EDMONDS — Since finishing second in August’s primary election, Seattle attorney Ron Bemis has been hounding incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott to debate him in public.
McDermott said he has no interest in going one-on-one with the political newcomer. The 12-term Democratic congressman from Washington’s 7th District said he’s happy to speak to crowds when invited, as both candidates did in Edmonds earlier this month. He’s unsure what a debate arranged by politicians would accomplish.
“When the community wants it, I’m there,” McDermott said. “To try to gin one up just for political purposes, that doesn’t work anymore.”
To Bemis, McDermott’s stance denies voters the chance to compare their positions and records, particularly about managing the federal budget.
“He’s declined, at this point, to have any meaningful debate and I think it’s a real disservice to voters,” said Bemis, who describes himself as an political independent with Republican leanings.
Every two years, challengers line up to tell voters they need to replace McDermott. Their campaigns accuse the unabashedly liberal congressman from Seattle of being in office too long, of being out of touch with voters or of failing to do enough to reign in federal spending.
Every time, so far, voters have rewarded McDermott with a landslide victory. Some recent totals: 83 percent in 2010 and 83.7 percent in 2008, when a similar number of the district’s voters backed Barack Obama for President.
In the Aug. 7 primary, McDermott received 70.9 percent of the vote and Bemis 15.2 percent, making him the top runner-up among a half-dozen candidates.
This time around, as McDermott seeks his 13th term, the political geography has shifted. Last year’s redistricting process added Edmonds and Woodway to the 7th District, extending it into Snohomish County for the first time. The new district also includes much of Seattle, Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Burien and Normandy Park.
With little cash on hand and no previous experience running in a general election, unseating the incumbent promises to be a tall order for Bemis.
The men have starkly different approaches.
Bemis, going on offense, accuses McDermott of being an ineffective representative and one of the biggest spenders in Congress.
“They say if you’re in a hole, stop digging, and Jim McDermott is the lead digger,” Bemis said.
McDermott, unruffled, said the spending cuts Bemis wants to make have consequences: They could dry up money for regional infrastructure projects that support businesses, education for people entering the workforce and grants awarded to spur scientific innovation.
“I disagree with him that everything is about debt,” McDermott said. “You have debt. I have debt. Everybody who owns a house has debt.”
McDermott said Republican U.S. President George W. Bush piled on enormous debt while in office by failing to balance the costs of two wars, tax cuts and a Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
“Find me a person in my district who really thinks we’re getting our money’s worth in Afghanistan,” he said.
On social issues such as same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, Bemis said his policy, if elected to federal office, would be to avoid interfering in state issues.
“I don’t consider myself ideological. I consider myself pragmatic, caring and a problem-solver,” he said.
McDermott said Washington state can lead the way on those fronts for the rest of the country.
“We’re about to become the first state in the nation that legalizes marriage for everybody,” he said. “It’ll be the first case where the general population has made the decision, not just the politicians.”
McDermott on legalizing pot: “I’ve always thought that an awful lot of what we’re doing is wasteful in terms of our spending on the war on drugs.”
McDermott, 75, has been in Congress since 1989. He was born in Chicago and moved to Seattle in the 1960s after medical school to specialize in psychiatry. He later served in the U.S. Navy at Long Beach Naval Station, treating soldiers and sailors returning from the Vietnam War.
He moved back to Seattle in 1970 and won his first election to the Legislature that year. He served in the state House and the state Senate until 1987, then launched his congressional career a year later. He has two grown children.
When not working in Washington, D.C., meeting with constituents back home or making the rounds on MSNBC, McDermott enjoys practicing the sumi style of Japanese brush painting, attending Seattle Sounders soccer games and reading Scandinavian mystery novels. He also likes to read about India, a country he said he’s visited 23 times.
While McDermott was serving as a Navy doctor in Long Beach, Bemis was living in the same city, keeping busy as a scholar and athlete at Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
Bemis, 61, said he’s proud of having attended a public schools and coming from a family of public-school teachers, who include his wife, his mother, his sister and his grandparents.
“I’m passionate about public education as a great opportunity for all,” he said.
He studied at Oregon’s Willamette University and at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. He earned his law degree in 1976, the year he moved to Seattle.
Since then, Bemis has spent more than three decades as a litigator, representing plaintiffs and defendants. He teaches courses at the University of Washington Law School. For three years, he served on the board of trustees for the King County Bar Association.
Bemis also has two grown children. Among his interests, he lists American history, biking, jogging, skiing and travel. He said he’s sung in choirs since seventh grade, and enjoys composing music on the piano, which he learned to play by ear. He prefers music from the ’60s and ’70s.
Federal Elections Commission fundraising reports showed McDermott having raised $450,842 for the race. Bemis said he’s raised about $25,000.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington’s 7th Congressional District
The term is two years; the annual pay is $174,000.
Experience: Civil attorney, legal educator
Experience: Congress, 12 terms; Washington state House, 43rd District, 1971–1972; Washington State Senate, 43rd District, 1975–1987; U.S. Navy psychiatrist.