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The Very Solid Case Against New Dem Rick Larsen

Ever wonder why a blue state like Washington only has one progressive member of Congress, Pramila? The others are all a bunch of Republicans and New Dems. The Republicans represent red districts and the Democrats represent blue districts. There really are no swing districts. And defeating an incumbent in a primary is one of the most onerous tasks in politics. Most candidates only want to talk about their own vision and not talk about what's wrong with their opponent. That's why so many primary challengers lose. I asked Jason Call if he's be willing and able to guest post a critique of his opponent. I didn't have to ask twice. Jason is running for Congress in Washington's 2nd Congressional District, challenging 10-term incumbent, New Democrat Rick Larsen. The district runs from Lynnwood at the King-Snohomish county border, north along the I-5 corridor for 75 miles to Bellingham, and includes the islands in the North Puget Sound.

It was Marianne Williamson who first brought Jason to our attention. He has a 30 year history of progressive activism which began when he was a sophomore at the University of Washington protesting the Desert Storm invasion of Iraq. As a high school math teacher of almost two decades, Jason was active in local and state unions, serving as building rep, association board member, and representative to the state assembly for many years. Jason's activism was integral in securing a statewide caucus win for Bernie in 2016, and he was subsequently elected to serve as a state committee member representing his county and legislative district, where he served for four years, writing and passing many progressive resolutions and assisting with rewriting the state party platform. Jason challenged Rick Larsen in the 2020 primary, garnering nealy 35,000 votes and missing the general election by a mere 1% of the vote (2500 votes), on a campaign budget that barely reached $50,000. In his personal life, Jason is a husband and father of two teens, and has been an active rock and roll musician for over 30 years with the bass guitar, getting his musical start in Seattle's underground punk scene in 1989. Jason is also a national gold medal winning meadmaker. If you want to help put a progressive bassplayin' meadmaker into Congress instead of a corporate shill, please consider clicking on the Blue America 2022 Congressional thermometer above and contributing what you can.

Washington's 2nd District: An Opportunity To Replace An Industry Lackey With A Real Progressive Champion

-by Jason Call and Ben Karpelman

I’ve lived in Rick Larsen’s district for the entire time he has been in Congress. My first direct interaction with him was around 2005, when he held a town hall event outdoor at a local minor league ballfield. There were about 500 people in attendance, and his aides were running up around the stadium seating with wireless microphones. Questions weren’t screened, and eventually the microphone came my way. As a high school teacher I was there to ask Larsen why he signed the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act, consigning many of my graduating students to loan debt that they would now be unable to shed in bankruptcy. To my surprise, I was met with what has become widely known in the district as a typical Larsen response (and I’m paraphrasing): “smarter people than you know what they are doing.” In other words, sit down peasant. In 2016, Larsen and I were both attendees at a debate watch, mostly a Clinton/Sanders tussle, in which former long-serving Rep Barney Frank was referenced by Clinton as a mentor on financial issues. Sitting behind Larsen I made a comment to a friend about how Frank’s mentorship didn’t inspire confidence, and Larsen turned around and said (not paraphrasing), “so you think you know more about economy than Barney?” I responded, “what I know about Barney is that he took more money than anyone in the history of Congress from the banking industry.” Larsen has interacted with constituents in similar fashion time and time again when challenged-- grudging exchanges rife with arrogance and disdain, particularly for progressives.

Prior to becoming a congressman, Rick Larsen was a lobbyist for the Washington State Dental Association. Records related to his lobbyist activity as reported to the State of Washington were obtained through a public records request with the Public Disclosure Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating political activity. His time working for WSDA connected him with lawmakers, their staff, and most importantly: powerful dental industry donors. Out of all of the sectors within the multi-billion dollar healthcare industry in Washington state, the dental lobby spends the most on campaign contributions to the State Legislature. Records don’t reveal much about his specific activities, but he did lobby on behalf of the WSDA regarding a bill that would have made it tougher for patients to lodge complaints with medical providers.

This deep pocketed network set him up comfortably for a successful run at the Snohomish County Council in 1998. Larsen would only end up serving half of the four-year term before his lobbyist friends elevated him to a successful run for Congress in 2000. Larsen’s predecessor, Republican Jack Metcalf, term-limited himself and left the seat open for that election. Larsen was swamped with money, and it’s likely that was the reason he sailed to victory. He raised an impressive $1,577,963 ($2.37 million in 2019 dollars) during the campaign, easily dwarfing his Republican and Democratic opponents. While a majority-- 55%-- of his contributions came from individual donors, almost half-- 45%-- were maxed out. In their January 2001 report, Look Who's Not Coming to Washington, the Public Interest Research Group found that “the majority of [2000] campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors and that many candidates couldn’t run or lost because of money”.

To that point, more money had been spent in the 2000 election than any other in American history. An unprecedented influx of wealthy donors pushed campaign finance laws to their limit, injecting $3 billion ($4.5 billion in 2019 dollars) into presidential and congressional races. “As fundraising continues to play a prominent role in American politics ,” the PIRG report warned, “it has begun to alter not only the legislative priorities of the country, but also the very people we elect as leaders”. Larsen was among the victors in 2000 their report called out. Entering Congress in 2001 as a member of "The Mods’ Squad," Larsen set out on a centrist agenda with West Wing-like aspirations of bipartisanship and deal-making.

During George W. Bush’s first term, Larsen didn’t mount much of a challenge to the agenda of a president who brought this country into two illegal wars. While voting against the Iraq War, Larsen earned a reputation of being a “strong advocate” for giving the Bush administration blank checks to continue funding the war. He endorsed other parts of Bush’s agenda like the 2005 Bankruptcy Bill, No Child Left Behind, repealing the estate tax, approving free trade agreements, and deregulating the fracking industry. In their September 2005 issue, The American Prospect ran a story called “The Defectors” that singled out Democrats in safe districts who were voting with Bush and the Republicans. “[Larsen’s district] is, on balance, fairly liberal-- George W. Bush lost the district in both 2000 and 2004-- and Larsen’s seat is secure. After a closer race in 2002, Larsen won this traditionally Democratic district last year almost 2 to 1,” wrote Robert Kuttner about the then-three-term congressman, “yet Larsen’s voting record doesn’t reflect these numbers”.

This theme has played out throughout his career. While supportive of key legislation like the Affordable Care Act and Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal, looking underneath the surface reveals more. Since taking office in 2001, Larsen has voted against only one Pentagon budget: 2015 when Obama vetoed it anyway. Otherwise, for every single bloated and corrupt Pentagon budget proposed by both Bush and Trump, Larsen voted yes. Further, he voted to permit the Bush administration to militarily strike Iran without Congressional approval. He did it again several years later for Obama when Libya was instead the intended target. Just last year, Larsen voted against a measure that would have cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10% in order to provide additional funds for pandemic relief.

It isn’t just foreign policy either, it’s domestic too. The first decade of his career included many moments where Larsen styled himself as a “reasonable deficit hawk”, even making an appearance on a 2004 panel on “Youth and Deficit Spending” where representatives from the far-right Heritage Foundation railed against taxes. In 2011, Larsen signed onto a letter to the Joint Select Committee of Deficit Reduction stating the importance, in his mind, of reducing the national deficit by $4 trillion. “All options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table,” the letter said. If that doesn’t sound like cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, then I have trouble understanding what else they could have been talking about.

While Larsen styles himself as an ally to labor, as the son of a union worker, his record says something different about how much he truly wants to help the working class. In 2014, when Seattle’s socialist city council member Kshama Sawant was fighting for a $15 minimum wage, Larsen instead endorsed a $10.10 minimum wage backed by the Obama administration. He only came around to supporting a $15 minimum wage proposal five years later in 2019, to be phased-in even later…by 2025. Also in 2014, Boeing proposed converting their workers’ pensions into 401(k) financial products, a move that was sharply denounced by the International Association of Machinists. In the fight, Larsen backed Boeing-- who has contributed $78,000 to his campaign as of 2020-- which led to the union revoking their endorsement of him. One IAM member reacted at the time saying “here we are, we campaign for this guy. We do doorbelling on Saturdays. We’ve given this guy our time, we’ve given him our money… and he turned on us”.

On climate change, Larsen has repeatedly disparaged the Green New Deal dismissing it as “not an important resolution”, adopting a tone much like that of Nancy Pelosi. Larsen has hung his environmental credibility for a decade on the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008 which placed a half million acres of land under federal protection as the Wild Sky Wilderness. While not necessarily a bad thing, it serves more as a feel-good piece than a landmark achievement in fighting the climate crisis. His reluctance to go further on climate may be influenced by the large sums of money his campaign receives from political action committees affiliated with the fossil fuel industry. For example, in June 2020 when the Arctic was reaching an unprecedented 100ºF, Citizens to Elect Rick Larsen accepted money from fossil fuel giant Phillips 66. Despite 2020 one of the warmest years on record, Citizens to Elect Rick Larsen also accepted $10,000 from Marathon Oil-- at the same time the campaign was telling voters that the climate crisis was a top priority.

This “do as I say, not as I do” attitude about climate is nothing new. In 2005, Dick Cheney had an amendment inserted into the Energy Act of 2005 which would exclude fracking fluids from regulation by the EPA under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Dubbed the "Halliburton Loophole," Larsen voted yes. Several years later, Larsen was the subject of a fundraiser hosted by Craig Cole. Cole is an owner of the grocery store chain Brown & Cole and was involved with organizations and actions that had misrepresented the efforts of the Lummi Nation while promoting the Gateway Pacific Terminal. In response to his actions, the Whatcom Watch called Cole “racist” and “anti-Indian”, statements that he sued them over in 2014.

On April 10th, 2012 activists from Socialist Alternative protested a fundraising event featuring Craig Cole for none other than his friend, Rick Larsen. At the time, the Gateway Pacific Terminal was facing heavy criticism from environmentalists and local tribal leaders over concerns about its intent to export millions of tons of coal and other fossil fuels responsible for the climate crisis. Emotional pleas were made to Bellingham's leaders from its residents-- sometimes with crowds of a thousand people-- to not approve of the terminal's development.

Nevertheless, Rick was given another thousand dollars from Craig that day, on top of the $27,550 received from him already. No matter how Rick may attempt to greenwash his record with platitudes offered to climate activists, he can never erase a long history of friendship with the fossil fuel industry. Larsen’s response for a decade has been “jobs”, but the reality is that these jobs are inevitably going to diminish and we should be taking advantage of opportunities to develop sustainable energy in Washington. Larsen is also one of the state’s biggest recipients of money from Puget Sound Energy, and continues to support fracking.

Similarly, Larsen has been on the wrong side, environmentally speaking, of the local “Navy Growler” issue. Whidbey Island Naval Air Station houses the Navy’s entire fleet of Boeing EA-18 Growlers, a modified F-18 Hornet with advanced electronic surveillance capacity. Since the Navy brought the jets to Whidbey, they have been a source of environmental and noise pollution in the Puget Sound, flying training missions year round, morning, noon and night at noise levels as high as 130 decibels. Last year, Larsen patted himself on the back by championing a bill that would permit the Navy to do a study on noise pollution, despite the local community documenting it for a decade. However, in typical fashion Larsen continues to dismiss constituent concerns, going so far as to tell a concerned man at a local picnic fundraiser last year, “this is not a town hall.” This has repeatedly been cited as a primary reason behind local Democratic Party organizations failing to endorse his re-election campaigns in recent years due to his arrogant attitude. In 2016 at a local party endorsement meeting, he was asked about his position on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal. He said he “didn’t have to talk about it because it [wasn’t] pending legislation.” He was denied the endorsement as a result.

On healthcare, Larsen has been a steadfast opponent of single-payer for years, always pivoting back to the Affordable Care Act and explaining that it’s basically the pinnacle of what he wants to see in the healthcare system. As such, he has been publicly rude to constituents challenging him on his healthcare position, even when presented with personal stories of loss and bankruptcy. Even the COVID crisis has not pushed him to reconsider his position on single payer, while companies like United HealthGroup posted record profits at the height of the pandemic. UHG is a Larsen donor, as is banking giant JP Morgan, which also posted record profits through the pandemic. No sooner had Dodd-Frank passed, Larsen sought to loosen those banking industry regulations, and has continued to join efforts to do so as recently as 2018.

Perhaps the biggest buried story on Larsen’s failure to serve the public good is directly related to his position on the Aviation Subcommittee of House Transportation. This is the committee that is supposed to provide Congressional oversight of the FAA and the aviation industry. Larsen has been the ranking minority member of the committee since 2013 and Chair since 2019. After the second crash of a Boeing 737 MAX jetliner, with the loss of hundreds of lives, it became clear that the oversight process had failed and had been failing for years, with the Transportation Department Inspector General complaining in 2015 that the decade old policy of allowing the aviation industry to certify parts of its own designs was not prioritizing oversight of high risk areas. Even two years prior to this, when investigating the 787 battery fires in 2013, Larsen and his committee recognized the flawed certification process for new technologies and the tendencies for companies to “self-certify” through employees appointed to fulfill the FAA’s regulatory role. He knew and did nothing to change it.

Added to this crisis of accountability was a culture of fear of retaliation in aviation industry workers for speaking out about potential design flaws. Despite the Boeing crashes, Congress continues to allow the industry to certify designs, on the heels of $3.9 billion spent by Boeing on lobbying in the second quarter of 2019 alone. Boeing sought a $60 billion dollar taxpayer bailout immediately after the COVID crisis hit, even though since 2013 they’ve bought back $43 billion of their own stock to inflate their value. Larsen, ever in Boeing’s corner, has epitomized conflict of interest by taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the aviation industry. And they’re still moving to South Carolina.

Larsen, like many corporate extremists, continues to downplay the influence of money on their policy positions. When asked recently if he would consider not taking corporate PAC money, he said emphatically that he would continue to take money from all potential donors except the gun and tobacco lobbies. Except, in 2008, his campaign accepted a contribution from tobacco giant Altria-- a donation he says he wasn’t aware of. Yet the influence of that money is blatant at times. In 2019, he received a $1,500 check from TransCanada (of Keystone XL fame) and the next day he tweeted out his support of pipelines. And while he speaks often of his opposition to Citizens United, he has benefited greatly from it. A full reckoning of Larsen’s corporate benefactors and their influence can be found at my website. I encourage all progressive candidates to dig into FEC filings and voting records to establish a similar narrative that assuredly exists for all corporate representatives.

Larsen spent the entire primary season in 2020 ignoring my campaign. It was a good strategy for him. With 6 Republicans-- none of whom with any actual chance of winning this D+10 blue seat-- I was the one person he didn’t want to go toe to toe with in the general election. In fact, a former county party chair told me that I was someone he was worried about running against him. Knowing we had mounted a serious challenge from the left, and knowing that many constituents were dissatisfied with Larsen’s attitude and voting record, Larsen rebranded himself as a grassroots environmentalist progressive, messaging that caused many people to reach out to me and comment that he’s a completely different candidate. But you can’t be grassroots when 75% of your funding comes from corporate sources, and when less than 5% of your funding comes from small donations (under $200). You can’t be an environmentalist when you are prioritizing the interests of Exxon Mobil. And you can’t be a progressive if you’re taking money from the Koch Brothers.

Larsen’s base of support is beginning to crack, and Democrats in WA-02 are increasingly aware of how out-of-touch their representative is with their beliefs: “Rep. Larsen is diverging from local public opinion on some key issues that are particularly important to our members, and overwhelmingly so to younger Democrats,” wrote Whatcom County Democratic Party chair Andrew Reding in Spring 2020 after they failed to endorse Larsen for re-election to his eleventh term, “but this is a wake-up call that holding to increasingly unpopular positions could open the way for a successful challenge by a more progressive candidate in this deep-blue district”

I intend to be that change.

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