By Isabel Vander Stoep / [email protected]
Editor’s Note: A profile on Democratic congressional candidate Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Washougal, can be found here.
Working for the CIA, former Green Beret Joe Kent lived about as covert a life as one can. Now, by the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate from Yacolt has been thrust into the public eye.
Well over a year ago now, Kent was roused to candidacy by Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler’s vote to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Long before the filing deadline last May, he and candidates Heidi St. John and Wadi Yakhour held a pact that the former president’s endorsement of one would spur the other two to drop out of the race.
While the promise was not kept by St. John, Kent secured the endorsement and later punched his ticket to the Nov. 8 general election when he came up over Herrera Buetler, ending her service after six terms representing Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. His opponent is Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Washougal.
After holding phone town halls with the former president and making multiple appearances on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, Kent is coming to grips with massive changes to his life in rural Clark County, where he lives with his two sons, 7-year-old Colt and 5-year-old Josh.
“Initially it was hard. But I mean, we’re in very odd times right now, very, I think, desperate times. I was able to kind of put that aside. And I feel passionately about what I’m doing and the issues that I stand for and the movement I’m a part of,” he said, later describing that movement as an “‘America First’ agenda, that’s what I stand for.”
Asking Kent, 43, a Gold Star husband who’s traveled the world, to summarize his life story is asking for a Washington November without rain.
He grew up in Portland as a Boy Scout who loved visiting Mount St. Helens. His grandparents fought in World War II, giving him interest in war history from childhood.
In 1993, “savage combat” of the Black Hawk Down incident shocked and inspired him, he said.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1998 and was stationed at Fort Lewis. During the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he was in training for the Special Forces.
“The mentality coming from the ‘80s and ‘90s, a lot of us thought, ‘Oh man, the guys that got to go spend that early phase in Afghanistan, that’s going to be it. That’s going to be our Panama, Grenada or Mogadishu and we’re not going to go to war for another 10, 15 years.’ So, I was definitely galvanized (by 9/11). There’s some real threats out there. I wanted our country to take them seriously,” he said.
His service as a Green Beret often meant spending half his year deployed and the other half in training, he said, until 2018.
“Then, retired on a Friday and swore in with the CIA on Monday as a CIA paramilitary operations officer,” he said, calling that wing of the agency the “pointy edge of covert operations.”
He primarily worked out of the Middle East, speaking Arabic and training partner forces to take out terrorists.
In Baghdad in 2007, he briefly met Shannon Smith, who was serving on an intelligence team of Navy SEALs. The next time they met in 2013, the two served in a small unit together and bonded quickly, Kent recalled.
He was 33 when they met the second time. In the following two years, they were married and had their first child.
While he always thought of the Pacific Northwest as home, the duo intended on raising their children overseas, going from embassy to embassy and combining family life with service to their country, Kent said.
As Trump was making his rise toward the presidency in 2015-16, Kent said he was one of the few to take him seriously early on. When Trump talked foreign policy and immigration on the debate stage, Kent said, “he went for the throat of the Bush foreign policy.”
But Kent’s desire to be involved in policymaking didn’t come until 2019, when his wife was killed by a bombing in Syria.
Resolved to stop being “shot at for a living” and after meeting Trump during a tribute to Shannon and others who were killed, Kent had a lot to say.
“And whoever will listen to me, I’ll do my best to contribute to the conversation,” he said.
Joe Kent’s Style
In his “old life,” as he referred to it, Kent’s neighbors never knew where he was. Now, he spends his time talking to everyone, be it on podcasts, TV or during in-person town halls. He’s also engaged to be married.
He recognized Trump is the guy with the mean tweets, “for lack of a better term,” and no doubt a polarizing figure.
“My style is not that at all. If they come to my town halls, and I think if they get to know me, you’ll see that difference,” Kent said, adding later that because of his military background, he could see how people might mistake him as stoic. “But I try and do enough unscripted media where people can actually see me.”
When the Clark County candidate thinks of the “America First” agenda, he imagines energy independence, strict immigration policy and spending federal dollars on law enforcement in the 3rd district with the goal of knocking out crime. He has previously proposed ending all legal and illegal immigration besides immigration through marriage and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
He is anti-abortion, calling abortion a “sacrament of the Democrat religion right now,” in his interview with The Chronicle.
And, maybe more than anything, he’s against what he calls “establishment” Republicans, consistently joining those lambasting Herrera Beutler as a “RINO,” Republican in Name-Only, for her impeachment vote.
He said he doesn’t mind when people call him far-right, “because that typically means you’re not an establishment Republican. I personally don’t think I’m extreme.”
He’s taken a firm stance on the 2020 presidential election, saying it was stolen from Trump, and even speaking at a rally in Washington, D.C. in support of those accused of storming the Capitol, calling them “political prisoners,” as reported by The New York Times.
Asked what he would say to those who agree with his platform up until his claims of widespread election fraud, Kent said in the 3rd district he doesn’t believe it’s actually a hot-button issue “in the way the media thinks.”
Pointing to the cumulative 41.99% of the vote split between him, St. John and candidate Vicki Kraft in the primary, he said, “Vicki and I both would say it’s rigged and stolen. Heidi said there’s major problems with the election. With our base right now, there’s a lot of people that have major issues with election integrity.”
The question of how Kent will bridge the gap and earn the votes from supporters of Herrera Beutler remains. He previously told The Chronicle he thinks voting for Herrera Beutler is no different from voting for a Democratic candidate, and further, that the Democratic Party simply does not have moderate candidates anymore.
“I think folks just have to recognize what the stakes are. And unfortunately, I hate to say it this way, but they have to decide which side they’re going to be on. Because there’s no middle. You can’t be a wishy-washy person now as you’re either with what’s going on with the current administration or you’re going to fight it. And that’s it,” Kent said.
A Big District, A Young Man’s Game
In his office in Vancouver, Kent’s campaign manager, Ozzie Gonzalez mans the door. Energetic and intense, the 22-year-old graduated from Camas High School a few years ago and began working for the campaign after Kent filed for office.
Gonzalez says the campaign hired 12 staffers over the summer and half returned to college in the fall.
Kent said it was an honor to have young folks on his team. He felt with COVID-19, Gen-Z has been forced to grow up fast, relating that to his young adulthood around the time of Sept. 11.
“(Campaigning) is definitely a young man’s game,” Kent said. “Being able to run around the district a whole bunch and still have the energy to keep up with everything.”
In a district spanning parts of Thurston County and encompassing Clark, Lewis, Cowlitz, Pacific, Wahkiakum and Skamania counties, the landscape and its people are diverse. The Chehalis, Columbia and Willapa River Basins are all firmly within its political lines, as are the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount St. Helens.
A long list of environmental issues face the district.
Kent and Gluesenkamp Perez alike want their potential stints in Congress to be defined by championing problems for rural Washingtonians, and both have a focus on increasing family wage jobs, reducing crime and supporting commercial fishermen, loggers and recreators.
Ultimately, Kent believes it’s these issues and relationships that earned him a shot at the general.
“I think we won the election because we knocked on doors, went out and talked to people, and then town halls. If people come and experience that, they’re going to see who I am,” he said.
The top vote-getter this November will serve a two-year term and will make a $174,000 yearly salary.
For more on the candidates, visit the online voters’ guide at https://elections.lewiscountywa.gov/current-election/. To register to vote, head to https://elections.lewiscountywa.gov/voter-registration/ or call 360-740-1164 to find registration nearest you. The general election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 8.
The League of Women Voters of Clark County will hold a debate between the two 3rd Congressional District candidates at 2 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15, at the downtown Vancouver public library at 901 C St., Vancouver.