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Democrat Berendt Leads With His Gut, Admirers Say

Paul Berendt’s tenure as Washington state Democratic Party chairman hit a low point on Election Day 2004.

His team had been unable to win either of the state’s two open House seats, despite fielding strong, well-funded challengers. And it looked as if the Democrats had lost the governor’s mansion for the first time in 20 years.

[IMGCAP(1)] Instead of conceding defeat Berendt reveled in his party’s retention of the state House and capture of the state Senate and immediately went to work on the recount effort in what has proven to be the closest gubernatorial contest in national history.

So far, it looks like Berendt has regained the upper hand.

Former state Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) is the governor — at least until a court challenge of her victory on the third ballot count is resolved this summer — and her opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R), has declined to challenge Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) next year, saving her from facing the strongest possible Republican candidate.

To be sure, these victories could be temporary. The court could order a new election and Rossi could change his mind on the Senate race, but Berendt was easily re-elected chairman in January and his detractors have quieted down since then.

“Paul has one of the best political guts in the business,” says Seattle-based Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman. “He knows politics and he knows how to get things done and that’s really been the secret to his success. He has an incredible gut and it’s usually right.”

That gut got him some guff last summer.

Democrats thought they could finally capture the elusive suburban Seattle 8th district after then-Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) surprised everyone and announced her retirement at the beginning of 2004.

A wealthy former business executive named Alex Alben was already campaigning to challenge Dunn. Republicans were coming out of the woodwork to seek the nomination and it looked as if they would be tied down in a costly, bruising primary that would not be settled until just seven weeks before the November election.

Then in May, Berendt persuaded popular radio talk show host Dave Ross to enter the fray as a Democrat, giving away the biggest advantage his party had. Ross defeated Alben in the Democratic primary.

Though Ross ultimately lost the general election in a close fight with King County Sheriff Dave Reichert (R), Berendt’s move looks even smarter in hindsight. After the election, a series of articles hit the Seattle papers implicating Alben’s wife in a major business scandal involving InfoSpace, a high tech company where she worked as general counsel.

Even Berendt’s opponents give him credit for the bold move.

“Dave Ross was a credible candidate; Alben didn’t have a chance in hell,” said Jim Keough, a Seattle-based Republican consultant who worked for Rossi.

It was not the first time he intervened to land the candidate he thought could win.

In 2000 he threw over a statewide officeholder, Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn (D), to entice Cantwell, a former RealNetworks executive and millionaire into the race against then-Sen. Slade Gorton (R).

Cantwell spent $12 million of her own money to win what was the state’s closest-ever Senate race.

Keough said that move was more obvious.

“I think anybody should recruit anyone who has $50 million to spend,” he said.

Democrats say its further proof that Berendt is a solid strategist.

“He’s an activist chair,” Sinderman said. “They take risks and occasionally do things that aren’t popular. He has a tremendous track record and nine out of 10 times he’s been right.”

A Democratic operative who has worked in Washington state said Berendt’s biggest mistake in the Alben matter was not the decision to court Ross but how it was handled.

“He’s a bull in a china shop,” the source said. “He can have a really good idea and he just goes at it but not necessarily with all the polish others may have.”

Berendt says he does not regret his decision to recruit Ross.

“We needed someone who had name recognition and was well-known,” he said, adding that he was “cognizant” of the

InfoSpace debacle. “It was a roll of the dice but if I had it to do all over again, I would do it the same.”

Berendt says he knows he does not always please party loyalists but that he tries to do what is best for Democrats.

“I’m not without my critics but I was handily re-elected, 100 to 44. That was an affirmation of my leadership. The thing about me is this, I just keep plodding forward, I set my sights on where I want to go and I just keep moving toward that goal.”

Berendt, 48, has been chairman for 10 years, making him one of the longest-serving Democratic leaders in the country.

On his watch, Democrats elected a second Senator and gained four House seats. They also won control of the state Legislature and, if Gregoire’s victory holds, have not lost the governor’s mansion once.

“Exerting the influence of the party has been very important to me,” Berendt said. “The party needs to flex its muscle, if we’re really going to defend our values, we are going to have to have the tools to do that.”

What has pleased party loyalists is how fiercely he fought to make sure Gregoire became governor.

“There were a lot of depressed people on the Democratic side after [the November] election and here’s a guy who said ‘hey get up off your knees and go get them’ — he led the way,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.).

Berendt said he felt he needed to set an example that Democrats can fight just as hard as Republicans.

“One criticism national Democrats have taken is ‘we haven’t fought back hard enough in these election contests’ but we did that here,” he said about the governor’s race. “We got the second count automatically but the third we fought and raised the resources for. We never skipped a beat, the day after the election we just went into full field mode. Our cause has created a tremendous amount of admiration for the state party all across the country.”

And a lot of animosity from Republicans.

Many feel the Democrats manipulated the votes in populous and Democratic King County, thereby stealing the election — a charge Berendt and Democrats have vehemently denied.

While public sentiment seemed to side with Rossi early on, many Washingtonians now seem annoyed the matter is still not settled.

No one is sure what voter sentiment will be next year but Berendt’s party looks to head into 2006 in a much stronger position than one would have thought just a few months ago.

“This election contest, the turnaround, I would have to say is the crown jewel of my accomplishments,” Berendt said.

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