Estakio Beltran was fresh out of college with little knowledge about politics when he packed his car and went to Washington, D.C.
Then 20, Beltran doesn't know what drove him to stop by Sen. Maria Cantwell's office for a coffee break with her constituents other than his passion for speaking out on behalf of his community.
"I was so green it was a miracle that I survived," said Beltran, one of 12 candidates running for the 4th Congressional District seat. "I hadn't been politically born yet. ... No one had engaged me, no one explained to me how important the political structure really is."
Beltran, a foster kid and Gonzaga University graduate, had plans to return to the Yakima Valley and become a family therapist so he could work with other youth in the foster system. But he was derailed when Cantwell, a Democratic senator, offered him a job and helped open his eyes to the impact decisions made in the nation's capital can have across the country and around the world.
Now 30, he hopes voters will send him to Congress "to be an effective voice for this community that raised me" and an advocate for all of Eastern Washington.
Beltran, of Yakima, is running as a Democrat for the seat long held by retiring Rep. Doc Hastings, R-WA. The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 5 primary will move on to this fall's general election.
Having spent his childhood in more than a dozen foster homes and many different cultures, he can relate to and empathize with a broad spectrum of people and recognizes "politics is always about people. The minute you forget that then you start losing sight of the real direction that we are to be headed," he said.
Beltran is very confident he has what it takes personally, mentally, physically and spiritually to hold federal office, he said.
"I'm doing it because I believe in service, I believe in giving back and I believe that I am the most experienced and only qualified candidate in the area and on the ballot," Beltran told the Herald. "I don't come from money, but I went from crawling on my hands and knees picking onions and cutting asparagus to walking the halls of Congress. I know what needs to get done there."
Beltran was admitted to Gonzaga on scholarship and graduated with bachelor's degrees in psychology and communications. He worked in the other Washington for seven years. He initially was tasked with answering phones and greeting people at the door in Cantwell's D.C. office, then was promoted to her special assistant and spent two years shadowing the senator while getting insight into the political landscape of his home state.
Beltran then went to work for Rep. Dennis Cardoza after hearing the California Democrat speak at a foster care event and realizing their shared passion for the subject. Beltran was senior legislative and child welfare policy advisor for five years for Cardoza, whose Central Valley district was similar to Eastern Washington with agriculture, trade and a high minority population.
After "practicing politics with a psychology degree," Beltran in 2012 decided to get a master's degree in public education from Columbia University in New York City. He returned to Yakima after graduation to care for his ailing father, who had surgery in January. And in March, after Hastings announced his retirement, Beltran decided to join the race "because the one thing that I know well is Congress."
Beltran is a strong supporter of completing the water storage projects for the Columbia and Yakima basins because agriculture is so important to the livelihood of those in Eastern Washington, he said. He believes the federal government needs to be an equal partner in the investment to help grow the economy and food supply. Farmers in the Yakima Valley haven't seen new storage since the 1930s, while the water table continues to drop for those who would be served by the Columbia project.
"To me it's astounding, and frankly hypocritical, when we have these farmers who are also candidates saying we need to do away with the federal government. Your family business can't afford to build a basin, bring water and create thousands of jobs for the area," Beltran said. "That's not a small government project. It takes smart government to come up with big ideas that have transformed time and time again not only the direction of this country, but also the safety."
Beltran also favors comprehensive immigration reform and has met with farmers in Okanogan who are bringing in workers from the Bahamas and other Caribbean countries, he said. That option is expensive and not a solution to the shortage of skilled labor.
"The American consumer has got to just face the choice of either having foreign workers pick our fruit and vegetables at home, or having workers pick abroad, which is what is going to happen when we've lost to agricultural competitors," Beltran said.
"For me it's about jobs, it's about maintaining our agricultural leadership and it's about unlocking our potential," he added. "We've got to realize this country has a long history of immigration and it has been our strength, not our weakness."
It's also important to choose a candidate who will work well with others because the federal government needs to live up to its commitment to Hanford, he said.
"If we have a leak that goes into our water supply or the soil, it could be devastating for our entire agriculture business. No one will want to buy apples that are tainted or drink that wine," he said.
Beltran is committed to enacting legislation that would dismantle a federal ban on the reprocessing of nuclear fuel so Eastern Washington could help secure the country's energy supply by using resources here at home, he said.
He also wants to bring accountability back to Washington, D.C., and would push a bill saying if there's another shutdown, all government officials would forfeit their pay for that year as a way of apologizing to their constituents for not doing their job, he said.
U.S. representatives receive an annual salary of $174,000 and are elected to two-year terms.
Beltran had raised $62,554 for his campaign through June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission. For a full list of his donors and those of the other congressional candidates, go to tricityherald.com/donors.
For more election stories, go to tricityherald.com/election.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter:@KristinMKraemer