Why a rising star is leaving Congress

BY Reid Wilson – 08/06/20

WINTHROP, Wash. — Washington state’s lieutenant governor has few real powers. The incumbent presides over the state Senate, chairs various ceremonial committees and acts as governor when the boss is out of state. It is an office in which careers more often end than take off.

So political observers raised eyebrows when a rising star in Congress, a legend in Evergreen State politics who now has a seat on the House Intelligence Committee and who ran to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year, decided to run for lieutenant governor.

On Tuesday, voters sent Rep. Denny Heck (D) to a general election match-up where he appears likely to face a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Marko Liias (D).

“Honestly, I think he’s overqualified,” said Cheryl Selby, the mayor of Olympia and a longtime friend.

For more than four decades, Heck has been a pillar of Washington’s political elite. He won election to the state House at age 24, where he served as majority leader. He became chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner (D) and later founded TVW, Washington’s version of C-SPAN.

Heck’s influence was such that, when Washington won a new congressional district after the 2010 census, Democrats and Republicans drew the new seat with him in mind. The dean of Washington’s political press corps dubbed it the “Denny district,” a moniker Heck still hates.

“He’s very well-connected with the party establishment,” said Randy Pepple, a veteran Republican strategist in the state. “He’s a throwback politician.”

Heck announced his retirement from Congress before the current lieutenant governor, Cyrus Habib (D), said he would not run for another term. In an interview, Heck said he had not expected to mount another campaign.

“I came home thinking I would have to spend a lot of time reflecting on what I was going to do with my life,” Heck said. Of the chance to come home, he said: “That’s really where my passion and my heart has been, in the state Capitol building, not the nation’s capital.”

Heck, who has cultivated an image as a policy wonk, said he was most excited to use the lieutenant governorship to chair a committee on international economic development.

“He has a huge following here in the state among people who are policy-oriented,” said Paul Berendt, a former state Democratic Party chairman and one of Heck’s closest friends. “I think that he sees the lieutenant governor job as one in which he can be extraordinarily effective at getting things done here in the state of Washington.”

But it is not lost on Washington state politicos that Heck would have a chance at a quick promotion.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D), a heavy favorite to win a third term, is a potential candidate for any number of jobs in former Vice President Joe Biden’s administration; Biden has adopted several pillars of Inslee’s climate change proposals.

“Of course it’s running through everyone’s mind if [Inslee] gets tapped for a position in hopefully a new administration in the fall,” Selby said. Heck “could step into that role. It’s like what you have to look at in a vice president, you have to be able to picture them in that role.”

Inslee has said he is uninterested in moving back to Washington, where he served two stints in Congress. A spokesman reiterated Tuesday that his position has not changed.

But history is replete with examples of politicians who have changed their mind when a president comes calling.

Heck has told political audiences that he would be ready to serve as governor on his first day in office, at a time when Washington faces an unprecedented global pandemic and devastating economic fallout. But he and his allies say the prospects of becoming governor did not enter his thinking.

“It almost deterred me from running,” Heck said. “But I also said on day one if that were to happen, I will do my duty, I will embrace my duty, but I will not, categorically, stand for election the next November.”

Washington state law requires a new election if a governor leaves office in the first or second year of their term, up to 30 days before a scheduled November election. Heck said it would be impossible to mount a campaign in the midst of a pandemic and a recession.

And there are other Democrats who are circling, waiting for their chance to succeed Inslee. Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) and King County Executive Dow Constantine (D) have both signaled their interest in a shot at the top job; Hilary Franz (D), the state commissioner of public lands, actually launched a campaign while Inslee was running for president, before stepping aside when he dropped out to run for a third term.

Heck acknowledged what is seemingly a step back after rising through the congressional ranks — he will take an almost $60,000 yearly pay cut if he wins.

But he said the chatter about moving up the ranks illustrates the prevailing conventional wisdom about how long a member of Congress should hold on to his or her seat.

“It’s been real interesting to me that people have a difficult time processing that,” he said. “I think everybody carries around in your head, ‘Well, once you’re elected to Congress you run until you die or you’re defeated or you’re indicted.’ ”

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The changes under consideration “would be very meaningful because it would be memorializing their commitment to working toward a tighter labor market when the economic circumstances allow for it,” said Rep. Denny Heck (D., Wash.), who is on the House Financial Services Committee. “It would be a huge break from the past.”