Once a top cop, GOP’s Reichert leads Obama’s trade crusade

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., speaks to a reporter in his office in the House Longworth building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, 2016. When Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin became House speaker, a shakeup on the House Ways and Means Committee resulted in Reichert taking over as head of the panel's trade subcommitee.
Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., speaks to a reporter in his office in the House Longworth building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 12, 2016. When Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin became House speaker, a shakeup on the House Ways and Means Committee resulted in Reichert taking over as head of the panel's trade subcommitee. McClatchy

After spending 19 years tracking down the nation’s most prolific serial killer, Washington state Republican Rep. Dave Reichert says his time as a cop taught him a few things that can only help him in Congress.

“With any long-term project, you definitely have to have tenacity and perseverance, and you have to have faith,” said Reichert, whose detective work helped lead to the 2001 capture of Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who confessed to murdering 49 women.

The former King County sheriff says those qualities will come in handy with his new project: getting a reluctant Congress to pass the largest trade deal in history.

As he begins his first year as chairman of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee, a job he always wanted, Reichert acknowledges that he faces a heavy lift in winning votes in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama’s top economic goal.

“I happen to be here at the right time, I think,” Reichert, a sixth-term congressman, said in an interview. “TPP is going to be a tough, tough road ahead, but I think my law enforcement career gives me the experience.”

Opponents of the 12-nation trade pact, who fear it would send more jobs overseas, predict Reichert will fail, confident that the deal is on a fast track to nowhere. Obama has pursued it since 2009.

On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders have made clear they’re in no mood to do business with Obama in his final year as president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who promised last Saturday to block a vote on a new Supreme Court justice if one is nominated during Obama’s tenure, said earlier that he didn’t want the Senate to consider the trade pact until after the fall elections.

Unions that oppose the pact are applying pressure, warning members of Congress that backing it might cost them their jobs.

And 2017 could bring more trouble: The trade pact has drawn fire from top presidential candidates, including Republican front-runner Donald Trump and both candidates for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“Nothing Mr. Reichert can do is going to change that dynamic,” said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of farm, labor, environmental, consumer and human rights groups that opposes the trade pact.

While the deal was just signed in New Zealand two weeks ago, Stamoulis predicted that amid the rising public anger “the TPP is dead on arrival in Congress this year.”

At 65, Reichert is in the odd position of fighting for a signature achievement for a Democratic president. He meets often with the president’s top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, and he’s a member of the President’s Export Council, which advises Obama on trade. In 2013, he helped create the congressional Friends of the TPP Caucus, a group he now serves as co-chair.

Reichert said the best shot to pass the trade pact might come during a lame-duck session after the election, when tempers eased.

For now, he’s irked with Trump’s persistent criticism of trade with China and Mexico.

“It’s a cop-out,” said Reichert. “The easiest message to deliver is to just bash whatever. He bashes everything, so he’s going to bash trade.”

But Reichert said all the tough talk was only electioneering. He said that Clinton, who backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as secretary of state, might change her mind again if she won the presidency. And even though he dismissed Trump as “a joke,” Reichert said the billionaire businessman might also change his tune if he won.

“You can’t roll back the clock on a global economy,” Reichert said.

In Washington state, trade backers said Reichert’s willingness to work with Democrats and Republicans alike was what might ultimately put the pact over the top.

“He’s demonstrated over the past few years that he is not only someone who is passionate about good trade policies that benefit our state, but that he is willing to work with his colleagues throughout Congress,” said Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council on International Trade in Seattle.

On Capitol Hill, Reichert’s supporters said his elevated position boded well for the nation’s most trade-dependent state, where 2 of every 5 jobs are linked to global trade. Reichert is the first congressman from Washington state to head the trade subcommittee.

“It’s just fantastic,” said Washington state GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse. “Because he gets it: He understands the importance of international trade. It’s a good move all the way around.”

Reichert is an unlikely trade champion. Born in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where his grandfather was a Lutheran minister, he was the oldest of seven kids. He said he naturally assumed the role of a caretaker, but he faced plenty of difficulties growing up. He suffered from dyslexia. Hoping to escape his father’s alcoholism and a family with domestic violence, he ran away from home as a high school senior.

A cop for 33 years, Reichert once had his throat sliced with a butcher’s knife when he tried to stop a domestic fight. He had his nose broken and his face beaten. As sheriff in 1999, Reichert got a taste of the sometimes-confrontational politics of trade, when riots flared as Seattle hosted the World Trade Organization.

But he said he always loved the work.

“Law enforcement was really what I was made for,” Reichert said. “I was just happy to be a police officer. Being in Congress was not on my agenda at all.”

In 2004, when Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn announced her retirement from Congress, Republicans recruited Reichert. After winning the seat, Reichert said, political leaders urged him to land a seat on the House and Ways and Means Committee. After he got the assignment, he said he wanted to focus on trade: He saw it as a way to create jobs to help poor families avoid the cycle of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, maybe even prevent kids from running away from home the way he did.

“You see how that all ties together?” Reichert said.

After 11 years in Congress, Reichert is known as a centrist. As a Republican who believes in climate change, he called himself “one of the anomalies,” but he said he didn’t want to be known as a moderate.

“I don’t like to be put in a box,” Reichert said. “I believe I’m one of the few thinkers in Congress. I’m not the smartest, but I’m one of the few thinkers. I don’t come here with an ideology. . . . To me, it’s asking what the facts are, like a Joe Friday: What are the facts, ma’am? What happens when you do that is you end up in the middle, because the facts will never take you left or right all the time.”

After deciding in October not to challenge Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee this year, Reichert said he was optimistic about his new role.

He said he planned a series of meetings with individual members of Congress to try to bring them on board, convinced that the deal is a winner that could create thousands of jobs. And with Japan in the pact, Reichert predicted that even Japanese citizens might soon be driving more Fords and Chevrolets, cars seldom seen in Tokyo.

If talking doesn’t work, Reichert said, he knows something else from his days as a hostage negotiator and SWAT team commander.

“I know when to negotiate and when to kick in the door,” he said.

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009, @HotakainenRob