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Meeting for the Middle

Smith’s District Day Emphasizes

Ever since knocking off then-Rep. Randy Tate (R-Wash.) in 1996, Rep. Adam Smith (D) has steadfastly clung to the center, cultivating an image as a steadfast moderate who is not beholden to the stale orthodoxies of left or right.

For several years, Smith has burnished his moderate credentials by hosting an annual half-day bipartisan seminar in Washington, D.C., for civic leaders, business owners and run-of-the-mill constituents from his southern Puget Sound-based district.

True to form, on Thursday in the Rayburn House Office Building, Smith hosted the “4th Annual 9th District Day,” featuring not only the state’s two Democratic Senators, a major union leader and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but also two members of the Bush Cabinet and a senior Republican from the House Armed Services Committee.

Smith said he sees the annual event as a way to remind his constituents that representative democracy is ultimately about incorporating a multiplicity of viewpoints.

Smith, who chairs the New Democrat Coalition’s political action committee, made his thinking on entitlements, defense and health care known, but he kept returning to the theme of bipartisanship, saying, “No one person knows it all. If you have a diversity of opinions, you get a better result.”

Smith won plaudits for being “strong enough,” in the words of one constituent, to invite Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, President Bush’s point man on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, to speak at his event even though Smith announced earlier this month that he would oppose the free-trade pact with six Latin American countries because of his concern that the trade deal does not adequately protect workers’ rights abroad or at home.

Gutierrez, who dismissed concerns that CAFTA would hurt Central America, said, “Not having CAFTA is embracing the status quo, and the status quo is not good for Central America.”

Gutierrez warned that if the United States does not integrate its economy with Central America, the region would look elsewhere.

“If they don’t have a partnership with the U.S.,” Gutierrez said, “they could have a partnership with China or the” European Union.

When Smith excused himself during Gutierrez’s question-and-answer period to vote on the House floor, the Commerce secretary took the opportunity to lobby the Member’s constituents on CAFTA, saying, “I don’t know if this would be rude, but anything you can do to get Congressman Smith to support this would be appreciated.”

Boeing lobbyist Al Ralston, who belongs to the pro-CAFTA Washington Council on International Trade, called out, “We’re trying,” as several attendees laughed and nodded in agreement.

Gutierrez was just one of three Bush administration officials to speak to Smith’s constituents for his district day.

He was joined by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who highlighted medical advances developed at the country’s VA hospitals, and Philip Grone, the deputy undersecretary of Defense, who discussed base closures.

Smith’s event was not, however, void of Democratic voices. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), DCCC chairman, touted a recently released poll from The Wall Street Journal that suggested the disapproval of Congress is at its highest level since 1994, the year Democrats lost control of the House and Senate.

Mindful that the 2006 midterm elections are still more than 17 months away, Emanuel quipped, “I wish we had a British system and I could call the election now.”

Emanuel said Congressional Democrats have an obligation to offer an alternative to the GOP agenda.

In addition to criticizing President Bush’s proposals to reform Social Security, Emanuel sketched four ideas for improving retirement security: automatic enrollment in 401(k)s, direct deposit of tax refunds into savings plans, a 50 percent government match for the first $2,000 saved and universal 401(k)s. He described universal 401(k)s as “good old-fashioned plagiarism” from his days working as an adviser to then-President Bill Clinton.

“If we are given the keys, here is how we would drive,” Emanuel said.

Some of the day’s toughest rhetoric aimed at the Bush administration actually came from a Republican, Rep. Curt Weldon (Pa.), who ripped what he sees as the Bush administration’s inflammatory rhetoric toward North Korea.

“I worked hard for George Bush,” Weldon said, “but I don’t agree with his policy on North Korea.”

Weldon criticized Kim Jong-il as a “desperate violator of human rights,” but Weldon said calling the North Korean leader names is “going to make it impossible to sit down together.” The Pennsylvania Republican warned that once diplomacy breaks down, “the alternative becomes war.”

Weldon said that he and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have received a classified briefing on what such a war with North Korea would look like.

“We’d win,” Weldon said. “But, boy, would it be ugly. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would be killed. … We’re not talking about an army like Saddam Hussein had. We’re talking about a million-man army; nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and the ability to use them.”

The seminar ended with a nonpartisan tour of the political landscape from Chuck Todd, editor of National Journal’s “The Hotline.”

With respect to 2006, Todd counseled Smith’s constituents not to read too much into The Wall Street Journal poll.

Looking ahead to the battle for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, Todd touted the prospects of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), calling him “Dubyaesque,” a “conservative with a smile,” and “the world’s only one percent frontrunner,” alluding to Allen’s current low-standing in voter preference polls.

Todd predicted that neither Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), nor former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani nor Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would jump into the GOP fray.

On the Democratic side, Todd sees the 2008 race as resembling the 2000 contest with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) playing the role of then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) reprising the role of ex-Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) with “perhaps a wild card like Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) thrown in there.”

Smith timed his district day to coincide with a D.C. fundraiser at Tortilla Coast, which raised about $47,000 for his re-election campaign, according to Chelsea Waliser, Smith’s political director.

Several district day attendees expressed their appreciation of the event’s bipartisan tone.

“Just because Adam and I disagree on one issue doesn’t mean we don’t share a larger vision,” said Bill Center, the president of the pro-CAFTA Washington Council on International Trade. Center also shares Gutierrez’s concern that failure to ratify CAFTA will hurt the next round of WTO talks.

Catherine Carsone Rogers, communications officer for the Highline School District in Smith’s 9th district, found the event’s bipartisan format refreshing. “I don’t know if it changed my mind,” she said. “But you can’t learn to live with the other side without listening.”

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