You may think hugging babies and shaking hands is easy work in order to get elected, but follow a candidate like Larry Sheahan around for a while and you'll soon discover that running for Congress seems more like training for the Olympics. Running for public office takes a lot of legwork; in Sheahan's case, that's literal. By the time the primary absentee ballots are dropped in mailboxes, the Sheahan campaign will have visited about 20,000 houses in the 5th District, and Sheahan's hoping that by showing up at people's doors, he'll earn enough votes to be George Nethercutt's replacement.
"People are very appreciative," Sheahan says, regarding his impromptu visits. "This one guy looked at the pamphlet [I handed him], then looked at me and said, 'Is this you?' and I said, 'Yeah, it is.' And he said, 'Wow, I can't believe you're at my door.' It's something they don't forget."
At least, Sheahan is hoping they don't forget him, because in order to make it on the November ballot he'll have to beat out two other Republican candidates in the primaries, Shaun Cross and Cathy McMorris, both of whom have raised more campaign dollars. Point that fact out to the Sheahan campaign, however, and you'll get explanations -- everything from how many more paid staffers they've got, to how federal and state elections have taken away from peoples' abilities to contribute to local races. Sheahan is making up the difference in campaign coffers with face time in front of voters.
"I'm feeling very good about the primary," Sheahan says, sitting in his campaign headquarters on North Division. It's a typical campaign office, unplanned and harried; the building used to be a church, was transformed into a day spa and is now a holding tank for five hardworking campaign staffers, dozens of empty coffee cups and countless Sheahan campaign signs. Sheahan has just returned from late-night debate with his opponents in Walla Walla. He's got only a few hours of sleep and hasn't loaded up on caffeine yet, but before the entrance door has closed behind him, Sheahan is seated and ready to talk politics; after all, he's a seasoned veteran.
"The difference [between Cross, McMorris and I] is that I have 12 years of legislative experience and 18 years of business experience," Sheahan says. "Shaun has business experience, but not legislative, and Cathy has legislative experience but no business."
Sheahan's major play is his experience both as an attorney -- he ran a law office with his father in his hometown of Rosalia, Wash., for a number of years before entering politics -- and as a 26-year veteran of the Republican Party. Sheahan has served four terms in the House and two in the Senate, where he's also Senate Majority Floor Leader, serving on a number of committees as a state senator for the 9th District. Like any politician worth his salt, Sheahan doesn't need to be asked before he'll rattle off a list of great things that never would have happened without him: funding for upgrades to Blair Elementary on Fairchild AFB, $1 million for BSE (mad cow) testing at WSU's vet school, passing bills on tort reform. Sheahan's got a great memory when it comes to complicated deals, but his memory fails him when it comes to the simpler things, like the last movie he saw.
"Um, probably a chick flick or something," he says, clearly uninterested in the question. Granted, movies are irrelevant, but personality certainly isn't. Even though Sheahan seems more comfortable discussing policy than pastimes, his sense of humor comes through in the dry, sarcastic quips he makes throughout his conversations.
"I'm running for Congress because I love airplane food," he deadpans, adding that if he wins, he'll commute between his place in Spokane and a place in D.C. weekly, if not more frequently. Apparently that isn't a problem for his wife, Lura, or either of his two grown step-children, but it's doubtful anyone's asked Sheehan's three Austin Terriers or their one pug, even though he claims his dogs keep him "grounded."
Voters in Eastern Washington want to make sure whomever becomes the 5th District Representative remains not only grounded, but loyal to his or her ties east of the Cascades and far west of Capitol Hill. They may take a hint from Walt Worthy, a real estate developer who is now a local icon thanks to his risky -- but successful -- investment in restoring the famed Davenport Hotel.
"I think he's a stellar choice," Worthy says of Sheahan. The two became close friends when Sheahan's wife, Lura, worked as project manager for the Davenport. "I'm not trying to put any one [of the other candidates] down, but I think he's the one." Worthy makes a point to stay out of politics, so his public support of Sheahan is eyebrow-raising.
"I think he's totally upright, honest, has lots of integrity, is easy to talk to, there's no doubt he's experienced, and the kind of person who can wade in and get the job done and not make a lot of noise," Worthy says.
As for keeping his ties to the region strong, Sheahan says that's in his blood. His ancestors were pioneers in this area, and Sheahan says his family still owns a plot of land out in the Palouse. Though he's known success, wealth and the joys of family, Sheahan's had his share of loss. His stepson recently died from cancer at the age of 29.
"He was going to work on my campaign, but died," Sheahan says. "In three weeks, he was gone."
On the Road Again
Phil Van Treuren, Sheahan's 26-year-old campaign manager from Cleveland, has spent all of about a month in Spokane trying to get his man elected; he may not know what the garbage-eating goat is, or why we love marmot jokes, but give Van Treuren a car and some Sheahan pamphlets and the guy will find the address of every single registered Republican who consistently votes in the primaries. It's impressive. It's also a wild ride.
Following along on a "mail drop," where Sheahan's glossy photo and brief bio (along with a freshly inked signature) are stuck in screen doors, mail boxes or fence posts. The team can cover dozens of homes in minutes
"This is something our opponents aren't doing," Van Treuren says from the driver's seat of Sheahan's leather-upholstered Lexus SUV. "We're definitely doing some more grassroots things." The other candidates are, in fact, doorbelling -- it's an integral part of campaigning -- but with his fast pace, Sheahan hopes to cruise through more neighborhoods than Cross, McMorris or Don Barbieri, the Democratic candidate.
"This is an apartment complex," Van Treuren says, slowing down along the bushes bordering the property. "This place doesn't look like people stay here long; we're skipping it." No one questions Van Treuren's sense of go-to residences and skip-it residences. He's worked on 20 campaigns and was bitten by dogs three times in the last campaign, to say nothing of previous run-ins. Mail dropping is a science for Van Treuren; watching him hurdle juniper bushes and work the handles on screen doors, you might say it's an art.
Before heading into the next neighborhood of actively voting Republicans, Sheahan's car rolls by his billboard on a main street.
"Oh, there I am. Spooky," Sheahan says, looking away from his 30-foot face, smiling down benignly on the public. He recalls the first time his family saw his billboards. "My wife said, 'I hope your head doesn't get that big [in Congress].'"
The voters hope so too -- but then with Sheahan making the effort to show up on stoops and front porches throughout the Inland Northwest, they can give him the message themselves.
Sheahan On The Issues:
Sheahan's stance on health care is similar to his Republican opponents, but he says he'll be the one to deliver on tort reform. "The biggest thing is experience. I've actually worked on issues in the legislative process," he says. "In the House Law and Justice Committee, we passed a major tort reform bill; as a floor leader in the Senate, [I helped to pass] three tort reform bills."
"The best thing government can do in regard to creating jobs is to get out of the way," Sheahan says. He supports providing government incentives, like tax breaks for businesses that offer health plans to their employees. Sheahan says another component to economic development and job growth is higher education. "I've been very supportive of the community college system and workforce training," he says. In addition, Sheahan has secured funding for EWU's daycare program, the Health Sciences Building and the Intercollegiate Nursing School. "The next step is for higher-paying jobs, not just at the service level," says Sheahan.
Sheahan is against abortion and against stem cell research if it involves "creating life and then killing that life." Sheahan also opposes "right to die" legislation. "There's this whole movement saying it's the quality of life rather than the sanctity of life," he says. "Once you say certain human beings don't have rights, it's a slippery slope."
Like many of his Republican counterparts, Sheahan connects 9/11 with Iraq, despite the conclusion of the bipartisan 9/11 commission's report stating there was no connection between the two. "There's no proven connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein," Sheahan concedes, but he defends the connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda by citing the commission's report of Al Qaeda meetings that took place inside Iraq.
"The world has changed. We have to be pre-emptive. If we're convinced the threat is imminent, we have to act." Sheahan thinks our troops must stay in Iraq for "some time," but believes that as the Iraqi government takes over, there will be a decrease in troop casualties.
Sheahan admits that the Patriot Act is a tricky topic. "You have two competing interests that are absolutely vital. As a Congressman and federally elected official, every morning when I get up, I'll think about how to protect people from getting murdered by terrorists. Defense of the homeland: that is the purpose of the government. But if it forces us to change who we are, then, well, we need to question it."
Sheahan, more so than McMorris and Cross, defends the clause in the Patriot Act which allows someone to be detained without being charged of a crime, due to wartime laws by which the government can declare suspects (including U.S. citizens) to be "enemy combatants."
"I believe very deeply in the Constitution and the freedom to exercise any or all faiths or none. The Golden Rule -- Do unto others as you would have done to you -- is something I think about every day." Sheahan is a member of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Spokane, where he was married and has attended for five years.
Sheahan agrees with his Republican opponents that the Endangered Species Act should be amended to a more incentive-based program.
"I was the vice chair of the Parks, Fish and Wildlife Committee [as a 9th District Senator] and could see how much money goes to environmental programs, and [it goes to] hiring bureaucrats, doing studies and for lawsuits," he says. Sheahan supports the study on the aquifer but is against a moratorium on water rights like the one Spokane County has imposed.
"Marriage is a foundational part of society. [If you legalize it] beyond a man and a woman, then what next?" asks Sheahan. "It harms the institution. It loses its meaning. [People should have] the freedom to marry and divorce, but to take that [same-sex marriage] step, to open that door, then you could in no way close it."
Sheahan doesn't approve of a $500 billion (and growing) deficit, but points out that it's understandable because of the country's past few years.
He states that "9/11 cost us billions, [in addition to] the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and shifting the resources to homeland security. But the last thing to do is raise taxes." Sheahan claims that lowering taxes raises revenues. Like Cross and McMorris, he supports ending duplication of services and bureaucratic systems, particularly in the area of social services.