WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a surprise move that shocked many, the well-established 3rd District Congressman from Washington state, Rep. Brian Baird has chosen not to run again.
Chinook Observer Editor and Publisher Matt Winters acknowledged, "Rep. Baird has been a super congressman for our area. It's hard for me to imagine replacing him."
Baird's decision is a loss for our region and a puzzle for many looking at the broader political landscape.
By phone in Washington, D.C., Baird commented on those who think he has ulterior reasons for stepping down at the end of this term.
"Let's examine this premise," he says, "that no father cares enough about his family to make that a legitimate reason to step down."
"What does that say about our culture?" he adds.
"I was on Mount Rainier with my family over the holidays - but one day a year is not enough."
"Why is that so difficult to accept - that a man with four-and-a-half-year-old twin boys wouldn't want to spend more time with them?" says Baird.
Centrist district "It's a crazy darn job," he continues, remarking on the busy schedule he has had and the number of high-visibility votes of late, including health care and troop increases in Afghanistan.
"It is such a privilege to serve this district," he says, "though there are a lot that would be easier to represent - an East Coast rock-solid Democratic district, for instance - but I would never want that."
Baird is commenting on the centrist position he has attempted and been mostly successful at negotiating for our corner of Washington.
The Third Congressional District straddles the I-5 corridor east, stretches south from the state capital in Olympia to the Oregon border, and reaches west to our coast, including both the urban and rural counties (in clockwise order geographically) of Thurston, Lewis, Skamania, Clark, Cowlitz, Wahkiakum and Pacific.
This territory spans the spectrum of liberal Democrat to conservative Republican; and Baird, who hails from Vancouver, has leaned one way or the other depending on the issues, for the most part straddling a moderate Democratic line.
He voted against the recent health care bill put forth in the House, when the vast majority of Democrats voted yes, and he expressed cautious support of Obama's plan for a 30,000-troop surge in the Afghan conflict, when the majority of Democrats wanted a withdrawal.
Chinook tribal recognition Earlier in the year Baird proposed a bill that would give the Chinook Tribe long-overdue tribal recognition. He promised a quick vote, which would take place in 2009.
"I'm working harder than ever to regain tribal recognition for the Chinook. We may not have it this year, as I had hoped, but we are well on the way," he says.
"The bill has been packaged - there are four tribal recognition bills moving forward - and we actually think it has a pretty good chance of passage early next year. Then we will have some work to do to get it through the Senate," he continues.
When asked about the rumor that tribal recognition bills have been sandbagged pending an overarching, comprehensive strategy, Baird responds, "Some representatives from our state and elsewhere may oppose any new tribal recognition because of gaming issues - and gaming may need to be reformed - but that applies to everyone, both existing and restored tribes."
"But let's not use that as an issue to hold up this bill for broader reform. The Chinook have waited long enough."
Not stepping backThough many will call him a lame duck, Baird intends to remain an active voice in issues that are near and dear to his heart and those of his constituency.
Baird, a clinical psychologist, has been particularly involved in the health care debate, holding both in-person town halls throughout the district as well as telephone workshops.
Additionally, he has been active in bringing the concerns of our rural area - particularly as they relate to fishermen, cranberry growers and farmers - to light. Baird was instrumental in including a wood fuel component in Obama's alternative energy bill, for example.
"I'm proud of my accomplishments in Congress, particularly those specific to the coastal areas," Baird says.
"We helped fight spartina grass in Willapa Bay. I went to bat for the cranberry growers with the Environmental Protection Agency."
"And there is still more work to be done - the fight for a health care plan is not over. I'm not quitting," he continues. "I will not back off one iota - not at all - we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
Many hats in the ring Baird's surprise announcement last Wednesday caused a ripple of activity and anticipation in the political arena of Southwest Washington.
The list of candidates, in both parties, who have indicated that they are considering a run for Baird's office is long and growing longer.
According to a recent Oregonian article, Republicans who have been mentioned or announced an interest in running include David Castillo, an Olympia financial adviser; Jon Russell, who serves on the Washougal City Council; and state Rep. Jaime Herrera of Vancouver.
Democrats include Sen. Craig Pridemore and Rep. Deb Wallace, both of Vancouver, and Rep. Brendan Williams of Olympia.
Washington State Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said by phone, "I would certainly be one of the first to try to talk Baird out of his decision - he has done a tremendous job of representing the third Congressional district."
But Hatfield added, "I am exploring a run. I'd be crazy not to at least consider a run, although I'm a single dad with a 12-year-old boy at home myself."
Hatfield acknowledged that the district has both far right and far left constituents and added, "This district needs a centrist voice."
Most pundits say that the district will be up for grabs by either party.
Too soon for endorsement It is too soon for Baird to make an endorsement for his seat, but he does have a clear idea what he would like to see in his successor.
"I hope that whoever represents our region will have the same passion and commitment for local and rural issues as I have - for oyster and cranberry growers, for issues related to the salmon recovery efforts, for tourism, the ports, Lewis and Clark," he said.
"I hope we can find someone who has the same level of involvement, someone who will put constituents above partisan politics, and someone with integrity and honesty."
"But in the meantime, I look forward to continuing to work with you," Baird concluded.