McMorris 'I wondered whether I would get lost'

When you first begin speaking to Cathy McMorris, you get a lot of the idealism you might expect from a House freshman in only her second month of service.

“My focus is to be the best representative I can be for the people of my district. … I’m going to give it my best,” she said.
Jeff Dufour
McMorris: “I was in the right place at the right time and had the right people believing in me.”

But it’s obvious that the Washington Republican is more than just another wide-eyed face in the new congressional crowd.

Every two years, one or two House freshmen appear to arrive with their tickets already punched. In the 109th, McMorris looks like one of them. In her first two months on the job, she has already won a coveted spot on the Armed Services Committee, has been named a deputy whip and owns the freshman class’s only spot on the powerful House Steering Committee.

Why has she made such a splash so soon? “I had a reputation from my time in [the Washington state Legislature] — most was positive,” she said as we sat down at a rare open table in the Longworth Cafeteria.

Indeed, her overachieving reputation precedes her. Eleven years ago, as a 24-year-old aide, McMorris filled the seat in the state House vacated by her boss, Bob Morton, when he ran for state Senate.

“I was in the right place at the right time and had the right people believing in me,” she said. She seems reinvigorated as she recalls those who supported her long ago. Food seems to be an afterthought, or not thought of at all. She stops picking at her romaine salad and ultimately pushes it away altogether, saving the rest for later.

Help from mentors would play a big role in her decision to run for Washington’s 5th District seat in Congress as well. Fast-forward to last year, and McMorris found herself the ranking Republican in the Washington House, poised to become the state’s first female Speaker should the Republicans retake the Legislature.

So why be a small fish in a big pond instead of a big fish in a small pond? For her, it was an easy choice. So many decisions that affect the district — from agriculture policy to mining regulations to the future of Fairchild Air Force Base, are now made on the federal level, she said.
In addition, outgoing 8th District Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and Doc HastingsRichard (Doc) Norman HastingsCongress just resolved a 20-year debate over Neolithic remains Boehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform MORE, the longtime congressman from the neighboring 4th District, both suggested she run.

Enter some support from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the conservative Club for Growth, and the rest is history.

It’s quite a climb for the older of two children from a rural Northwestern family. Born in Salem, Ore., McMorris’s family leased cherry and walnut orchards in Washington’s Yakima Valley before moving to British Columbia for 10 years.

Upon returning, they settled in Kettle Falls, Wash., where they ran an orchard of their own, a “typical family operation” complete with a fruit stand that helped pay for McMorris’s education at Pensacola Christian College. She was the first in her family to graduate from college.

Every now and then, those years in Canada are detectable in her speech. But her kinship with Canada ends when politics begins. Her conservative views — anti-tax, anti-abortion, pro-business and pro-military — are a far cry from those of many Canadians.

Although McMorris hails from a blue state, her district is overwhelmingly red, and becoming more so. President Bush won 57 percent of the vote there in 2004. “Nineteen ninety-four was a turning year for that area,” she said, referring to the district’s having voted out incumbent Speaker Tom Foley (D) in favor of Republican George Nethercutt (Nethercutt left the House for an unsuccessful Senate bid last year). “My background is representative of many in the district, and my experience is representative,” she said.

Still, she added that she’s “tremendously honored” to be chosen to represent the district, noting that in the previous 62 years only three people have done so.

Only time will tell if her longevity can match that of her predecessors, but in the meantime she’s following them on the path of trial and error that is Capitol Hill acclimation.

Before being elected, she had come to D.C. about once a year with the Western States Forestry Task Force, which would often give testimony to the House Resources Committee, on which she now sits.

“I wondered whether I would get lost” after arriving, she said. (Later, in fact, she confessed that she missed a committee vote after getting turned around in Longworth.)

Curiously, her commute, while more grueling, doesn’t take that much longer than before. There’s no direct flight from Washington, D.C., to Spokane, the largest city in the district, so the trip requires a connection in Seattle or Denver, and an hour’s drive north from Spokane to get home. The process can take as much as 10 hours, but she pointed out that she used to drive seven hours to the state capital of Olympia.

So far, she’s returned home five times since coming to D.C.

The pace of Washington is an adjustment compared to sleepy Olympia, she said.

“It’s similar to the state Legislature, but magnified — more members, more meetings, more visitors from the district,” she said. “Olympia was much more structured,” to say nothing of meeting only three to four months a year.

“It’s a whirlwind of activity here at the beginning,” she said, sounding impressed but not overwhelmed.