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Posts published in October 2006

Top 10 WA Xgr: Premier Races

Washington has more legislative seats up for grabs than either Oregon or Idaho, yet the field generally feels considerably less competitive than Oregon (which has the fewest seats up) and no more than Idaho (where the geographic range in play is barely smaller). With all of the 98-member House and half of the 49-member Senate up, you'd think there'd be more to play with. But 38 unopposed incumbents puts a drag on things.

The Moderate Washingtonian blog, which has been tracking progress on these races, is currently predicting a gain of four Senate seats for the Democrats (to 29-20) and one in the House (to 57-42). That site says it will be revising its spreadsheet soon. Presently, we'd look in the neighborhood of about a Democratic gain of two or three in the Senate, and about two in the House. Chances of a Republican takeover of either chamber seem slim.

With that in mind, here are 10 races we'll be watching as markers for what's going on and what lies ahead. These races (as in Oregon and Idaho) are listed for a mix of their probable closeness, their intensity, and their larger significance. Our Oregon list and our Idaho list appeared in September; we waited for Washington until after the September primary election, and the general election races had a chance to settle a bit. The races are listed here by office and district number, not by priority. (Colored dots indicate the party now holding the seat.)

red glass District 6 Senate, incumbent Brad Benson, R-Spokane; challenger Chris Marr, D-Spokane. This list isn't in priority order, but this contest would be as good a pole choice as any if it were. The Spokane area is represented mainly by two districts, two senators, one of which in recent years has been fairly securely Democratic (held by Majority Leader Lisa Brown), the other marginally Republican. That Senate seat has been held, into this last term, by Jim West, a legislative veteran and Senate Republican leader, who left to win election as mayor of Spokane. And there ended his political career amid recall and a sex scandal echoed somewhat by the recent congressional scandal of Floridian Mark Foley. Benson, who had served in the House before hisappointment to replace West, had nothing personally to do with any of that. But as West's successor, and a Republican at a time when the label has been tainted, he has automatic problems. And his Democratic opponent, Marr, has campaigned hard and at last report had substantially outraised Benson - in all, bad indicators for the incumbent. Prevailing view is that Marr will take this seat Democratic, making it only the second such in recent years for Democrats, and greatly strengthening the Democratic presence in Spokane. Did we say Spokane as a clear Democratic base city? A Marr win would be a significant step in that direction. (more…)


We like to make the case that any reasonably literate American can read the law - the constitution, the statutes, the court cases - and make some understandable sense of them. In a great many cases, you can do just that, and when you can, that means the legislators or jurists wrote well, in plain English. Sometimes they do not, and that is almost never a virtue.

That point is illuminated in the just-released Washington Supreme Court case Karen Wright v. Milan Jeckle, a case involving medical care which turns on the interpretation of a statute. In a footnote, the court adds: "More precisely, we are asked to interpret a 156 word sentence. We are up to the task."

That's good. (more…)

Crashing Prop 2?

Not to go too far out on a limb here, but there seem to be some growing indications that Idaho voters may turn down Proposition 2.

Yes, it has had winning margins in past polls, but then Idahoans have changed their minds on ballot issues before during the course of a campaign. We're making no specific predictions, but we would suggest the ingredients for such a shift are in place.

Prop 2 is the land use ballot issue proposed chiefly by activist Laird Maxwell and several out of state interests who are funding him. (Yes, there is some in-state support, but it would not be on the ballot but a New York businessman named Howard Rich.) The measure has two parts, one blocking eminent domain proceedings intended to seize from one private owner to give to another, the other a rewrite of Oregon's Measure 37, intended to freeze land use regulation retroactive to the time of a property's purchase. The first is an empty shell, since the Idaho Legislature already has done the same thing. It was put there to cover the Measure 37 rewrite, which is intended to weaken local land use planning and throw a whole lot of decisions into courts, as has happened in Oregon (where the land use system is so different as to be beyond easy comparison).

The whole is being sold under the concept "protect your property rights." A lot of voters never investigate further than the nearest handy slogan, and the big-buck backers of the measure have been happy to pay for the advertising which has slammed out that slogan over and over. This accounts for the early poll results.

Opposition from people with credibility on the conservative side of the land use debate, however, may be taking its toll. Newspapers and Democrats arguing against it, as they have, is one thing. But there's more. Chamber of Commerce and the state's top business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, have come out against. Governor Jim Risch, who ought to have good credibility on this, has released his concerns.

But the capper on this is Mr. anti-Regulation himself, Republican gubernatorial candidate C.L. "Butch" Otter. (more…)

Civil, yet boatrocking

Our list of 10 legislative races to watch gave the District 24 (central Yamhill County) House contest between incumbent Republican Donna Nelson [no campaign site found] and Democratic challenger Sal Peralta a honorable mention status. But in the pattern of national congressional races, where the number of serious contests seems to have grown rather than expanded in these latter campaign days, this one has been taking on an increasingly serious tone, albeit in unconventional ways.

Donna Nelson
Donna Nelson

One of those is the absence of rancor or scandal. Those two candidates, together with the third in the race, Libertarian David Terry, faced off at the McMinnville City Club over lunch (in front of a substantial crowd of maybe 100 people). And the sparks didn't fly. The closest may have come after Peralta delivered an effective windup against the over-influence of key lobbyists in Salem and the favors they dispense. Nelson responded almost as if the comments were aimed at her; she said she takes her orders from the people back home, not from the lobbyists. But it was just an exclamation point; Peralta hadn't aimed the comments at her, and she didn't maintain that he had.

Sal Peralta
Sal Peralta

This is one of those classic civil political races which nonetheless holds real possibility of an upset come election day.

Again, we note "possibility," not certainty. Nelson has a lot of advantages. She's been community-active a long time, and a lot of people know her. Her biggest asset may be simple likeability; there's a natural gregariousness and friendliness. (A hard-core frontal attack probably would backfire.) Yamhill County is mostly Republican and tends conservative, which is what she is. Her electoral track record, though, while good, is less overwhelming than commonly thought. From a 55.2% win in 2000 she picked up to 59.3% in 2002, but then pulled just 53.6% against a lower-key challenge in 2004. That last may be a warning sign. (more…)

Does negative go?

Among the ideas political types will ponder post-November 7 is this: To what extent is "going negative" advantegeous?

We have no definitive answer now, only a few clues, some notable case studies and - in one case - a serious and practical debate. The answer to that question stands to tell a lot about many of the most critical campaigns upcoming.

The debate can be found on the conservative Wahsington group blog Sound Politics , where participating Republicans are discussing what to do about the foundering Senate campaign of Republican Mike McGavick. In mid-summer he seemed to be catching up to incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell, but since then he has stalled and possibly lost ground. (He now seems to be somewhere around eight to 10 points behind.) That may be connected in part to the ground Republicans nationally have been losing in the last couple of weeks. The posters on Sound Politics evidently accept that as the current situation. The question: What to do about it? (more…)

Bleeding the media

Used to be that reporters and editors in the news media tended to stay in those jobs; they had picked a field and stayed in it. For various reasons, which we'll enter into one of these days, the news media is less and less a place where very many people can build a career ... as journalists, at least.

Consider this from Dave Frazier's Boise Guardian blog, about one of the few Idaho broadcast journalists to actually break ground in public affairs reporting in recent years:

Guv candidate Butch Otter won’t have to worry about KBCI-TV 2 reporter Jon Hanian doing any expose’ stories about him. Taking a lesson from George Bush, Otter made a preemptive strike: He hired Hanion away from the news game.

Otter already had former Associated Press reporter Mark Warbis on the payroll. If he gets Dan Popkey he will be untouchable.

Spokesman for Grant

The Spokane Spokesman-Review has been one of the less easily predictable endorsers in recent elections. Its endorsement in Idaho's 1st congressional district race, though, comes as little surprise.

Associate Editor Dave Oliveria, an editorial writer for the paper who lives in Kootenai County - and therefore has a key role on Idaho endorsements - is a self-described conservative but has made clear for some time in the Huckleberries blog his concerns about Republican House nominee Bill Sali. He was one of the questioners at the Coeur d'Alene debate between Sali and Democrat Larry Grant, where both candidates put on their best face. But his view, evidently, is unchanged.

From the editorial (linked to here at the Grant site, since the Spokesman is behind a pay wall): "With only two seats in the House, Idaho can't afford to send another conservative flamethrower to Congress. Not only will Grant be in a good position to help Idaho if the Democrats regain the House, but he would work better with Republicans than Sali would if they don't."

A scam, not a marketplace

Quite the con some categories of professionals have going these days: Pay anything less than obscene amounts of money to attract "top talent," or your institution will crash to the ground. CEOs of corporations. Coaches of football teams. Presidents of universities.

Washington State UniversityFrom Peter Callaghan's column in today's Tacoma News Tribune:

But last week WSU echoed the words that UW leaders had voiced just 18 months ago. If Cougar Nation wants a world-class leader, it will have to pay well above the half-million-dollar pay package [retiring President V. Lane] Rawlins will leave behind.

“I think that’s the market for the type of president we’ll be looking for, and the top presidents in the country,” WSU regent Rafael Stone told The Spokesman-Review in Spokane.
It’s an unquestioned truth in the boardrooms of the nation’s biggest universities that it is not only OK to pay presidents up to 10 times what they’d pay a full professor, it is necessary. It is not only OK to coax the presidents of other schools to leave their jobs, it is the first rule of how the game is played. It is not only OK to provide your president with pay and benefits packages in the half-million to million-dollar range, it is the only way to keep him or her from being raided by other schools.

The language resembles nothing so much as the obscene “market” for college coaches, where a contract is good only until a better one comes along.

What makes more sense? Pay a president something like 100K - providing a little more assurance that your winning candidate will be applying to do a job at a university, not simply to enrich himself.

A couple of truths that should be apparently to anyone as presumably well-educated as a member of a university governing board should be:

1. The choice of top executive at any institution - with the exception of the founder - is only one factor in its success or failure, and ararely decisive. Pick a good one, sure: But perfectly good talent usually can be found locally, often inside the institution. (Hey: There's a good way to build some real institutional loyalty.) But nationwide searches and big bucks salaries also make no sense for another reason.

2. You never, never, know what they're going to be like until they start work, track record and earnest sentiments be damned. We think we put presidents of the United States through a vetting process, but the George W. Bush who in 2000 pledged to reduce the size and scope of government and avoid nation-building certainly isn't what we got after he entered the White House. Look around the country and you will see universities headed by high-priced presidents, picked after extensive national searches. And you will find that some of them are good, some are fair, and some are bad. If you filled the jobs by lottery, you likely wouldn't do a lot worse: Most job categories, including those filled on impulse, are occupied by job holders who are variously good, fair and poor.

More locally, Callaghan points out that while University of Washington President Mark Emmert pulls in $602,000 a year, ranking him eighth nationally for highest university president salary, most institutions comparable to UW or WSU pay considerably less.

It's enough to justify some student protests: How about spending some of those big buck on our education, not the enrichment of one guy in one office?

Crossover undervotes?

Some county elections offices do and some don't make specific counts of "undervotes," which is the difference between the number of valid ballots counted and the number of votes in a particular race - the number of voters who bypassed a particular race. The undervote most commonly gets larger - which is to say, the vote gets smaller - as you move down a ballot. In presidential years, the undervote for president is usually microscopic, while the undervote for sewer district commissioner might be substantial.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review site has a provocative post on the undervote in last month's primary election - Republican division - for the office of sheriff. You might usually expect the undervote there to run rather high. In this case, the race was heated - signs and billsboards and letters to the editor about both candidates, Ozzie Knezovich and Cal Walker, were visible all over - so that logically would diminish the undervote. (Knezovich recently had been appointed sheriff, and was facing in the primary an incumbent Spokane Valley police chief. He is considered highly likely to win the general election.) But the Spokesman's Jim Camden checked the numbers and found it was unusually small, only about 3%. By comparison, the undervote in the U.S. Senate primary was about 10% (a fairly normal level for such a race).

Camden also, however, noted something else:

"The Democratic sheriff’s primary has the largest drop-off of voters, with nearly one in four not voting for newcomer James Flavel, or writing in someone else’s name. That’s more undervotes, by far, than any other Democratic primary in the county. What this suggests is that voters who took Republican ballots just for the sheriff’s race are either Democrats who are likely to shift back to their candidates in November, or independents who aren’t yet sold on the rest of the GOP ticket."

Another piece of the puzzle, as Spokane County works out what it will do when the parties compete on November 7.

Doc’s diagnosis

We're now into newspaper endorsement season, which we'll be following with some closeness over the next couple of weeks. We don't do this because newspaper endorsements have an especially large impact on election results: In our experience, they usually don't. But these endorsements often tell quite a bit about both the newspapers and the candidates they endorse, and those they don't.

Yakima Herald-RepublicAn October 3 editorial in the Yakima Herald-Republic, which was not an endorsement at all but rather about an incident in the endorsement process, makes the point.

Like many other newspapers which endorse (not all do), the Herald-Republic customarily interviews the candidates first, often and preferably with both in the room at the same time. That paper has done these interviews for a long time, apparently decades at least, and none of the candidates solicited has turned down an interview, until now.

That declinee would be incumbent Republican Representative Doc Hastings, seeking his seventh term in Congress. He sent the paper a note outlining his reasons: "I'm certain you understand that during each election year candidates for public office are approached by a wide range of organizations and media outlets desiring to make endorsements in their races. Of course, common sense dictates that candidates decide on a case-by-case basis which media and other endorsements to seek. In my case, since I'm not seeking the Herald-Republic's endorsement, it won't be necessary to include me in your endorsement interview schedule this year."

The Herald-Republic mused, "Instead, Hastings is apparently more comfortable with an Oct. 31 session with his hometown Tri-City Herald, which endorsed him two years ago - while we endorsed his opponent, Democrat Sandy Matheson. Surely that development wouldn't influence Hastings' decision to turn us down this year. Or would it?"

The paper then concluded it would: "His statement indicates he'll pick and choose those he will grace with his presence. And, while that is certainly his right, that's a shame, too, because it could tarnish by implication the endorsement process of other organizations and media outlets. Do his actions suggest he will only meet with those he thinks will rubber-stamp his re-election bid?"

In Hastings' previous runs, the Herald-Republic endorsed him twice and his opponent four times. Especially in this year's environment, when Hastings' new role as House ethics chair is getting increasingly tough to defend, Hastings' Democratic opponent Richard Wright (a decent candidate who still seems a longshot to win on November 7) looks like a fair bet to win the H-R nod.

Still, as the Yakima paper noted, all this has a tendency to degrade the political conversation, forcing even newspapers which make a real effort at neutrality into a partisan corner. That's not a positive note in an increasingly harsh campaign season.