Writings and observations

While most of the attention in Washington politics has gravitated either to the race for the U.S. Senate or the House in the 8th (or less commonly 5th) district, there are still races for the state legislature on the ballot. And the Washington state legislature is still a fairly closely-split pair of chambers.

Will it remain so after the November election? Will the slim Democratic advantages in the House and Senate remain, be expanded, or be reversed?

We’ll return to this, but one intriguing starting-point is the spreadsheet put together by the proprietor of The Moderate Washingtonian. a blog from Federal Way.

TMW offers this site description: “Outlook on politics and elections in the state of Washington from an overall centrist viewpoint. My views tend to be libertarian in nature, but at the same time are largely nonpartisan.” That seems reasonably close to what we read there, which tends more toward polling and statistical information than toward any partisanship.

There are two spreadsheets, one each for House and Senate.

The balance is closest in the Senate, where the party leads by 26-23, and one of its members (Tim Sheldon) often leaves the reservation. There, TMW is projecting three Democratic pickups, for what would be a 29-20 margin. All three seats projected to switch are in the Seattle suburbs. The seat being vacated by Republican Stephen Johnson on the east side (District 47) has been trending Democratic; the seat being defended by Republican Like Esser against R-turned-D legislator Rodney Tom (District 48) also is estimated to flip. The third was home to the closest legislative race in the state, District 26 (mostly just across Puget Sound from Seattle), where Republican Bob Oke, now retiring, squeaked by, and which also seems to be trending D.

TMW also estimates that that the House, now 55-43 in Democratic control, would go to 57-41. The sense is that three seats would flip from R to D control, and the Ds would lose one (the seat now held by Tom).

The Moderate is updated periodically. We’ll be checking back, and filling in.

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Since July 25, when Idaho Governor Jim Risch called a special legislative session and released the one piece of legislation it will be allowed to consider, two conflicting tendencies have been headed for a showdown. Come Friday, when the session convenes and the dramatic choice is made, we all get to learn something – through this conflict – about the character of Idaho politics.

The conflict is not over the core subject of the session, which is property taxes, which have been rising rapidly in a number of parts of Idaho, and which in many cases has caused a great deal of distress. A combination of factors, including but not limited to the recent boom in housing sales prices and therefore values, has made that a widespread concern. The question is what exactly to do about it.

Risch’s proposal, released in detail when he called the session, is summed up on his web site:
“Removing the 3-mil maintenance and operations levy will reduce property taxes statewide by $260 million. Risch proposes adding one-cent to the sales tax to bring in $210 million annually. The net overall reduction in taxes is $50 million. The one-cent sales tax increase would be effective October 1 if passed by the special session of the Idaho Legislature. The governor would use $50 million of the surplus to make up the difference between the property tax cut and the sales tax increase. He would also transfer $100 million to an education ‘rainy day’ savings account to protect education funding from any future economic downturn. The state’s fiscal year ended with just over $200 million more in the bank than projected. The proposal also includes an advisory vote on the November 2006 ballot.” None of that is in dispute, either.

The issues are whether this is the best way to ease the property tax explosion; and if so, whether legislators will insist on considering options. Risch’s legislative call appears ironclad: Either approve his idea, or go home having done nothing.

That would reflect badly on many legislators, of course, and also on Risch, who at this point has stake much of his prestige on this whole effort working. At his inaugural, he said he would not call a special session unless he was believed it would get the job done. At his call, he was joined by a large batch of legislators, including leadership, who pledged support.

It may pan out that way – certainly the pressure from Risch and leadership is intense. But there is a countervailing force that has gathered some steam of its own in the weeks since the call.

Idahoans have started to see report after report saying that Risch’s proposal might not be an especially good deal for them. Most of them have pointed out that while property taxpayers generally would, yes, get a cut, the tradeoff would be a sales tax increase that would cost many of them more than the cut would save. The Spokane Spokesman-Review has posted an on-line calculator allowing site visitors to work out, roughly, for themselves how they would come out.

Its projected results appear to match with a study by University of Idaho agricultural economist Stephen Cooke, quoted as saying, “Business makes out like a bandit – they get a $100 million tax reduction. If the intention is to give middle-class homeowners tax relief, you can’t get there from here, according to my analysis, because you’re going to be raising their taxes next.”

There have been a string of other studies, and most suggest that business property taxpayers making out (to varying degrees) much better than homeowners under the Risch plan. There have also been complaints from educators, including the state university presidents, that the plan may have the effect of harming education.

Complicating this further is the release of a property tax cut plan from legislative Democrats, one which didn’t include a sales tax increase. The Democrats are small in number in the legislature, but they have pounded their plan around the state, and have set up a petition campaign for it. They also have gotten some good reviews. The Coeur d’Alene Press stunned quite a few people with its editorial in support of it: “It is the state Democrats, not the fiscally proud Republicans, who have tendered what appears to be the more palatable of two property-tax proposals. It is the Republicans, not the Democrats, who have embraced the concept of higher taxes as a greater good.”

Newspapers around the state tended to support Risch’s decisiveness when he first called the session, but the tone has changed. Most of the dailies have talen repeated shots at either the idea of the one-bill special session, or Risch’s proposal specifically, or both. The reaction has been almost uniform, and such letters to the editor on the subject as have appeared give credence to the idea that the criticism of both has, in the last two to three weeks, started to sink in more broadly.

Such will be the atmosphere when the Idaho Legislature convenes on Friday. It should be good drama, or if not good, then at least instructive.

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The Olympian newspaper at Washington’s capital has for some months been running Capitol Chat – live on-line chats with public people in the area. It’s been a nifty service, not (yet) much replicated by other regional newspapers. Some sessions have been livelier than others; the guests have ranged from House Speaker Frank Chopp to a local accountant (talking about income taxes) to oneof the newspaper’s photographers.

Tim SheldonCould be that the liveliest session they’ve had yet, and possibly the most significant, will be coming up Tuesday. That’s when third-term state Senator Tim Sheldon and his opponent in the Democratic primary, Kyle Taylor Lucas, joint chat with whoever types in.

Tim SheldonIt’s a hell of a contest, one of the most watchable in Washington state for next month’s primary, and with even some national resonance.

Sheldon is the sometimes-Democrat, sometimes-independent (as when he serves on the Mason County Commission) who has tended to support Republicans for major office (as in George W. Bush for president and Dino Rossi for governor) more than he has Democrats. Quite a few Democrats around Washington would like to see him bounced out of office. (Should note here: Sheldon has done the Olympian chat, by himself, before.)

First question: How will primary voters in rural west-Puget District 35 react? (Roughly, District 35 sits west and northwest of Olympia.)

Second question: How will they react to Lucas, who is best known to this point as the director of the state Indian Affairs office under former Governor Gary Locke?

Third question: Will the change in primary election procedure – in which, this time, the participants in this primary will be more closely limited to Democratic Party members than previously – work against Sheldon?

Fourth question: To what extent does someone – and it’s hard to be sure who it would be – try to turn this into another (local) Liberman-Lamont battle?

These last two mesh together. The Olympian quoted state Senator Karen Keiser, D-Kent, who heads the state Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “What we see in Connecticut … may be emblematic. It may be a signal for all of us to pay attention to.” She also described District 35 as “‘ground zero’ for the effects of the pick-a-party primary, where party die-hards can make their preferences felt more strongly.”

This is a very hard-fought race. For a sense of how the internal struggle is playing out in the Democratic Party in the Northwest, there’ll be no better place to tune in midday Tuesday than on the Olympian‘s chat.

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On Friday, the ever-evolving Oregon governor’s race wheeled again as it spun – unpredictably – on the axis of one of the more intriguing personalities in recent Oregon politics: Kelly Clark.

Kelly Clark He is not an office holder, now, though he was a state representative in the late 80s and early 90s. A Republican, he was the most visible attorney (and evidently the lead) in the 2004 case against the Multnomah County Commission when it authorized same-sex marriage.

In a fascinating profile at that time on Clark, Taylor Clark of Willamette Week wrote, ” The question at this point seems not to be whether Clark’s mind is open, but what could possibly be going through it. He is a sex offender who has made a mint defending the sexually abused, and he’s also a former gay-rights advocate being paid to dismantle the biggest gay-rights victory in Oregon history. Clark sees no inconsistency, because in both cases he says he is motivated by the same dominating passion: disgust with the misuse of power. ‘I get to represent the little guy going up against the big guy,’ he says. ‘I absolutely love that, whether it’s the church, the government, insurance companies, banks.'”

Where in all this does his new action, announced on Friday, fit in? When he says he plans to file an action seeking to disqualify Constitution Party nominee Mary Starrett from the November general election ballot for an obscure gray-area possible legal violation, whose power abuse is it that he’s disgusted with?

His public statements so far seem to give little hint, only outlining the violation he or someone located.

That stems from a requirement (cited in a Secretary of State manual) of minor political parties, such as the Constitution, that “If a nominating convention is held, the following requirements must be met: The chair publishes notice of the minor political party nominating convention at least once in not less than three newspapers of general circulation in the electoral district. The notice must include all of the following information: time and place of the nominating convention and office or offices to which candidates will be nominated.”

The Associated Press quotes Clark as saying, “We searched every major newspaper, and we could not find any indication that they [the Oregon Constititution Party] publicized a notice of their convention.” If so, that might – there’s some uncertainty – be enough to toss Starrett off the ballot.

That’s countered by the Oregon Constitution Party’s Jack Brown, who said the party published notice in papers where the party was organized. Could it be that both are right – and that those are simply smaller newspapers? If so, that would seem to meet the “three newspapers of general circulation” requirement. Either way, we should get a clearer indication early next week. No doubt both sides are trying to nail down facts over the weekend. If the complaint does hold up, it would mark one of the most obscure election law violations ever to throw a statewide candidate off a ballot. (And at a fairly late stage in the process, too.)

Meantime, there’s the less documentable matter of motivation.

Starrett and the Constitution Party were quick to assign it: Clark, they suggested, was obviously a tool of the Ron Saxton Republican campaign.

The political logic is there. Since the dropout from the campaign of independent Ben Westlund, the weight of political opinion has been that Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski – who may marginally have lost more campaign juice to Westlund than did Saxton – has gained momentum. Part of the reason has been the feisty campaign run by Starrett, who has been visible, a solid generator of press releases and easily the most quotable major candidate in the state. She stands to take a measurable slice of the conservative vote away from Saxton, a situation which must be giving his campaign fits. If only Starrett were out of the picture . . .

The Saxton campaign denies any involvement in the new challenge. The best piece of external evidence for that, it seems, is Kelly Clark.

The Willamette Week piece gives the relevant background. Read it and you come to the conclusion this is a guy who does things very much for his own reasons. A state senator at 30, positioned within his party as a Hatfield Republican just as that era was coming to an end, he was a vigorous backer of gay rights in anti-discrimination legislation when that made him unpopular within his caucus. But without any change of basic philosophical view, he had no trouble tearing into the Multnomah Commission two years ago and helping to prompt Measure 36.

Doesn’t fit the profile of a simple tool of a political campaign. Almost certainly, more is underlying this situation. Much more.

There is one other factor. The prospect of Starrett being forced from the ballot over a technicality is politically explosive. If she is forced out, the blowback could come to damage Saxton’s campaign even if he and if had nothing to do with it. If any evidence comes out that they did, the damage could be large enough that Saxton might not be able to recover.

SIDE NOTE: Anyone else notice this summary of the Oregon governor’s race in the conservative National Review? It says, “After posting a less-than-stellar performance in the Democratic primary, Kulongoski still has a lead over Republican nominee Ron Saxton in most polls, but the governor’s support is only in the low to mid 40s. Saxton, however, ruptured party unity when he came out against a spending-cap initiative on the November ballot that Oregon Republican activists have endorsed. This may confuse voters on the tax issue, which Saxton has tried to use against Kulongoski by criticizing the governor’s support of a failed 2004 tax-hike measure and talk of creating a state sales tax.”

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Their task is large, and they’ve been given substantial time – about three years – to undertake it. Not such a bad idea, then, that the Big Lookers take their time and move cautiously, even if there’s some short-term downside to be had.

Big Look meetingThe immediate concern would have to do results – not many yet, and not a lot to talk about either – and bogging down. A state committee to look at the land use picture in Oregon over the next three years; you can understand where some skepticism might arise since, half a year into its existence, it is still working out the question of how to go about its work. Matters of substance have barely entered the room yet.

For the moment, though, we’ll place our bets on some actual results emerging from the Oregon Task Force on Land Use Planning – “Big Look.” The group met in Salem Friday, and a review of their minutes to date and their actions at the meeting suggest, rather than a bogging down, a steady pace toward clarification and working out a path to an answer.

These committee members aren’t for the most part political people, and the conversations they’re having – to judge from the Friday meeting – sound informal, thoughtful and searching toward ideas, for all that they’re being recorded and closely watched by an audience. These people aren’t staking out positions, as legislators might. Their process seems an evolution.

As such, it’s not roaring ahead, but it’s not glacial, either. In the course of a couple of meetings they’ve worked out six areas of intersecting concern with land use: the economy; the role of state and local governments; citizen involvement; infrastructure and finance; growth management; and benefits and burdens. You could split the subject in other ways too, presumably, but these seem a reasonable start. Most of the concerns most people have about the subject of land use regulation in Oregon could fit in those areas. And there’s early recongition that they will overlap, repeatedly.

At this stage, they’re working in considerable part on information gathering and figuring out how to handle the flood of information they are sure to get. While they’re holding their meetings this year around the state – the last was in Lincoln City, and upcoming in Pendleton, Medford and Gresham – they’re not seeking lots of opinions, yet. They will later. But first they’re trying to develop a base of knowledge and a framework to hang it on, and their moves toward developing it to date seem almost stately.

Given enough time, and the 2009 delivery date may be enough, these guys could produce something interesting.

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Latest polling numbers on approval of President George W. Bush show no great change or surprise from the last few months. But it’s been a while since we’ve posted the Survey USA numbers, so here’s a recap.

In Oregon, Bush is at 33% approval and 64% disapproval. That’s not quite as negative for Bush as the 31%-67% numbers from May, but it is more negative than in June or July, when the negatives had softened slightly. Only 10 other states currently view Bush more negatively.

In Washington (Bush’s 13th-worst state), the picture is closely similar, at 34% favorable, 64% unfavorable. As in Oregon, a slight move toward a more favorable view of Bush in mid-summer snapped back in August.

Finally, Idaho remains positively disposed toward Bush, the president’s second-best state (after Utah), where he gets 56% approval and 41% disapproval – one of four states where he tops the 50% favorable mark. In contrast to most states, Bush gained in approval in August over the previous couple of months.

Nationally, Bush is at 38% favorable, 60% unfavorable.

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Idaho Oregon Washington

In the category of good intentions gone awry, place an Oregon corrections program aimed at providing alcohol and drug treatment for inmates. A perfectly sound idea, it has created some awful problems because it has allowed a number of inmates, including some violent offenders, to get out of incarceration much earlier than expected – to the surprise of judges, prosecutors, victims and others.

The biggest problem here (alongside some bad calls on releases) seems to be transparency. The program got almost no attention when it was approved in the Oregon Legislature, and the man in whose department it is operated, Max Williams, is the former legislator who championed it. That may have led to an internal cultural problem: This is our program, we started it, we know how to operate it. That shut-down attitude – reporters have had to deal with persistent blocks in their requests for state information and documents on this program – apparently has led to denials, maybe including self-denial, that problems with the program are significant.

We’re not talking about an epidemic of bad early releases, but we are talking about considerably more than the odd fluke or two, and some of those people reoffend as soon as they’re able. This could have a bearing on the governor’s race, since Governor Ted Kulongoski (a lawyer, a former attorney general and a former Supreme Court justice) is involved in this, in a mixed way – partly defending the program and partly acknowledging some need for fixes.

All of which is mentioned here in part because it isn’t (yet) visible many other places. This story was broken by the McMinnville News-Register, not one of the larger papers in the state; nevertheless, it threw in the resources to do a thorough job in its Thursday edition and will continue with another by Saturday.

By that time, it may not be publishing on this subject alone. Look for more on this in coming days.

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So there really has been a purge, one way or another, at the Seattle Weekly. What exactly caused it, and what its long-range results will be, are less than clear. But the departures should clarify things amply before long.

Seattle WeeklyNot having pounded the floors of its offices we make no assessment of who left at the request of management or of their own volition. But a whole lot of the most key people at the publication have departed following a change of ownership in January. Those include such familiar names as Editor-in-Chief Skip Berger, Managing Editor Chuck Taylor, Political Editor George Howland and – the most recent, on Tuesday- writer Geov Parrish. That’s the core of the news/politics side of the publication. And besides them, there’s the paper’s publisher, production director, advertising director, design director and a bunch of others.

All of the departure statements we’ve seen have been vague enough to leave open multiple possible interpretations. Parrish’s departure note, for example (this via Horse’s Ass), says only, “it became clear that my journalistic priorities were not compatible with VVM’s current and future plans for Seattle Weekly. For this and other reasons, I feel it most appropriate to move on immediately.”

What does all this translate to?

New Times Media of Phoenix, now Village Voice Media, which bought the Seattle Weekly in January and now owns a large string of “alternative” weeklies (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Cleveland, among others) is reputedly strongly hierarchial. It also maintains that it is committed to alternative journalism and to investigative reporting.

With the new era about to begin, we’ll all find out soon enough.

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Speculating last month on Oregon State Representative Jeff Kropf’s dropout from his race (to pursue his activities in talk radio), we suggested the late opening on the Republican side might offer some opening for a Democrat in this generally Republican district.

Now that the race is joined with a replacement Republican, our view is pretty much unchanged. The contest may lean Republican, but only just, and a Democratic win there is distinctly possible.

The big roadblock to that is the district itself. House District 17 runs through the eastern parts of Marion and Linn counties, up into the Cascades, and includes mainly farming and old-line timber communities, though there is some change in a number of the towns. Party registration in the district is 43% Republican to 34% Democratic, and though party registration figures aren’t always a good guide to election results, this area has been voting more Republican than the state overall. It has not been doing so as overwhelmingly as, say, most areas east of the Cascades.

Meeting in Scio, the local Republicans have just replaced Kropf with Fred Girod of Lyons, a dentist who served in the House in the early 90s. Girod has campaigned before and served in the House before, and that’s a plus.

There are also minuses. He has had some conflicts locally, notably earlier this month with the Stayton City Council, which denied an application of his to build a commercial center there; it said he was effectively asking the city to rezone a key area. He’s been out of office for quite a while, and his name ID may not be especially high. He is starting a race from scratch; there is, for example, no web site up yet.

The Democrat, Dan Thackaberry, had run a quiet campaign up until Kropf’s departure – maybe reflecting the consensus that Kropf was highly likely to win. he appears to have ramped up rapidly since, and he has something of a base to work from . He’s a farmer, which provides some business base and connections, and also a member of the city council at Lebanon, the largest city in the district – a decent homre base from which to start. Thackaberry’s web site calls him “Farmer Dan,” and he appears to come off as friendly and easy going. His head start on Girod is not large, but it is real.

Still a small Republican edge here, but not a district to write off.

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The 8th U.S. House district in Washington feels ever more closely competitive – you get the sense in writings and in speech and in tone.

Just-out revised national ranking from the National Journal‘s list of most-competitive races, there’s the Dave Reichert (R)/Darcy Burner (D) matchup at number 19, up from 24 in the last ranking. the attached note says, “Reichert has had to switch votes on stem-cell research. Like the Philly suburbs, this is a district that’s poised to switch if there’s a Democratic wave.”

That’s really the key. If there is no Democratic wave on November 7, Reichert probably prevails. But if there is, as indicators now suggest, Burner is very well positioned.

This is the only Northwest House race on the Journal‘s top 50 most competive.

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