Conservative county commissioners spouting anti-government jargon have been elected in counties that need to reach out for infrastructure investment.
“I don’t see myself as a political operative for a party,” MGP said in an interview after her town meeting. As to the Democrats, “When the party was a pit bull for working people, it was at its best.” She has championed such projects as $40 million for a broadband project in Lewis County, a conservative bastion that gave Joe Kent a 10,000-plus majority last November.
“You will annoy people on both sides,” MGP told constituents. “All that I can do is show up, go to town halls and talk to you.” Town halls can get rough. Herrera Beutler had enough in her first term, resorting to coffee gatherings with screened attendance. Sen. Murray has gone years without holding a town meeting, preferring get-togethers with those who support her issues. By contrast, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, hold hundreds all over the state.
Reps. Rick Larsen and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., are skilled retail politicians. Larsen uses wit to disarm wacko-bird Bellingham liberals as well as far-right Christian nationalists. Kilmer is emerging as an influential lawmaker in Washington, D.C., but Olympic Peninsula constituents want him on stage in high school lunchrooms answering questions.
Asked who she considers mentors or close friends in Congress, Gluesenkamp-Perez names not a single Democrat in the Washington delegation. Instead, she mentions Reps. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, and Jared Golden, D-Maine, two fellow co-chairs of the “Blue Dog Coalition” in the House. The blue dogs were once a power block of more than 40 Southern and moderate Democrats. They now number just eight, a reflection of polarization.
MGP even has kind words for the delegation’s two Republicans, U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. She serves with Newhouse on the Agriculture Committee and added: “Cathy is one of the few women I see in the (House) gym.“ MGP is on their side in opposition to removing four Army Corps of Engineers dams from the Snake River, which have severely damaged once-great salmon and steelhead runs. “We are still burning coal in this country,” she said. “Now is not the time to take green energy (hydro power) off the grid.”
What has really set Democrats off? Along with Golden, MGP was one of two Democrats who bucked President Biden on student debt, voting with Republicans to throw out Biden’s plan for debt relief. She has demanded that debt forgiveness be matched dollar-for-dollar with money for career and technical education.
MGP speeches are filled with advocacy for people who “make stuff,” “fix stuff” and grow food. She argues that higher gas prices are a burden on rural Americans. “We are giving tax breaks to people driving Teslas,” she said. “Let’s make clean energy so cheap that it crowds out fossil fuels, not be raising prices on gasoline.”
lt sure isn’t your Pramila Jayapal town meeting, with liberal heads nodding in unison. Nor the identity politics of the 36th District Democrats in Seattle. Not since House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane has a Democrat in the delegation paid such back-home attention to agriculture issues and the Farm Bill. Although a graduate of Portland’s Reed College, MGP manages to mention that her mother comes from Forks.
It’s both service to her district and a formula for political survival. “When we can have a human-scale conversation, that is how you defang the national division,” she said.