Press Talk: Looking behind the scenes

The Columbian - Local News
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Press Talk: Looking behind the scenes

When word first reached me that former State Rep. Jim Moeller was planning to get back into the game, “Godfather III” popped into my mind.

Look, Moeller is about as far away as you can get from a cunning, retired Mafia boss but the line — that line — the one when a tortured Michael Corleone laments his lot in life and growls…

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

But Moeller was quick to correct me. There was no “they.” There was only him.

“Nobody else wanted me to run,” he said demurely.

“Nobody else?” I asked.

“Nobody else wanted me to run,” he repeated.

Let that swirl around your brain for a minute. Nobody. Moeller has been a great friend and supporter of all things liberal, including the very powerful public employee unions. That side of the community base owes him plenty and they know it. But here is Moeller, proclaiming his traditional support base is … eroding.

So there he is. A 63-year-old seasoned Democratic politician out on this limb. On his own. He faces the prospect of running for the District 1 county council seat against another seasoned politician, 71-year old Republican Jeanne Stewart, the incumbent.

But that isn’t the only problem for Moeller in this race. An upstart — a youngster if you will — the intellectually gifted 43-year-old Temple Lentz wants to play. She is finished waiting patiently on the Democratic bench and wants in. She had bounced around the local political pinball machine for some time and saw this particular county council seat as her moment.

Sure, she will have to face Stewart as well. But Stewart would likely be considered the easy mark. That’s because Stewart finds herself in a uniquely awkward position running for re-election. Let me explain.

The last time Stewart ran for county council, the entire county voted in the election. This time around, the rules have changed. Only voters in District 1 will decide the outcome.

And that’s not good news for the conservative Stewart. You see District 1 represents a large chunk of Vancouver. Let’s see … how to describe the difference between Clark County and Vancouver? Hmmmm? Think of Clark County as meat and potatoes and Vancouver as coconuts and fruit drinks. I’m not exactly sure what I just said there, but relax and appreciate there is a wide swing between the conservative unincorporated areas of the county and Vancouver.

The point being Stewart can no longer rely on the meat-and-potatoes vote and will have to figure out how to sway all those coconuts. And if my math is correct, that won’t be easy. I took a peek at the precincts that comprise District 1 and counted how Stewart did — in those precincts — in her last election.

(Look away now if you’re a Republican.) Stewart only won a handful of those precincts. And when you add up her votes? Well, she came away with about 40 percent. It ain’t pretty.

Thus, Lentz’s decision that now is her time. She’s a card-carrying ?ber liberal (do they still give out cards?) like Moeller, and a proud progressive. So District 1 — full of coconuts — is just what the doctor ordered.

But that pesky Moeller. For a year he had been signaling that he was getting bored. But it was also a year ago that Lentz knew she was ready. So she went to Moeller to talk. Her hope, of course, would be that when Moeller heard she wanted in, he would politely step aside. He had had his turn. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone sitting on the bench — that would be Lentz — could get called into the game?

To be clear, Lentz never asked him to step aside. She simply said that she was getting in.

Moeller smiled — he always smiles — and said he was happy for her. He wished her all the best but said he was still going for it.

Moeller’s decision to be in the race did not, however, push Temple out.

“I don’t think that I’ve ever been accused of being somebody who waits for permission,” she said.

This political backroom negotiating is pretty common but there was something a little unusual — for me — in this particular case.

When Moeller stepped down from the state Legislature two years ago to challenge U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, he said he did so because the Democrats had a strong bench of hopeful candidates. It would be a good idea, he said, to let them step up.

And guess who was part of that strong bench back then? Lentz. So why, I asked, is he not following his own advice? Lentz is stepping up. Shouldn’t he be getting out of her way?

Moeller’s response? Now that he has retired, he considers himself to be on the bench, too. So he’s sort of calling himself into the game. Huh?

Moeller also told me — only days before he would have to sign on the dotted line to get into the race — that he would not run against Lentz. Now to normal people — I’m including myself here — that sounds like he would not get into the race, right?

But to Moeller “not running against” means something entirely different. I guess it means he won’t campaign against her. If that’s the case, what kind of campaign will he be waging? I get that he’ll concentrate on Stewart, but you must differentiate yourself from all candidates in any race.

• • •

I’ve spent considerable time on Moeller and Lentz, but either would be foolish to write off Stewart. Remember how powerful it is to hold the office. If you think “It’s the economy stupid” was a best-seller, “It’s the incumbent stupid” is even more powerful. Republicans might have cringed when they saw the math on how Stewart did in District 1 the last time around. Well, here’s some more math: Around 90 percent incumbents get re-elected.

Stewart’s resume is long and distinguished. Think what you may of her conservative politics but she knows government and how it works.

“There are those who think it is foolhardy to call yourself a Republican and to run in a district that historically has been Democratic,” she told me.” I don’t think it is foolhardy. People are tired of the extremes of either party.

“People want sensible government. Rather than radical leanings, people are looking for experience.”

Stewart gets credit for being the safe-and-sane Republican when County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke were creating fireworks. The county owes her a debt of gratitude for that.

Finally, in case you’ve been sleeping in the closet for that last year, have you noticed what’s going on? The Trump wave has been washing over the country. I’m personally not a fan. But Democrats are mostly to blame for their own undoing. They are spending a ton of time on legitimate causes — the homeless, protecting the vulnerable, illegal immigration, public unions — but by doing so, many believe they have lost their way when it comes to the middle class, the ones paying all the bills for those good causes.

Stewart could use this to her advantage.

• • •

So how does this primary election play out?

I expect Lentz’s hard work and dynamics will offset Moeller’s name recognition, but this could be very close between them.

Their battle could open the door for Stewart to sneak into the general election.

• • •

I separately sat down with all three of the above candidates for coffee before I wrote this. I e-mailed and called the fourth candidate in the race — Veny Razumovsky, who prefers the CascadiaNow Party — but he never got back to me.

Ballots will drop for this race in a couple of weeks. Please make sure to vote. And read The Columbian to get much more on this race and many others.


Temple Lentz interview audio available here.