Mad About Mad Cow

Posted January 20, 2004 at 4:56pm

The discovery of a “mad cow” in Washington state might not seem like good campaign fodder, but Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and her allies are using it as an opportunity to attack her challenger, Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.).

Washington state Democrats have begun circulating Nethercutt’s voting record on allowing “downed animals” — livestock that cannot walk or stand on their own — into the food supply, as well as his votes against country-of-origin labeling and increased funding for food safety inspections.

“The party is certainly going to push the issue,” said Kristin Brost, communications director for the Washington Democratic Party.

“It’s not like these are old votes from 20 years ago,” she said, noting that the downed animal vote was just taken as part of the fiscal 2004 Agriculture appropriations bill. “It’s not as much a partisan issue as it is one of responsibility, but it will be an issue in this race because he’s on the wrong side of the issue.”

Nethercutt’s campaign accused Murray and her supporters of exploiting the mad cow for political purposes.

“I think the fact that she’s going after George this far ahead of the election shows how insecure she is about losing this race,” said Mary Lane, communications director for Nethercutt’s campaign. “We’re not trying to make it a partisan issue. I think it shows how worried she is about the race.”

Lane challenged Murray to “try and come up with a solution instead of partisan attacks.”

The discovery of a Holstein diary cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy in Mabton, Wash., two days before Christmas captured national headlines for weeks. But as it fades from the public memory, the issue of mad cow disease is emerging in partisan squabbles across the country. Democrats are attempting to use it as a way to highlight what they argue is the Republican Party’s coziness with industry.

In Washington state, mad cow has been served up as the latest nugget of current events that Murray and Nethercutt are using to bludgeon each other in their increasingly nasty race.

Democrats think Nethercutt is vulnerable on the issue.

In 1995, two years after three children died in Washington from an E. coli outbreak linked to tainted hamburgers at a fast-food chain, Nethercutt voted with the Republican majority to freeze most new federal regulations as part of the “Contract with America,” Brost said. That included new food and water safety regulations, she said.

In an editorial, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer took Nethercutt and other Washington state Republicans to task for “their willingness to put your health and safety at undue risk.”

“It’s nothing short of astonishing that, of all people, representatives from the very state that has provided the most dramatic evidence of the need for tighter food safety regulations — 500 people sickened from tainted hamburger and three children killed — would find the nerve to shrug off this issue,” the paper opined at the time.

The Murray camp is circulating the Senator’s voting record, arguing that she has been on the “right” side of all the food safety issues.

The Democrats also point out that Nethercutt is the fourth highest House recipient of meat processing industry contributions this cycle. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, he has taken in $3,000 from the industry this cycle; since 1994, he has accepted $12,000 from meat processors and $18,550 from livestock interests.

Lane says that in a state filled with ranchers, Murray is not picking a good fight.

“This is not a smart attack,” Lane said. “Does she support the cattlemen? Are they bad? They are a big part of the economy. She should do everything she can to support and help them.”

Nethercutt’s camp was quick to point out that the Congressman was on top of the mad cow scare and was filling his schedule with town hall meetings with cattlemen associations.

However, if all those meetings went as badly as one described by the Spokane Spokesman-Review on Jan. 14, his campaign staff might wish they had kept those sessions quiet.

The ranchers told Nethercutt they want country-of-origin labeling, which he has opposed, because they are proud of their beef and they want to tell everyone it was made in the United States. They also told Nethercutt that “downed cows” should have been banned from the food supply years ago.

“I voted against it,” the paper quoted Nethercutt as saying. “All downer cattle aren’t diseased animals. I thought there shouldn’t be that exclusion.”

While Nethercutt warned them that such a ban would mean a loss of income, at least two ranchers said that would be fine by them if it meant a safer food supply, the paper reported.

While Murray and Nethercutt trade barbs on the issue, the Washington state Republican Party appears to be staying out of the fray.

“I don’t really think this will be a huge issue,” Executive Director Peter Abbarno said. “It’s not a partisan issue; candidates usually stick to partisan issues.”

Only if beef sales drop dramatically would mad cow become a pivotal issue in the Murray-Nethercutt race, Abbarno said.

“It will come down to a lot of the basics — health care, education and the war on terror,” he said of the ultimate election result.

Nevertheless, Murray is not the only Democratic Senator up for re-election who is talking a lot about mad cow disease.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) held a press conference just after New Year’s Day to call on the Bush administration to require country-of-origin labeling for supermarket beef.

Whether Daschle thinks Republican challenger John Thune is vulnerable on the issue or not, country-of-origin labeling is important to a big South Dakotan constituency — ranchers — and Daschle intends to show that he is on top of it.

Murray will team up with Daschle this session to push for beef labeling — a move that, if successful, should go a long way in winning both Senators votes from ranchers back home.