Writings and observations

Go back 23 and a half years, to an episode out of Idaho Senate history.

In December 1982, Boise Republican Senator Jim Risch had served four terms in the Senate, three of those as majority leader – the number two spot in Senate leadership. The previous two terms he had been in many senses the main manager of the Senate, while the top Senate floor leader – President pro tem Reed Budge – took a more laid back approach. Heading into the organizational session that winter, quite a few people thought, since the membership of the Senate had not drastically changed in the previous election, they would repeat those positions.

At the dinner meeting when the caucus leadership decison was made, though, it became apparent Risch had other ideas. He had quietly, efficiently pried votes away from Budge – who had assurances from some of the senators involved that they would stay loyal to him – and won the pro tem job. He would keep that top post until he was defeated for re-election to his Senate seat six years later.

Doubtless well aware of the precedent and unwilling to get his old majority leader post go to a prospective rival, Risch ensured – as it was read at the time – that it would instead go to one of his closest allies, a helper in his campaign for leadership: Senator Mark Ricks of Rexburg. Ricks too would keep that majority leader spot for the next six years, and he and Risch worked tightly together throughout that time. Ricks was an energetic senator and you couldn’t call him a Risch clone, but he knew where his loyalty lay. He was also a key figure in the Mormon delegation at the statehouse (an ancestor of his provided the names of both Rexburg and Ricks College), and their alliance was one of the reasons for Risch’s political strength in eastern Idaho.

Risch had available a number of realistic possibilities for lieutenant governor, but of them all Ricks may have themost historical resonance. Out of the Senate now for a good many years, and coming up on 82 years of age on Independence Day, Ricks will let Risch be Risch. As it was in the decade before the last one.

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We make it a cardinal point not to try to read the minds of people in public affairs – motivation can be an obscure thing, even to ourselves in our daily lives. But every so often you read a quote that makes you choke your coffee: It just doesn’t pass the test of common sense – you’re either funnin’ me or connin’ me, but either way the face has no value.

Case in point is the Washington Supreme Court race pitting Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, generally considered a court moderate, against attorney John Groen. New campaign finance laws affecting Supreme Court races in Washington went into effect a week ago, on June 7, which limit fundraising for those races (applying restrictions similar to those for other state offices). Although candidates legally were at liberty to raise more before that effective day, Alexander (according to Public Disclosure Commission reports) played by the spirit of the law and raised a modest $28,000. Groen opted for the letter of the law, and has raised about $130,000 – about $100,000 during the month of May.

That seems a bit curious to begin with, until you learn that (a) Groen has been an attorney for the Building Industry Association of Washington, (b) the BIAW is one of the big spenders in Washington politics, (c) Groen has defended the kind of legal structure the real estate industry (contractors, realtors and others) really like, and (d) practically all of those big bucks Groen has received have come from – surprise! – building developers. Actually, there’s nothing very curious here at all: It has a coherent appearance of a building and real estate industry trying to buy itself a seat on the Washington Supreme Court.

Of course, we there get into motivation, which we’re loathe to do. But what else to think when the Seattle Times asked one of Groen’s most substantial ($25,000) donors, Larry Sundquist, president of Sundquist Homes at Lynnwood, why he contributed the big bucks. His answer:

“I just basically have a philosophy that we need to have the courts upholding the law and not making it.”

Right. That’s when you know the quest for motivation has to reach beyond the initial offering.

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ferriesIf you want an example of a government agency that simply seems resistant to solving its problems, consider the example cited in today’s Peter Callaghan column in the Tacoma News Tribune:

“. . . procedures at Washington State Ferries did not give the state reasonable assurance that public money – the fares paid by passengers – was safeguarded. A ticket seller, for example, could take money from a passenger but not sell them a ticket. No one checks passengers to make sure they have tickets. And no one counts the cars and passengers and compares that total to the fares actually sold. Washington ferries collect about $130 million a year in fares.”

This was not some crackpot allegation: This was an official finding of the state auditor almost 20 years ago. The incumbent auditor, Robert Sonntag, has been issuing reports to Washington State Ferries noting the problem ever since he took office in 1993, and still the problem remains.

Or maybe it’s being fixed. Read the column and decide for yourself.

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For months and months Dean Logan was devil incarnate to the Seattle-area blogs on the right, and a lot of other Republican activists too. He was chief of the elections office for King County, and when the 2002 governor’s race came down to a few hundred votes difference between the major candidates, and then for a time to less than a hundred – out of about three million cast – the spotlight on Logan turned into a laser beam.

It exposed some problems, which generally seem to have got corrected. Those problems led to a bashing of Logan that seems astonishing, even in hindsight, for a second-level non-elected manager. Independent reviews of the elections office actions in the 2004 elections found that it operated on the whole properly and normally. When Logan was up for job renewal in 2003 by the King County Council, he was retained. And the 2005 elections went off without a glitch, intensively though his critics searched for one.

The thing about 2002 was the extraordinary closeness of the governor’s race, which put up for examination absolutely everything that was done with absolutely every ballot – many hundreds of thousands of them. The professional lives of few people would stand up absolutely impeccably to such a microscopic examination. That doesn’t excuse errors, but it does place them in a context.

Apparently the largest county elections office in the country, in Los Angeles, California, felt that way, in offering Logan a job in charge of its election office – a post Logan says he has accepted, effective July 14. His boss (and frequent defender) Ron Sims commented that while he was sorry to see him go, “I was pleased to learn that his strong record of service through extremely trying times has not been lost on his peers in his chosen profession. I am happy that, after so many difficult days and months in which he has displayed tremendous grace under pressure, he will now have a chance to make use of his professional skills and vast knowledge of elections procedures in a more congenial environment.”

More to come soon, naturally, at Sound Politics.

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The Center for the Rocky Mountain West has pulled together an analysis on construction growth around the country, with some figures and conclusions that ought to startle. (Thanks to the High Country News Goat Blog for the pointer.)

construction map

We notice first of all five northwest counties in the “very high” construction category – in Washington, Clark (no surprise) and Whatcom (yeah, a bit of a surprise), in Oregon, Deschutes (of course) and in Idaho – not Ada or Kootenai but Blaine and Teton (probably owing to the high price of housing there). A string of additional counties – in Idaho, Ada, Kootenai, Bonneville and Valley, and in Oregon, Jackson – are in the second tier.

About some of this, the Center says, “A heavy concentration of construction activity has emerged in the Rocky Mountain West, stretching from western Montana to southern Colorado and into New Mexico.” This is usually taken as a strongly positive sign for economic growth, and in many ways it is.

But: “This growth has made all of these states much more construction dependent, as indicated in the lower chart by the amount of construction labor earnings for every $20 million in total personal income.” (Emphasis added.)

The High Country News blog suggests on this, “Despite the obvious negatives of growth (more pollution, more habitat lost, more traffic jams, more crime, more total aggravation), all the hammering on new houses and Bigger-and-Bigger Box Stores means income for workers. It can shore up the whole local economy. Arguing against it amounts to arguing against workers. The politics must go uphill.”

But turn the issue another way, and that almost suggests inevitable and never-ending growth, which most adults know won’t happen. What happens once the build boom cools?

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Ben Westlund’s independent campaign for governor seems to have held from the beginning to its message, approach and focus – it knows what it is about – but it may begin to face the question: Is that enough?

Ben WestlundTurn back a few pages to an earlier stage in the campaign. Westlund, who had been a Republican state senator from the Bend area (he still is a state senator), switched his party identification to “independent” and announced his candidacy for governor on February 14. A significant surge of excitement ran around the state, and some objective measure of it showed up on a press release his campaign issued less than two weeks later: More than $100,000 in contributions had poured in, and more than 100 volunteers were hard at work gathering petition signatures.

That was a campaign on the move. You probably could not have got anyone to take a bet as to whether Westlund would got on the ballot. In the months since, a common assumption seems to have built in that he will be on the ballot. But the relevant numbers suggest that today, it’s a debatable question.

On one (key) level, it’s a matter of math. The ballot status requirement is 18,364 valid (“perfected”) petition signatures delivered by August 29 to the secretary of state’s office. 119 days have passed since Westlund’s announcement, and the campaign’s Stacey Dycus wrote us today that 4,585 signatures have been collected. 78 days are left to collect the remaining 13,779 valid signatures – assuming every signature collected to date is valid (never, of course, a safe assumption).

Put it this way: The Westlund campaign has collected about 39 signatures a day since its launch announcement; it will have to increase that to 177 a day, every day, from here to the end of August – again, assuming every signature is valid – to make the ballot. It will have to more than quadruple its pace, as we head into the summer doldrums and interest in politics tends to slip.

That’s what we mean by a debatable proposition.

What happened to the inevitability – and momentum? Nothing, so far as we can tell, to Westlund himself or his message. He has impressed far and wide as a candidate, and his proposals seem to have the same kind of reach they did last winter. But the environment has changed.

The Republicans have nominated a candidate who, in Ron Saxton, is positioned to reach out to more centrist voters than did Kevin Mannix four years ago – and in February, no one knew which of them would be the nominee. That takes a bit of air from the right. And a bit has pulled out of the left too, as labor unions and other groups that deserted Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski in the primary election have wandered back into his fold. A scenario in which masses of labor workers would provide Westlund with foot soldiers seems now less likely. There’s also been little polling evidence in the months since the announcement that Westlund has picked up steam among the voters.

That’s one theory, anyway.

None of which is to say that Westlund is done yet. It may be that if his campaign makes clear that a big final push is imperative, the petition work, hard as it is, could get done. Dycus noted to us that “we just kicked off our field efforts June 1” and that the campaign, which already has offices in Bend and Portland, is opening a new one in Eugene. The campaign events calendar is impressively full and obviously keeping Westlund rapidly on the move around the state. He has raised upwards of two-thirds of a million dollars, certainly enough to run a serious campaign with.

So don’t count this bit of analysis as an obituary. But do note that the campaign has some massive challenges to overcome in the next couple of months if it’s to get to the final round in November.

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Over the last few weeks we’ve had to spend a good deal of time in Vancouver (Washington, not B.C.), affording time and inclination to consider that old question: Is it a true free-standing city on its own, or just another suburb of Portland?

The closeness of the call is what’s mind-working. The ties to Portland are as substantial as those of Beaverton or Gresham, as anyone crossing the Columbia River bridges well knows. (A tip for travellers with adjustable schedules: The worst weekday transit times we have found are not rush hours but rather the noon hour and about 3 p.m.) Technically, according to the feds, Clark County is part of the Portland metro area. And yet there’s a distinctiveness; land on a Vancouver street after a stay in Oregon and you can just tell, even if the signs hadn’t told you, that you were in another state – another place.

With that in mind, the May 21 column on the subject by Columbian Editorial Page editor John Laird rewards reading. His landing point on the matter of definition, naturally, is in favor of a free-standing city. But he gives the suburban argument its due, and what intrigues is that side of the argument seems the stronger.

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Credit due on a campaign tactics that – imagine this, if you will – brings a major candidate for a major office face to face with a wide range of people in a state, over a period of weeks.

McGavick at WestlakeIf that sounds more like the way campaigning used to be than the way it is now, well, too often it is. But give Mike McGavick, the Republican running for U.S. Senate in Washington, some credit for human interaction at his “open Mike” events.

A Thursday item on his blog said, “For about an hour this afternoon, I took questions from a great crowd at Westlake Center in Downtown Seattle. The crowd of people taking a break from work and passersby were great. I truly believe that this informal, question and answer session is one of the most real and genuine ways to conduct a campaign and there should be more of it in politics. As candidates, we can’t be afraid to just show up in a crowded place and spend some time answering questions. We shouldn’t shy away from events where you are going to encounter people who disagree with you. And if we truly believe that we are in politics to make a difference, we can’t shelter ourselves in what we know will be only friendly and sympathetic audiences.”

Starting July 3, he’s planning to take this approach on the road at around 40 communities around Washington, many of them smaller population points.

McGavick isn’t the only candidate to take it on this road this season, of course. But U.S. Senate candidates who have enough money to run much of their campaign on television often shield themselves from the risk of human interaction. We’ll be interested to see what develops from this effort.

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One of the key social trends in recent years has been the growth, among religious organizations, of more conservative megachurches and the relative decline of moderate (and usually less political) mainline churches.

The trend has been noted for a decade and more in books and endless articles. The evenhanded and dispassionate Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, by Alan Wolfe (a highly recommended title), suggests that one part of this transition has to do with the way some of the new, conservative and large churches operate and they way they interact with their congregations. They give people a sense of individual recognition by undertaking much of their activity in small groups. They offer convenience (burger stops and coffee bars at church are not unknown). They offer entertaining multi-media presentations. They offer help with watching the kids.

None of this is anything a more mainstream church couldn’t do, though many have felt some of these things remove a critical sense of solemnity from the proceedings. But what if a mainstream church, without changing its message, used some of these “marketing” tools – might they, too, grow? (Obviously, the implications here are not religious only – they have significant in the political and social sphere too.)

One partial answer comes in a Seattle Times piece today on the University Presbyterian Church at Seattle, located near the University of Washington. Far from diminishing in recent years, the church’s congregation has grown to about 4,400 today, adding about 500 in just the last seven years.

From the article: “‘It is unusual. It bucks a trend,’ said James Wellman, assistant professor of religion at the UW. The church’s success can be attributed to a combination of factors: its longtime emphasis on outreach to university students; its focus on developing one-on-one relationships; the numerous small groups, missions and ministries that members can become involved in; sizable staff and resources; strong preaching; and a tradition of not too much politicking at the pulpit. ‘It just hits on so many of the right buttons that the synthesis of the total is greater than the parts,’ Wellman said.”

It’s a case study that’s bound to be watched, which at some point may make it ever less an anomaly.

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Anyone in Oregon who thinks they will weight down a politician by hanging the “pro-gambling” label on him is likely to find the effort a waste of time. Consider this scenario making its way around the northern Willamette Valley.

Highway 18 bypassOne of the worst traffic jams in the Portland region is in the wine country about 30 miles southwest of town, in and around the small city of Dundee. For a variety of reasons the heavy traffic up and down Highway 99 tends to slow down around there, and the jams can be worse than anything on the Portland freeways. Locals sometimes call it the Dundee parking lot.

A plan has been circulating for some years to build a highway bypass from near the city of Newberg (on the Portland side of Dundee) to the existing Highwya 18 bypass (which years ago helped ease a similar problem at the city of McMinnville, further southwest on Higghway 99). The effort has had its share of analysis paralysis, but seems to be moving ahead. The main question now on the table is, who will pay for the expensive bypass? How will it be funded? One leading option is to create a toll road; there’s also a lot of local opposition to that idea.

Enter this notion, appearing in the publisher’s column in the McMinnville News-Register:

Dave Weston, publisher of the Itemizer-Observer in Dallas, this week weighed in to me with a spectacular piece of reasoning on the Newberg-Dundee bypass controversy. In classic “two wrongs make a right” style, and with tongue tucked firmly in cheek, he concluded that Yamhill County could have it all: a beautiful bypass financed by tolls, and drivers who not only accept but actually are excited about tossing their coins into the bin.

It’s elegantly simple: Develop a tollgate system that doubles as the latest game in the Oregon Lottery. Every pass through the gate would give that licensed vehicle one more chance to win the jackpot of the day, the week or the month. How about a $1 million instant prize if your license plate matches a plate randomly selected each hour from DMV records?

It may have been meant in jest, but it makes you stop a moment: Wait a minute, just might work – people are so gambling-hungry they just might go for it . . .

Okay: Nah. But the fact that it slowed you down is telling all by itself.

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