The U.S. House of Representatives, for the last couple weeks, has been barely functional due to stubborn partisan divides in and outside of the Republican party.
That doesn’t deter Leslie Lewallen. After all, the Camas-based Republican and 2024 Third District Congressional hopeful is accustomed to arguments: She’s a mother of four.
“I don’t agree with every one of my family members 100% of the time. My husband and I disagree all the time,” Lewallen told The Chronicle during an interview Tuesday. “You have to look at, ‘What do you agree on?’ And, if you agree with someone 80% of the time, or 90% of the time, or even 70 or 60% of the time, that’s what’s important. I don’t know when ‘compromise’ became a dirty word.”
After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Southwest Washington’s 12-year Republican incumbent, Jaime Herrera Beutler, voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump. The vote was unpopular with some, including a Republican from Yacolt who would later file for candidacy. Joe Kent, R-Yacolt, subsequently earned Trump’s endorsement ahead of the 2022 race and pulled ahead of Herrera Beutler in the primary.
Lewallen, a Camas city councilor and an attorney, thinks the split between Kent and Herrera Beutler voters in the August 2022 primary illustrates the GOP’s current predicament.
“What was there, like, a half percentage point between her and Joe Kent in the end?” Lewallen asked, rhetorically (and correctly, according to certified primary results).
After the primary, in a September 2022 interview with The Chronicle, Kent was asked how he planned to earn votes from Herrera Beutler supporters who were hesitant about him.
In his response, Kent said, “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.”
Coupling a divided vote with certain party members’ “obsession” with claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Lewallen felt some Republicans were discouraged to turn in their ballots at all. Others, she said, simply couldn’t get behind Kent, who was proud to often stray from who he called “establishment Republicans.”
Impacts of inner-party division on the local scale continue. The Conservative Coalition of Lewis County recently formed as a branch of Republicans who were fed up with what they called “lack of decorum” by the county party, according to previous reporting by The Chronicle. They hosted Lewallen at a picnic on July 24.
Meanwhile, the Clark County Republican Party refused to recognize Lewallen as a GOP candidate. The move ended up giving Lewallen more traction with moderates, she said.
“As Republicans, I think that we need to start realizing that we're going to win by addition, and not subtraction,” Lewallen said Tuesday.
In November, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Washougal, won the seat on a platform of representing the moderate, working class people of Southwest Washington.
A seat at the table
If not in the eyes of the Clark County party, Lewallen is a Republican by any other definition. She always has been, Lewallen said. She attended law school at Seattle University, and has three published law review articles on what she considers “core” GOP values: “limited government, property rights and legislative intent,” Lewallen said.
She’s also patriotic. Sitting at her dining room table in Camas, Lewallen was wrapped in an American flag scarf. Another flag, one flown over the U.S. Capitol, was framed and hanging on her wall.
A fifth-generation Washingtonian, Lewallen has been on the outskirts of politics throughout her career. Both her grandfathers lived in Olympia. One was the city manager; the other owned a dry-cleaning business. One of her uncles was the Mason County prosecuting attorney, another was the superintendent of public instruction.
“Public service runs in the family,” Lewallen said. “Obviously, holidays are fun with so many attorneys and our family debates.”
Her husband, Brian, is also an attorney.
Lewallen paged in the Legislature, was involved in the Federalist Society in law school and clerked for Gary Alexander, chief justice for the Washington State Supreme Court in the early 2000s. She worked for Rob McKenna, R-Seattle, when he was on the King County Council.
Lewallen and her husband moved around for work during the 2000s, and eventually came back to Camas, where they live now.
Living with her children during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, she said, pulled Lewallen off the sidelines.
“I said, ‘Enough. I want to be invited. I want a seat at the table,’” Lewallen recalled.
Later, she added, “I’m a fighter. My battlefield was in the home.”
‘Clear path for victory’
In November 2021, Lewallen was elected to the Camas City Council after “personally” knocking on 5,000 doors in the approximately 25,000-person city, she said. Her biggest concern was the fallout from COVID-19 learning loss and what she saw as lack of parental input. Her term is set to end in 2025.
“I'm my children's best advocate,” Lewallen said, later adding, “We have 60,000 less students enrolled in the public school system. We've seen a 20% increase in private school enrollment. We've seen a 40% increase in homeschool enrollment. And those are facts that don't lie.”
She’s also on the city council’s transportation committee, with a particular focus on the Interstate 5 bridge to Portland.
Other issues she’d bring to Congress, if elected in November 2024, she said, include homelessness, crime and a wish to secure the United States’ border with Mexico.
Though some of Lewallen’s worries lie with Washington government, she has little hope for Republican candidates at the state level.
Against freshman incumbent Gluesenkamp Perez, though, Lewallen is confident.
“I don’t get into anything unless I know I can win. I don’t,” she said. “I sat down and I crunched all the numbers and I did a budget. A detailed budget. And there is a clear path for victory, for me. … (Gluesenkamp) Perez wants her challenger to be Kent because he is easy to pick off. I would be a lot harder of an opponent.”