Heck enjoys second political wind

Greg Nash

Rep. Dennis Heck’s (D-Wash.) arrival in the District of Columbia was a long-awaited return to the world where he won his spurs.

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A political wunderkind in the state of Washington, he was a state legislator at 24 and majority leader by age 31. Scarcely finished with school himself, he was an education expert, authoring the state’s 1977 Basic Education Act, which codified the funding system for Washington schools. After retiring from the Washington legislature in 1986, he served a four-year stint as chief of staff during Gov. Booth Gardner’s (D) second term.

With Gardner’s departure from office in 1993, though, Heck’s political career went into a long hibernation, and his second life arc as an entrepreneur and investor began.

As he was preparing to leave his post as chief of staff, Heck was approached by a friend with an idea: Creating a state version of C-SPAN for Washington. Though he had almost no experience with broadcasting, Heck loved the idea, seeing it as a way to make a more permanent impact on the state.

After some high-energy lobbying of the state legislature, TVW was born in 1993. Today, the channel is viewable in almost all of Washington’s 3.5 million households with cable television. One of the channel’s documentaries, on the state’s supreme court, won Heck a regional Emmy award as the film’s writer and director.

The experience with TVW gave Heck a rare chance to switch to covering politics rather than engaging with it directly. In the channel’s early years, he hosted a show called Inside Olympia in which he interviewed Washington politicians at both the state and national level.

After his years at TVW, Heck became an active investor and entrepreneur, being an early backer of several tech start-ups and co-founding the business education firm Intrepid Learning Solutions, which grew from a handful of employees to several hundred over the decade Heck spent there.

By late 2009, Heck had been out of politics for 17 years, with no reason to anticipate a return. He says his mind changed however, by observing the crippling effects of the 2008 recession on Washington.

“If there is anything that represents being an American, it is the opportunity to work hard and play by the rules and be able to be upwardly mobile, and that’s genuinely at risk,” Heck told The Hill.

This change of heart prompted a new electoral run after the surprise retirement of 3rd District Democrat Brian Baird. Heck ran for the seat in 2010, but was defeated by Jaime Herrera Beutler in a Republican wave election.

Undeterred, Heck made another attempt in 2012, this time running in Washington’s newly-created 10th district. Benefiting from a friendlier district and a better national environment for Democrats, Heck won handily.

Heck says his 19 years of experience as a broadcaster and businessman have greatly improved his abilities as a legislator.

“The most valuable and lifelong lesson I learned [in television] was how to ask the right questions,” Heck said. He cites as an example his work on the House Financial Services Committee. One such hearing focused on the dire financial straits of the Federal Housing Authority.

“As the least senior member of the committee, I went last. It occurred to me that nobody had actually gotten to the heart of the matter, which was that … virtually all of the FHA’s red ink was associated with reverse mortgages,” he said.

That observation set Heck onto a line of questioning that ultimately became the signature accomplishment of his first year, the Reverse Mortgage Stabilization Act of 2013. Co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, the law reforms rules regarding which reverse mortgages the FHA insures.

Winning support from both sides of the aisle, the bill was passed and signed by President Obama in August, making Heck one of just a handful of freshmen to pass a bill directly modifying the U.S. Code. The achievement was not something Heck had anticipated prior to his election.

“I did not enter Congress intent on massively reforming the reverse mortgage industry,” he said with a chuckle.

For 2014, Heck says his main goal is to reauthorize the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a quasi-independent bank that incentivizes foreign purchases of American goods by providing credit and insurance to buyers.

Some conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, who argue the bank amounts to corporate welfare, have attempted to shut it down by lobbying against a renewal of its charter and trying to block appointments so that its governing board cannot reach a quorum.

“It is singularly responsible for the creation of about 250,000 jobs in this economy [and] it’s never used a single red cent of taxpayer dollars,” Heck said. He says the bank’s dicey future reflects the growing partisan divide of politics.

“This is an example of one of those issues that up until not too long ago, was a ‘hugely-embraced-by-both-political-parties’ issue, but it’s become less so.”

While he fears for the Export-Import bank, Heck expresses confidence that freshmen in Congress will someday be leaders in ending the division.

“I think this class of freshmen, in the not-too-distant future, will be a part of moving Congress in a more positive direction. I think there are very few members of Congress elected in 2012 who were elected with any desire other than to improve the circumstances,” he said. “There’s this deep-down thirst on the part of everyday citizens that Congress figure out how to work better, together, more often.”

Heck isn’t willing to speculate about how long he’ll be in Washington, but he is emphatic that this office will be his last.

“Categorically, not gonna happen. I am ruling it out,” he said about a possible gubernatorial or Senate run.

He attributes the decision not only to his relatively advanced age for a freshman, but also to his contentment with the accomplishments he already has.

“I’d like to think that I’ve had a wonderfully diverse, eclectic career. I’d like to think that I’ve been able to make a difference in a bunch of different ways, and at this stage in my life, I know who I am.”