A Republican Governor for Blue State Washington? It Could Happen

Congressman Dave Reichert’s political instincts could put a Republican in the governor’s office
republican governor washington state dave reichert seattle magazine
Congressman Dave Reichert at the top of Snoqualmie Pass on February 7, 2014. Reichert represents the 8th District, the only congressional district in the state that encompasses both sides of the Cascade Mountains

It is likely the measure of any good cop: being in the right place at the right time. For Dave Reichert, former sheriff, now representative of  Washington’s redrawn 8th Congressional District and the state’s highest-profile Republican, this uncanny positioning has also held true for his political career. With former Attorney General Rob McKenna returning to private practice after his 2012 failed run for governor, and with Dino Rossi’s three unsuccessful bids for statewide office putting him out of the mix, Reichert has—almost effortlessly—risen as the undisputed heavyweight Republican in this decidedly blue state.

But it’s the time as a cop he loves to talk about, often, it seems, as a way to gently steer conversation away from polarizing topics, such as legalized pot, gay marriage or last year’s government shutdown. And as someone who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, beginning in 1972 and including eight years as King County sheriff, he’s got plenty of stories, all of which have indelibly shaped his nearly 10 years representing Seattle’s eastside suburban cities—including Bellevue, Auburn and Issaquah—as a (comparatively) centrist, law-and-order legislator.

“If you’ve been shot at, stabbed, beat up, kicked in the head, spit on and called every dirty name in the book, what else are they going to do to you [in Congress]?” he asks during an interview in his Issaquah office.

There is no doubt Reichert, 63, who sports a televangelist’s white mane and blue eyes (drawn out by the blue shirts he often wears), is calculating when he tells his stories, as they burnish his bona fides as a leader and decision maker—distinctions that can be hard to make when you are one of 435 members in a U.S. House of Representatives with catastrophically low approval ratings. But Reichert’s rise as sheriff was as quick as it was fortuitous, and he would be foolish not to highlight it.

He, of course, first became a household name during the 1999 World Trade Organization riots, largely because—unlike Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper—he wasn’t in charge of the bungled response. And it certainly didn’t hurt that he was captured on video by a news team chasing vandals, guns ablazin’, down Third Avenue like a graying T.J. Hooker. (And by “guns,” I mean his famously well-developed biceps, as Reichert, in 33 years, never had to fire his service revolver in the line of duty.)

Reichert was the first on the scene as a homicide detective in 1982 when the first victim of the Green River Killer was discovered, and he would later lead the Green River Killer Task Force for eight years. He was at the helm when, in 2001, DNA evidence identified Gary Ridgway as that killer. Reichert and the sheriff’s office were sometimes criticized for allowing the country’s largest serial-murder case to go cold during the 1990s, but when Ridgway pleaded guilty in 2003 to more than 60 murders, Reichert was vindicated.

“All those years, folks would ask, ‘Are you going to solve that case?’ And I never hesitated: ‘Absolutely,’” Reichert recalls. “No one believed me—and as all those years went by, it was harder and harder to believe. But we knew the case would be solved, because we were never, ever, going to give up.”

In the wake of Ridgway’s arrest, Reichert’s stock rocketed. He was openly recruited to run for the governor’s office in 2001—he declined—but there have been whispers ever since. He ultimately ran for, and won, fellow Republican Jennifer Dunn’s vacant Congressional seat in 2004.

During her nearly 20 years in office, Dunn commanded at least 60 percent of the vote. By the time Reichert came along, it looked like some of Seattle’s blue was leaching into the once-red Eastside. In the following four elections, Reichert won by the comparatively narrow margins—never more than 52.8 percent—and legislated like a center-right pol: fewer taxes and pro-veteran, with some pro-environmental votes (and some anti).

That changed after the U.S. census gave Washington an additional congressional seat in 2012. The reconfigured 8th shed more than 135,000 Bellevue citizens, but it retained the Cascade foothills of eastern Pierce and King counties (including Reichert’s hometown of Auburn), and added the entirety of Kittitas and Chelan counties.

All this makes for an unwieldy district. It also means Reichert represents constituents on both sides of the Cascade Curtain. He can now claim to speak for important eastern Washington cities such as Ellensburg and Wenatchee, while still retaining his street cred in the king-making county of King. Those chaffing at the 30-plus years of Democratic control of the governor’s office may have found their candidate for 2016.

Don’t think Reichert doesn’t know this—he calls it a definite advantage in any effort to secure a statewide seat. “I almost feel like I’m running statewide right now,” Reichert says.

The Washington State Republican Party, of course, is not supporting any candidate for governor at this juncture—most likely keeping quiet until after November elections. But they agree that there are some perks inherent in having the 8th as your launching pad. “It would be an advantage for any candidate,” says Keith Schipper, communications director for the Washington State Republican Party. “They would have the pulse of constituents on both sides of the Cascades.”

Given Reichert’s strong name recognition, thanks to his time as sheriff, it seems it would be even more of an advantage for him than for others.

Christian Sinderman, who advises Democratic candidates at his firm, Northwest Passage Consulting, concedes Reichert is the GOP’s 800-pound elephant if he chooses to run. But Sinderman has a warning. The old 8th, with swingy Bellevue at its core, forced Reichert to seek more moderate positions. The redistricted 8th is now a more Republican seat (Reichert won 2012 with margins similar to Dunn’s).

“If Reichert’s district forces him to flex more conservative, it will be harder for him to run statewide,” Sinderman says. “Republicans can’t win statewide if they are wearing the bell of the dysfunctional Republicans in Congress.”

For his part, Reichert continues to develop messages that have purchase statewide. He likes to say that issues such as transportation, immigration and water are primary issues on both sides of the mountains. On immigration, in particular, he’s bucked GOP party leadership by calling for comprehensive legislative reform to solve the problem of more than 12 million undocumented workers in the country. For Reichert, it is both a practical—“You can’t arrest everyone,” he says—and a political issue. “There’s a need for the Republican Party to reach out to those communities that are unrecognized or undervalued,” he says. “The Republicans have not been open to communicating with [those communities],” he says.

Reichert, who will be seeking reelection this November, hasn’t announced his candidacy for governor, or for Patty Murray’s U.S. Senate seat, both of which are up in 2016. But he has not dismissed the speculation. And he knows his new district affords him unprecedented opportunity.

“This isn’t something for me where I decide, ‘Today I want to be the governor,’ just because I want to be the governor,” he says. “There’s the timing, the circumstances, the environment, the people—all the pieces have to be together for me to recognize that this is the next step that I take.”

And is Washington’s redistricted 8th Congressional District one of those final pieces? Time will tell. But like any good cop, he seems keenly aware he’s at the right place at the right time.