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Originally published Saturday, June 2, 2012 at 7:56 PM

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Wealth an issue for Democratic candidates, too

Democrats are calling attention to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's vast personal wealth, portraying him as out of touch with the struggling middle class. But in Washington state's top congressional races, Democrats are lining up behind three millionaire candidates of their own.

Seattle Times political reporter

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On the national stage, Democrats are likely to spend much of the year calling attention to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's vast personal wealth, portraying him as out of touch with the struggling middle class.

It's a message that echoes themes of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which argues that the rich have too much power and influence.

But when it comes to Washington state's top congressional races, Democrats are lining up behind three millionaire candidates of their own.

Former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene, running in a crowded Democratic field in the 1st Congressional District, would easily become the richest member of Washington's congressional delegation if elected, with an average net worth estimated at $53 million.

In the new 10th Congressional District, the Democratic front-runner is Denny Heck, a former state legislator who amassed a personal fortune through business connections he made as co-founder of TVW, the nonprofit state public-affairs network. Heck and his wife have reported assets worth an estimated $6.9 million.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who famously spent $10 million of her own dot-com wealth to defeat Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000, is seeking a third term this year.

Cantwell is the richest member of the state's congressional delegation, with an estimated average net worth of $6 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Congress, and especially the U.S. Senate, has always been to some extent a rich person's club. But the wealth gap between members of Congress and those they represent has gotten more attention in recent years as the middle class has lost ground.

Nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires, according to an analysis of personal-financial disclosures released last year by the Center for Responsive Politics. The median net worth of U.S. senators was $2.63 million; for House members it was $757,000.

Financial-disclosure laws allow officeholders and candidates to report income and assets in broad ranges, making precise net-worth tallies impossible. The reports also exclude the value of autos, art or equity in homes. The estimates in this article are based on the average values in those disclosures.

The wealthiest was Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., with an average net worth estimated at $448 million.

By those standards, Washington's delegation is not so rich.

But some opponents — Democrats and Republicans alike — of the state's well-heeled candidates are not shy about questioning whether Congress really needs another millionaire.

"Not a millionaire"

Laura Ruderman, a former state legislator and one of DelBene's Democratic rivals in the 1st District, stresses on her campaign website that she is "not a millionaire," arguing that as the number of millionaires in Congress has risen, "its commitment to fairness has fallen."

Steve Hobbs, a Democratic state senator from Lake Stevens, said both political parties "gravitate to these millionaires" because they can self-fund their campaigns. DelBene, for example, dropped $2 million of her own money on her unsuccessful 2010 challenge of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, and has contributed $300,000 to her current campaign so far.

But Hobbs, who makes a modest salary as a state legislator and served in the Army and National Guard, said he's in a better position to understand the hardships faced by most Americans — because he's hurting, too.

Hobbs' $245,000 Lake Stevens house is financially underwater, he said. (Tax records show its assessed value at $30,000 less than when he and his wife bought it in 2005.) He has three kids in public schools and hopes his 1990s Dodge Caravan doesn't break down. "We juggle everything," he said.

DelBene, meanwhile, drives a Prius and lives in a 6,570-square-foot, $4.8 million Medina waterfront home, owned by a corporation she said she and her husband created for privacy reasons.

They bought the house from former Sonics center Jack Sikma and his wife. "It has high ceilings," DelBene joked.

She said her wealth should not be an issue in the campaign.

"I think people put on labels because they are convenient and easy, but what really matters is what are your personal values and what drives you," she said.

DelBene frequently talks about hardships her family faced after her father lost his job as a pilot when she was growing up. After she graduated from Portland's Reed College, her parents moved in with her out of financial necessity.

DelBene said she is running for Congress to ensure that the next generation has access to the same opportunities, such as student loans, that enabled her to be successful.

She said she favors raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans by allowing the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners to expire. She also backs President Obama's so-called "Buffett rule," which would set a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for households earning at least $1 million a year.

A former Microsoft vice president, DelBene was hired by Gov. Chris Gregoire to run the state Department of Revenue after DelBene lost her 2010 race against Reichert. She quit the post earlier this year to run in the 1st District race.

Her husband, Kurt DelBene, is president of Microsoft's Office Division. He earned more than $6.25 million worth of salary, stock awards and bonuses in fiscal year 2011.

Despite her résumé and endorsements, it's far from certain that DelBene will get past the crowded Aug. 7 primary. Besides Hobbs and Ruderman, DelBene's Democratic rivals include progressive activist Darcy Burner and businessman Darshan Rauniyar.

On the Republican side, Snohomish County Councilman John Koster is the only major candidate.

Sniping over money

Like DelBene, Democrat Heck has faced sniping over his money as he campaigns to represent the state's new Olympia-area 10th Congressional District.

One of Heck's Republican opponents sent out a news release deriding Heck as a "crony capitalist."

"I predict that voters left, right and center will have difficulty trusting a politician like Heck, who parlayed his political connections into a large personal fortune," said Alex Hays, a spokesman for Dick Muri, a Pierce County Council member and Air Force veteran seeking the 10th District seat.

Heck is a longtime power player in Democratic politics. Elected to the state Legislature in the 1970s at age 24, he rose to majority leader and later was chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner.

In the 1990s, he helped found TVW, the state's version of C-SPAN, giving the public new access to the proceedings of state government.

As TVW's founding president, Heck made what would prove to be a lucrative connection with Rob Glaser, the founder of RealNetworks, who served on the TVW board of directors.

Heck became an early investor in RealNetworks, the pioneer in Internet streaming audio.

He isn't the only prominent Democrat to owe his fortune to RealNetworks. Cantwell went to work for the company after losing her U.S. House seat in 1994. It was her RealNetworks stock fortune — once estimated at $40 million — that financed her win in 2000.

Heck took his RealNetworks profits and invested in a variety of businesses, from batting cages to tech firms and commercial real estate.

"I have certainly lived the American dream, but I am not in a category where I have unlimited means," Heck said. "Don't confuse me with people who are truly, truly well off."

Like DelBene, Heck recounts his humble roots — he grew up the son of a truck driver and telephone operator in Clark County and started working in the strawberry and raspberry fields at age 9.

He said the election should be about issues, not "name calling."

Heck said he wants to raise taxes on the wealthy and sees nothing incongruous about "people who have done well in this economy advocating for fairness."

In 2010, he ran for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District, loaning his campaign $350,000. He lost to Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler. He has given his latest campaign $100,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Asked whether he would throw in more this year, Heck said, "That has 100 percent to do with She Who Must Be Obeyed" — his wife, Paula.

Muri, the Republican, said he doesn't agree with raising taxes on the wealthy at this point, saying: "All the wealthy people I've met, they tell me what they pay and it's pretty high."

Stan Flemming, another Republican Pierce County Council member and Army veteran running in the 10th-District race, said he doesn't want to "punish people for being successful" but is willing to consider raising taxes on wealthy people.

Weyerhaeuser heir

Of course, the Democrats are not alone in recruiting wealthy candidates for Congress.

Political newcomer Bill Driscoll, an heir to the Weyerhaeuser family of timber moguls, is running for the 6th Congressional District seat being vacated by Democrat Norm Dicks, who is retiring.

Driscoll, a Republican, jump-started his campaign with a $500,000 contribution of his own money.

Driscoll is the great-great-grandson of Frederick Weyerhaeuser, founder of the timber giant. His personal wealth is difficult to assess, since he has not yet filed a personal financial disclosure.

Two other 6th District Republicans also have loaned their campaigns substantial amounts — $88,500 for business consultant Jesse Young and $133,000 for Air Force veteran and real-estate investor Stephan Brodhead.

That drew an attack from state Rep. Derek Kilmer, the leading Democrat in the 6th District race.

"My opponents think democracy is an auction. They are bidding to buy a seat in Congress," Kilmer wrote in a fundraising appeal.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

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