Changing of the guard

When polling members of Southwest Washington’s business community on Congressman Brian Baird, some words and phrases tend to repeat themselves, such as “pragmatic,” “independent” and “down-to-earth.”

In the wake of Baird's decision last week to retire next year after 10 years representing the 3rd Congressional District, business owners, executives and fellow politicians mostly paid respect to the six-term Vancouver Democrat, with some betraying more than a little trepidation about who and what comes next.

"Whether or not you agree with all of his statements, he's a man who uses a lot of common sense, which is something you don't see in Congress that much," said Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kim Capeloto.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a fellow Democrat, praised Baird's recent work to extend a sales tax exemption for state residents as an example of his commitment to tax fairness during his tenure in the U.S. House.

But it was his actions in regards to another vote – perhaps the most contentious in his political career – that won him the most effusive praise in some quarters.

Shortly after voting to approve the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which created a $700 billion bailout fund for large financial institutions, Baird held a series of three round-table discussions with local business interests – a move that garnered respect, if not agreement, for his decision.

"Whether or not TARP was the way to go, a lot of us still have questions about that," said Eric Braunwart, president of Columbia Gem House in Vancouver. "But I think he came to the table with the business community to see if there was anything he could do for us."

Braunwart, forced to lay off staff after his lines of credit were cut off due to the Bank of Clark County's failure last January, had hoped Baird would continue his push for legislation to help small business owners. However, the wide open field of candidates in the running left Braunwart wondering if Baird's replacement would share his priorities.

"He was one of the few people in Congress who cared about small business," Braunwart said. "With him leaving, we lose that voice."

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