One doesn’t spend 18 years in Congress without making both friends and enemies, as Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, has learned.
His friends would appear to be a majority of voters in the 4th Congressional District, who have returned him to office with more than 60 percent of the vote in every election since 1998. Hastings, 71, also benefits from a well-oiled fundraising machine that has far usurped those of his opponents.
This year, there are three candidates from different political backgrounds seeking to replace him, all alleging he is out of touch with the district and beholden to special interests. They are Democrat Mary Baechler, 56, of Yakima; Republican and tea party activist Jamie Wheeler, 46, of Kennewick; and Dr. Mohammad Said, 73, of Ephrata, who is registered as a Democrat but says he also represents the American Centrist Movement.
Baechler said it’s dubious that Hastings, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, should be able to wield influence over those policies while at the same time receiving thousands of dollars in donations from oil, gas and mining companies. She says if she were congresswoman, she wouldn’t take donations from groups with an interest in shaping her policy on issues.
“You can’t take a judge out to lunch and hand him thousands of dollars when he’s going to hear your case,” said Baechler, the former community organizer of the nonprofit Central Washington Progress. “I think Congress should be held to the same standard.”
Hastings said contributions to his campaign, which amount to more than $1 million so far in this election cycle, don’t shape policies such as opening up new drilling areas in the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic. He said his policy proposals create jobs, and individuals, corporations and political action committees contribute based on their support for his actions.
“I’m very pleased to get support from anyone who agrees with my political philosophy,” Hastings said. “The people who won’t contribute to me are the people who think government should be more in control of people’s lives.”
Hastings said 75 percent of his donors are from Washington. But only six of the 88 donors who made an individual contribution of $2,500 or more are from the state, according to the most recent Federal Elections Commission filings.
Neither Baechler, Said nor Wheeler has filed financial contribution reports with the Federal Elections Commission, though Baechler said she will this month. It is unclear how much Said or Wheeler has received, but Wheeler said she is deliberately capping contributions to her campaign at $4,995 to avoid the federal reporting requirement that comes with receiving $5,000 or more in contributions.
That may look shady to some voters, but Wheeler said she is trying to prove how frugal she can be with campaign contributions as a primer for managing the federal budget. An in-home care provider who works erratic hours and makes about $20,000 a year, Wheeler said much of her campaign will be conducted over social media and through grass roots support.
“The best form of advertising is word of mouth,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said she voted for Hastings in all of his previous elections, but now says Hastings isn’t conservative enough to make needed cuts to government spending.
For starters, Wheeler supports defunding the federal Department of Education, the Internal Revenue Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, arguing they are either overbearing or inefficient at serving the public. She also wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act or stop providing funds for it.
Hastings voted for $60 billion in cuts to the federal budget in February 2011. The measure passed the House on a party line vote with 10 Republicans voting alongside Democrats against the cuts, but the legislation as it was written never gained traction in the Senate.
Hastings has also voted numerous times, including a vote in June, to defund or repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Said, a physician who said he is a Palestinian by birth, is focused more on foreign policy than domestic issues, though he says cutting spending abroad in addition to cutting the loans the government takes from foreign nations is key to turning the economy around. He said he opposes potential military action against Iran and wants a “nuclear free” Middle East, including the disarmament of Israel’s nuclear weapons.
Said also said he would not take any money from political action committees, or super PACs.
The Medical Quality Assurance Commission, which oversees medical licensing in the state, charged Said with unprofessional conduct Jan. 31, 2011, based on allegations he violated a 2008 agreement banning him from treating chronic pain patients with controlled substances for more than a 90-day period. Charges filed by the commission are not criminal but can result in probation, suspension or revocation of a medical license. Said said he committed no wrong and has a lawyer handling the matter.
Said is registered as preferring the Democratic Party, which he candidly said was the result of expecting to receive an endorsement from the Fourth Congressional District Democrats. The party endorsed Baechler instead, which Said contends had more to do with him being an outsider rather than a member of the party’s “elite.”
“I respect (Baechler), she’s a nice lady, but she knows nothing about politics,” Said said.
As the community organizer of Central Washington Progress in 2011, Baechler led voter initiatives to create voting by district in Yakima City Council elections and to create a home rule form of government for Yakima County. Both efforts failed.
Baechler was eventually fired from the group by its Seattle-based sponsor, the Win/Win Network, but not before she filed a complaint in Yakima County Superior Court alleging nonpayment of overtime, retaliation and discrimination. The matter is still tied up in litigation.
But Baechler, who also breeds horses, likes to talk more about her entrepreneurial skills. She along with her then-husband created and marketed the Baby Jogger before selling the company in 2003, and Baechler said it’s her experience directing a multi-million dollar company that makes her fit to manage.
Baechler said she favors tax increases on the wealthiest households while also favoring tax cuts that would encourage consumers to spend. Baechler also wants to preserve the Social Security and Medicare programs in their current form, while Hastings favors a voucher system for Medicare recipients and a diversion of younger workers’ Social Security taxes into personal investment accounts.
“I don’t think people realize these programs are under the gun,” Baechler said. “This is privatization and if it goes forward it would be an enormous windfall to insurance companies.”
Wheeler called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and favors private investment accounts as well as raising the age limit for benefits.
Hastings, despite his notoriety among Democrats as being too right-wing, said the Natural Resources Committee passes bipartisan legislation on a regular basis, and he is working with state Democrats such as Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, in moving the state’s nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.“That has strong bipartisan support save for Harry Reid,” Hastings said of the Senate majority leader from Nevada, who led efforts to defund the location of a radioactive waste repository there in 2010.
Baechler said it’s a good year to run following the 2010 sweep into control of the House by Republicans. She said she drives 500 miles a week around the district, and when she meets voters they ignore the party label attached to her.
“I trust the voters,” Baechler said. “They’re really smart and they’re paying attention.”
Said predicted a continuation of politics as usual should his candidacy not last beyond the Aug. 7 primary.
“If I do not make it, the real loser will be the district,” Said said. “The real loser will be the United States of America.”
Wheeler said she predicts Hastings and herself will win the primary because of district voters’ hard Republican lean in recent elections. “I’m not really concerned,” she said.
But if past elections and fundraising are any indication, Hastings is the favorite to win the primary and the general elections.
“I must reflect the majority or I wouldn’t be elected,” he said.