Former Golden Boy Jilted in Washington State?

Posted May 21, 2004 at 6:40pm

Democratic leaders’ desire to clear the field for one anointed candidate in open-seat races may have been thwarted in Washington’s 8th district.

The emergence last week of a new contender likely threw many of them for a loop.

Washington Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt coaxed popular local radio talk show host David Ross into the race without first consulting party pooh-bahs in Washington, D.C.

“It was a local recruiting effort,” is all that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed would say about Berendt’s efforts.

First-time candidate Alex Alben — the Democratic frontrunner before Ross’ entrance into the race — cannot be happy about the development but is willing to forgive and forget, according to his campaign spokesman.

“We’re not going to make an issue of it,” the spokesman, Ben Vaught, said. “We’re focused on one thing right now, which is winning the Democratic nomination.”

Ross, who has hosted a top-rated public affairs radio show on KIRO-AM for 17 years, upped his timetable for announcing his candidacy after rumors circulated about the possibility and after he all but confirmed his decision to a local reporter last week.

Perhaps anticipating the move, Alben, a former RealNetworks executive, busily racked up key endorsements just ahead of Ross’ announcement.

Gov. Gary Locke (D) and five of the six Democratic members of Washington’s Congressional delegation all got behind Alben earlier this month.

“Alex Alben is the Democrat who can win in the 8th Congressional district,” Rep. Norm Dicks (D) said in an Alben news release last week.

The sixth Democratic Member, Rep. Jim McDermott, does not like to endorse in state and local primaries, his spokesman said.

The Washington State Labor Council also is on board with Alben, whom national Democrats were high on when he stepped up to challenge Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) last fall.

Dunn’s subsequent surprise decision to retire made it all but certain that more prominent Democrats would jump into the newly opened race.

All demurred, though interior designer Heidi Behrens-Benedict, who lost to Dunn three times, did decide to launch a fourth bid.

National Democrats liked the fact that Alben — a millionaire — could self-fund if need be, and they also thought his business background matched the district, which is very competitive in an open-seat situation.

Berendt may have heeded grumbling among some Washington state Democrats that Alben’s campaign was not going well and decided to act.

Neither Berendt nor his spokeswoman could be reached before press time Friday.

Vaught says such rumors are nonsense.

“The governor and five Members of Congress endorsed us and are standing by us,” he said. “Paul [Berendt] stands alone.”

Additionally, Alben has raised more than $550,000 to date, he said.

Alben has contributed about $203,000 to the effort, however.

Of his motives Berendt has only said publicly that Ross is a “dynamic candidate” and that he can succeed even at this late date because of his high visibility, according to interviews he has given to The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

An alternative Seattle paper, The Stranger, quoted Berendt as saying: “I encouraged [Ross] to run, and did so proudly.”

He added: “I still think the world of Alex.”

But Alben — and Republicans — don’t think that much of Ross’ timetable and tactics.

Although he announced his intention to run last week, Ross does not plan to formally file his candidacy papers until just before the state’s filing deadline in July.

That may enable him to stay on the air until then — and the radio station is actively boosting his candidacy on its Web site.

Alben and Chris Vance, the chairman of the Washington Republican Party, have written to station managers, urging them to pull Ross’ show.

According to The Stranger, some Washington state Democrats have questioned Berendt’s decision-making in the past and say he has a pattern of undercutting Democratic candidates.

Two gubernatorial candidates accused him of playing favorites in the competitive primary to succeed Locke, for example.

Intraparty sniping aside, Speed says the DCCC is happy to have two high-profile candidates in the Sept. 14 primary.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to win this seat and now we have more than one good candidate who can win this seat in November,” he said.

A recent Democratic poll showed Ross’ name recognition was above 80 percent.

A poll the Alben campaign commissioned shows that 8th district voters favor Democrats on a generic ballot.

Such positives aside, Democrats have now lost the main advantage they enjoyed in the 8th — the ability to avoid a bruising primary.

Behrens-Benedict has raised little and has not shown the ability to run a top-tier campaign, so Alben likely could have conserved his cash for the general election before Ross entered the picture.

Four credible Republicans are slugging it out for the GOP nod — King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, former U.S. Attorney Diane Tebelius, state Sen. Luke Esser and Bellevue City Councilman Conrad Lee.

Dunn won re-election in 2002 with 60 percent of the vote. The 8th went for former Vice President Al Gore and Locke in 2000.