Clark County Today Editor Ken Vance struggles to understand recent comments made by Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler in a news story published in The New York Times.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was updated to add a sentence that was unintentionally omitted in Craig Wheeler’s response to my inquiry about Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler’s comments in The New York Times.
In the 1990s, when I was a relatively young reporter at an area newspaper, I participated in a series of mandatory team-building exercises that included a stretch that focused on the teachings of Stephen R. Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’’
I entered the experience with a considerable amount of skepticism, but the time spent being introduced to Covey’s ideas wasn’t without its benefits. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t recite to you all seven of his suggested habits, but I do remember one. By the way, I would have sworn on my life it was the first habit, but it’s actually No. 5. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’’
I can’t say that I’ve always lived my life with this principle in mind, but these 25 or so years later the suggestion still resides with me. And this week, at least, I put this instruction to work once again.
In a story that appeared March 12 in The New York Times, entitled “Jaime Herrera Beutler Is Undaunted,’’ the six-term Congresswoman of Washington’s Third Congressional District, and a Battle Ground resident, answered questions addressing the fallout from her vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump in January.
In the interest of accuracy and context, I’m going to share one full paragraph from that story that jumped off the page at me and many others who reside here in Clark County. The “she” being referred to is obviously Herrera Beutler. If you question the authenticity of the paragraph, the story can easily be found online here.
She said she did not mind the judgment of “fringe-y people” whose whole political identity was tied to Mr. Trump, because “I’ve never been in that camp, and I’m not going to win them back,” she said. “I’m not exactly courting the white supremacy vote.”
My questions for the Congresswoman
I read that paragraph several times, particularly the final statement, over the course of a couple of days. I didn’t discuss it with anybody. I tried very hard not to have an emotional, incendiary, knee-jerk reaction. Finally, I just couldn’t help myself. I had to follow Covey’s habit No. 5.
On Thursday, I emailed Craig Wheeler, the Congresswoman’s communications director in Washington D.C. Here’s exactly what I asked Wheeler about Herrera Beutler’s comments in The New York Times story:
Can you please confirm for me that the Congresswoman was quoted accurately? And, in the days since the article was published, has the Congresswoman made any comments, clarifying or addressing that original remark?
Can you also confirm for me who the Congresswoman considers to be “fringe-y people.” There are many residents back here in Washington’s Third Congressional District who are upset over her impeachment vote, as you are well aware. Are those people “fringe-y people?” Are they part of the “white supremacy vote” that she is not courting?
The response from Herrera Beutler’s communications director
Wheeler has always been cooperative when I have interacted with him and, to his credit, this time was no exception. Here is his complete response:
“We very much appreciate the chance to clarify Jaime’s position here because she was a Trump voter herself. The words Jaime used in that interview were ‘fringe-y people.’ She also said ‘I’m not exactly courting the white supremacy vote.’ Everything else was filled in by the reporter in the reporter’s words.
“If you’re looking for specifics on what Jaime is referring to as fringe-y – she’s recently denounced individuals who’ve repeated conspiracy theories about planes never hitting the Pentagon and school shootings being ‘false flag’ events. Those individuals are out there, but Jaime’s never been in their camp.
“So unless someone’s a white supremacist, or they traffic in conspiracy theories like QAnon, no Republican listening to Jaime’s comments should be offended by them.
She said she did not mind the judgment of ‘fringe-y people’ whose whole political identity was tied to Mr. Trump, because ‘I’ve never been in that camp, and I’m not going to win them back,’ she said. “I’m not exactly courting the white supremacy vote.’’
Where does that leave you and me?
I continue to struggle with my emotions and reaction to the Congresswoman’s comments. Let me preface my comments with the fact that I’ve always had an ample amount of respect and appreciation for Herrera Beutler. Granted, I’m a bit more conservative than she is but I’ve always considered us to be residing peacefully under the same tent.
I’ve never revealed this to you before, but since I transitioned from a reporter to an editor who provides commentary on political issues, candidates and elected officials, I made the decision that it would be inappropriate for me to vote in any elections. I’m not the only journalist who has ever made this decision (research it, there’s many of us who feel this is the ethical thing to do).
I don’t endorse or condemn candidates. I don’t tell you how to vote and I go out of my way to try not to influence any elections. It’s times like these that I am thankful that I made that decision. The fact that I’ve never voted for Herrera Beutler, or against her, or voted for or against the former president, allows me to approach issues like this without the emotion of a voter who might feel loyalty or betrayal.
I don’t know if Wheeler actually discussed my questions with Herrera Beutler before he responded to me. He may have, he may not have. That said, I think I understand the needle that he was trying to thread. Essentially, the point he was trying to make is there are people, in both parties for that matter, who have some extreme ideas and beliefs. These are the “fringe-y people,” and they are the “white supremacy vote’’ that Herrera Beutler isn’t courting.
I don’t know how high of a percentage of Republicans Herrera Beutler would consider to be in this “fringe-y” category. It’s one thing to reference people who don’t think planes flew into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, or people who think that school shootings are “false flag’’ events. What I’m still not clear on, is who else does the Congresswoman consider to be worthy of this designation?
The New York Times article was largely about the fallout and criticism Herrera Beutler has received since being one of 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote to impeach Trump. If you’ve been paying attention, there are more than just a small percentage of residents and voters in the Third Congressional District who are upset with the Congresswoman about that vote. Does Herrera Beutler put them in the “fringe-y” category? More than 74 million Americans voted for Trump. Are they in the “fringe-y” category?
We are at a time in our history where being labeled a white supremacist is just about the worst thing you can say about somebody. I’ve watched people’s lives destroyed by that accusation, whether it was accurate or not. And, as someone who leans more to the right than Herrera Beutler does, my instinct is to be offended by the Congresswoman’s comment. But, her communications director double downed on the premise by suggesting that “unless someone’s a white supremacist, or they traffic in conspiracy theories like QAnon, no Republican listening to Jaime’s comments should be offended by them.’’
I’m not sure I’ve accomplished my goal of seeking first to understand, then to be understood. But, I think I’m more offended now than I was when I first read the Congresswoman’s comments in The New York Times story.
I hope my thoughts get back to the Congresswoman. Continuing my pursuit to understand, I invite Herrera Beutler to explain herself to those of us in the Third Congressional District. I will give her all the space on the Clark County Today website she needs to help us to determine whether or not we should be offended by her comments to The New York Times.