Rep.-elect Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Democrat from southwestern Washington state, had barely slept since catching an early morning flight out of Oregon a few days prior when HuffPost caught up with her by phone. Amid her new member orientation earlier this month in Washington, D.C., she had already rendered a verdict about the nation’s capital.
“I think I like the other Washington better,” she joked.
Gluesenkamp Perez, who owns an auto repair and parts shop with husband Dean Gluesenkamp, is one of the unlikely Democratic success stories of the 2022 election cycle. She received limited support from the national Democratic Party but prevailed with a message of protecting abortion rights, respecting democracy and finding practical solutions to working people’s problems.
Gluesenkamp Perez also capitalized on moderate Republican and independent discontent with GOP nominee Joe Kent, a right-wing populist who rubbed elbows, at the very least, with white nationalists. Kent had ousted Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler — one of 10 House Republicans who in early 2021 voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump — during Washington’s nonpartisan primary in August.
The Democrat’s win is a “really powerful rebuke to some of the ugliest parts of our politics,” she said. “I’m really, really honored to get to be a part of that.”
‘Not Your Typical Candidate’
If national observers have heard one thing about Gluesenkamp Perez’s race, it is likely related to Kent’s status as a Trump loyalist and hardcore member of the “Make America Great Again,” or MAGA, movement.
Kent firmly believes that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” — a falsehood often repeated by Trump, who lost his White House race that year. This, along with Kent’s criticism of Herrera Beutler’s impeachment vote, helped him win the former president’s backing in the primary.
A former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces whose wife died fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, Kent expressed some nationalistic views with crossover appeal, such as his opposition to interventionism abroad, support for reshoring manufacturing jobs and calls to fix a system “rigged” against working people.
But he also embraced hard-line immigration policies like withholding citizenship from children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. He employed a member of the Proud Boys, a far-right gang, as a campaign consultant and became friendly with white nationalist Nick Fuentes. (Kent said in March that he disavowed Fuentes after learning about his racist views, though the Republican also said he doesn’t see “anything wrong with there being a white people special interest group.”)
Kent is currently refusing to concede his race against Gluesenkamp Perez, and he has issued vague allegations of foul play in the vote count.
Gluesenkamp Perez told HuffPost that she saw Kent as a sincere, if misguided, figure, until reporting raised questions about who exactly employs him. A company listed in his public filings was not registered as active, though his campaign subsequently shared a note from the business suggesting that it may have used an alias to maintain an apolitical appearance.
“In a best-case scenario, Joe is a guy with scary ideas who’s honest about what he believes,” Gluesenkamp Perez told HuffPost. “In a darker scenario, Joe is not only a person with bad ideas, but also a person with unknown incentives.”
The ambiguity about Kent’s occupation is a point of contrast with Gluesenkamp Perez, who made her work as a small-business owner engaged in manual labor a central theme of her campaign. She appears in multiple TV ads in a mechanic’s jumpsuit.
“People want a Congress that looks like America.”
– Rep.-elect Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.)
“I’m not your typical candidate for Congress,” she says in a TV ad from the primary, after popping out from under a car on a mechanic’s creeper.
“We don’t need another corporate shill or extremist in Congress,” she concludes. “I will fight for working Washingtonians just like me.”
More than any one policy, Gluesenkamp Perez emphasized her identity as a plaid-wearing working mom intimately acquainted with ordinary people’s struggles to pay the bills.
“I had the advantage of just getting to be myself and talking like a normal human being, which is something that we’re all desperate for at this point,” she told HuffPost. “People want a Congress that looks like America.”
Gluesenkamp Perez, who is due to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is a fifth-generation Washingtonian on her mother’s side, with ancestors who worked in the state’s logging and stone-cutting industries. Her father is a Mexican immigrant who went on to make a living as a salesperson and serve as a lay pastor in an evangelical Christian church. Gluesenkamp Perez’s parents home-schooled her and her three siblings.
An ardent abortion-rights advocate, Gluesenkamp Perez has diverged from her devout parents’ views on social policy. The first political protest she ever attended was an anti-abortion rally.
Many members of her immediate family still oppose abortion rights, and she does not know if the ones who live in her district voted for her.
Although Gluesenkamp Perez wants to use federal legislation to enshrine the abortion-rights guarantee from the Supreme Court’s now-overturned Roe v. Wade decision, growing up in an anti-abortion household has imbued her with a respect for socially conservative voters.
“I respect where people are coming from, and I assume they have good intentions,” she said of abortion opponents. “It’s a lot easier to have a respectful conversation when you’re starting from a position of mutual respect.”
That didn’t stop Gluesenkamp Perez from making abortion rights a core part of her platform. Kent made her job easier by endorsing a national abortion ban without exceptions for incest or rape.
“When I had a miscarriage, I needed to see a doctor right away,” she says in her first general-election TV ad. “The last thing women need is extreme politicians like Joe Kent standing between us and critical medical care.”
Gluesenkamp Perez, her husband and their baby boy now live in rural Stevenson, Washington. The couple commute about an hour each way to their auto shop in northeast Portland, Oregon.
Her salary was $34,000 and her husband’s was $43,800 in 2021, according to her personal financial disclosure.
Child care was a challenge, prompting Gluesenkamp Perez to bring her son to work with her at times. To pay for his health insurance, the couple have forgone their own.
“The low-hanging fruit on workforce participation is getting child care facilities back open,” she said. “I know so many moms who are staying home but want to work — even though I hate that dichotomy, because being a mom is a shit-ton of work.”
During a televised debate with Kent, she drew on her experience working with her hands to argue against raising the Social Security retirement age. Kent, who said “we should explore” privatizing the program for future beneficiaries, justified his openness to raising the age on the idea that “folks are living longer.”
“People who work in white-collar jobs are living longer. People who work in the trades, like me and my family, are not living longer,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “Why should we pay with our retirement for the retirements of people who work in office jobs? That’s not equitable.”
A ‘Bridge Builder’ Eager To Work With Republicans
Health care access and child care access are conventional liberal priorities. And some of Gluesenkamp Perez’s ideas for addressing these challenges fit into that framework. She wants to pass legislation that helps families pay for child care with tax credits, lift the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes to close the program’s funding gap, give the federal government even more power to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, and enact “right to repair” legislation that protects consumers’ rights to fix products they buy.
Gluesenkamp Perez faults some corporations for buying influence in Washington and for exploiting workers and consumers. But she also takes issue with government regulations that she believes are too complicated or vary too much to be effective.
She said that the rules governing child care centers in Washington state change so often that they are not available in printed form, and she likewise believes that the government has botched the management of Washington’s timber forests.
When Gluesenkamp Perez talks about overregulation, she makes a case familiar to many conservatives: that red tape helps corporations at the expense of small businesses.
“A lot of times, larger corporations embrace the regulatory environment because it’s a moat” blocking competition from the small businesses unable to afford compliance, she said.
“Nobody working full time should be on food stamps.”
– Gluesenkamp Perez
Billing herself as a “bridge builder,” Gluesenkamp Perez hopes to join the centrist, bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, though she needs to apply alongside a Republican lawmaker. And she is interested in serving on the House committees on Agriculture, Small Business, or Transportation and Infrastructure. A seat on the influential Energy and Commerce panel would be a dream come true, but she acknowledges that, as a first-term legislator, it would be a tall order to “arm-wrestle my way into that.”
Gluesenkamp Perez speaks clearly and with passion, but occasionally her status as a political newcomer is apparent. When HuffPost asked about her position on a $15 minimum wage, which is not on her website, it sounded like she was thinking the idea through in real time.
The closest she came to an official position on the policy was saying that “by and large, it makes sense.”
“I’ve never tried to run a café in Middle America. But I have run a small business,” she said, noting that she pays all of her employees more than $15 per hour. “When you compensate people fairly, you get more talent. And it makes sense from a business perspective.”
Then, unprompted, she offered a broad statement of values: “Nobody working full time should be on food stamps.”
Asked about President Joe Biden’s cancellation of student debt, Gluesenkamp Perez, a graduate of Reed College, also declined to lay out a clear stance, indicating that she empathizes with borrowers but is skeptical of the solution. She would rather address the underlying cost of a higher education, including by scrutinizing the income tax exemption of not-for-profit universities where costs nonetheless keep rising exponentially.
“We’re trying to push with a rope here,” she said. “If your house is flooding, you don’t start mopping it up; you turn the water main off.”
Wooing Moderates With Local Help
Gluesenkamp Perez’s aversion to strong ideological stances is genuine, but it also had clear political benefits. Her district leans Republican. Trump carried the seat by 4 percentage points in 2020. And Herrera Beutler won reelection by 13 percentage points in the same cycle.
Gluesenkamp Perez needed to create a permission structure for independents and moderate Republicans who liked Herrera Beutler — and probably even Trump — to vote for her, because of their distaste for Kent.
One challenge she faced in that task was that she did not receive any support from House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Asked about the decision not to get involved in the race, DCCC Executive Director Tim Persico told The Washington Post in October that the contest was both winnable and a “reach” that his group could not afford due to limited resources. “I wish I had more money,” he said.
Gluesenkamp Perez spoke about the party’s decision-making diplomatically. “We need to do better,” she said, referring to the national Democratic Party. “I think we can do better.”
Terrified of a Kent victory, local Democrats and moderate Republicans in southwest Washington got together to fill the void.
Under the leadership of field director Tim Gowen, a friend of Gluesenkamp Perez’s from Reed College with no experience in politics and only a shoestring budget, about 1,000 volunteers knocked on nearly 40,000 doors on Gluesenkamp Perez’s behalf.
The campaign benefited from the assistance of Harley Augustino, a former Unite Here union organizer living in Portland who rallied some trainees at his organizer training program, Base Building for Power, to volunteer for Gluesenkamp Perez alongside him. They organized a “call squad” with a dozen members — half of them recruited by Augustino — to mobilize and manage hundreds of other volunteers.
In Augustino’s experience, the most persuasive argument with swing voters, many of whom are wary of the activist left, was that Kent was aligned with Trump and was thus the more polarizing figure in the race.
“I can vote Republican, but I can’t vote for that type of Republican.”
– Mel Finn-Kamerath, a volunteer for Gluesenkamp Perez, on Joe Kent
“I would say that Marie represents the district and Joe Kent represents the extremes and being very aligned with Donald Trump,” Augustino said. “If you’re tired of extremes, Marie is your person.”
It helped that Mel Finn-Kamerath, one of Augustino’s most motivated recruits, was a swing voter who had supported Herrera Beutler in the primary. But Kent’s ties to Trump and opposition to abortion rights were disqualifying to Finn-Kamerath, a homemaker from Kalama.
“I can vote Republican, but I can’t vote for that type of Republican,” she said, praising Gluesenkamp Perez’s commitment to “working across the aisle.”
At the same time, Fuse Washington, a progressive group in the state, erected a super PAC to support Gluesenkamp Perez and a handful of other candidates.
The political action committee spent more than $700,000 to air four TV ads — all of them attacks against Kent. Two focused on Kent’s opposition to abortion rights; the other two focused on his false claims about the 2020 election and his related ties to right-wing extremist groups.
One particularly illustrative 30-second spot featured a U.S. Air Force veteran from the district.
“Joe Kent and I swore the same oath,” Alan, a Desert Storm veteran from Washougal, says as patriotic music plays in the background. “But now Joe Kent is aligning himself with conspiracy theorists, election deniers, groups like the Proud Boys.”
House Democrats’ main super PAC, House Majority PAC, also spent nearly $300,000 on TV ads blasting Kent in the final week of the campaign.
Kent’s weaknesses as a candidate were apparently even enough to scare off national Republican groups. House Republicans’ campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, did not spend a dime on Kent’s behalf in the general election, nor did the Congressional Leadership Fund, their main super PAC. (The two groups did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment on their reasons for sitting out the race.)
Aaron Ostrom, the executive director of Fuse Washington, believes that while Gluesenkamp Perez succeeded in winning over a critical share of moderate voters who were fearful of Kent, no one should mistake her for a cookie-cutter centrist.
“She doesn’t get her appeal by being a mealy-mouthed moderate,” he said. “She gets her appeal through rural, working-class populism.”