"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Quick advisory on the National Journal Hotline report today on Oregon people and places. It notes but does not indicated probabilities on the prospect of a run by former Governor John Kitzhaber for the Senate against Republican Gorden Smith in 2008. Two more distinctive items emerge, however.

1. On the subject of Independent state Senator Ben Westlund – whose next moves are of high interest among Oregon political types – Stacy Dycus, who was his campaign spokesman during his run for governor this year, had little conclusive to say. There was this, however: “Democrats have been asking Ben to run against [Smith] but he really hasn’t considered it.” Same, she indicated, with re-election to the state Senate and with the office of state treasurer, where incumbent Randall Edwards will be term limited out. (Republican bloggers hve speculated Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski may champion a Westlund run for the latter as payback for Westlund’s support of him this fall.)

Maybe most intriguing, this: “He is an independent and all I can tell you is that his heart and mind is closer to the views held by Democrats, but he has no plans to change registration. If asked, he may caucus with the D’s this session.”

2. Among other Democratic names bring circulated for Senate if Kitzhaber declines: Edwards, Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo (nonpartisan in her current job, but a former Democratic legislator) and Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis (also in a nonpartisan job, but with Democratic background). The list of Democratic prospects seems to be growing explosively.

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Much of the context is still lacking, but political topic A in Oregon clearly is: To what extent is Senator Gordon Smith, the only statewide elected Republican, vulnerable in 2008, when his seat is up? Not only Democrats but Republicans as well are pondering the question.

Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith

Nationally, of course, Smith is too obvious a target to miss: A Republican in an increasingly blue state, and the only Republican among the three Pacific coast states (excluding Alaska). Nothing resembling a definitive answer is possible yet, of course, because we lack so much of what will be the context for that race. What will the state and nation look like then? How will Oregonians assess the credit or blame? Will they feel as harshly toward President Bush and the Republican Congress as they do now? Will the Democrats in Washington and Salem do well or poorly? How will the presidential campaigns affect political 2008 in Oregon?

Not to mention more race-specific issues. Will Smith run again? (The presumption is that he will, but there’s no formal declaration yet, and likely won’t be for a while.) If he does, will he raise a huge amount of money, or less than that? (He apparently has about $2 million on hand now.) How does he present himself to the state now, as the Bush era winds down? How do issues impact him? What sort of a campaign does he run? And, needless to say, who might he draw as opposition?

Only on some of those latter points is even loose speculation feasible. Which, of course, isn’t slowing down the politically interested from taking a crack at it.

First step is working out Smith’s own relative vulnerability.

Gordon Smith has been on the statewide ballot in three general elections, and three primaries, starting with the 1996 special election occasioned when Republican Senator Bob Packwood resigned.

Remember the atmosphere of early 1996: The Newt Gingrich Revolution of 1994 was still alive, Republicans were very much on the march. No Democrat had won a U.S. Senate race in Oregon in 24 years. Democrat John Kitzhaber had (1994) just been elected governor, but with just 51% of the vote, and only after Republican Denny Smith had been weakened by a hotly negative primary; in the general, a candidate to Smith’s right took 5% of the vote. The Democratic representative in District 1 (Elizabeth Furse) won that year by 301 votes; in the 5th district, a Republican replaced a Democrat. Republicans decisively held both the state Senate and House.

In that context, Republican Smith of Pendleton, a statewide figure as president of the state Senate, faced Democrat Ron Wyden, U.S. representative of the central Portland congressional district – by far the most liberal in the state. Both were capable and intelligent candidates; each (in that election) was willing to, and did, go heavily negative on the other. The result was close, but in the context of the times, not what you’d think: Wyden prevailed, by about a percentage point.

Almost immediately, Smith became the first person to run twice for the U.S. Senate in one year, to fill the seat from which Republican Mark Hatfield was retiring. He first faced a primary contest (from several candidates, chiefly Lon Mabon), which he dispatched easily, winning 78%. That gave him some momentum. In the general he faced Democratic businessman Tom Bruggere, an energetic candidate who had never run for office before. The result was a race that played out almost exactly like the presidential, in which Bruggere took the plurality Bill Clinton vote (Bruggere got 46%, Clinton 47%) and Smith the Robert Dole plus Ross Perot vote (combined, they took 49%, Smith won 50%). Another close outcome.

When Smith ran for re-election in 2002, he fared better, upping his percentage to 56.2%. Again, though, remember the year: Nationally, pretty good for Republicans, and in Oregon, not bad. Republicans came close to winning the governorship with a problematic candidate (Kevin Mannix). They lost outright control of the Oregon Senate (a tie resulted), but their numbers overall for state office weren’t bad. And Smith’s opponent, Bradbury, had obstacles, of which his multiple sclerosis may have been least. He ran on a strong anti-war platform, something few Democrats dared do then, and was a sharp critic of the Bush Administration; a long string of statements that would sell well today limited his chances in 2002. He came across as stereotypically liberal in his policy positions. And in that context, Smith – amiable, smooth, likable – was easily able to win over much of the center. And, of course, Smith massively outspent Bradbury. Given all that, 56.2% looks like a modest outcome.

And you have to wonder what would have happened had Oregon Democrats gotten their fervent wish in 2002, and then-Governor Kitzhaber had opposed Smith.

Consider the change in Oregon from 2002 to now, and speculate on how well Smith would have done earlier this month, if the other basic elements of his campaign remained the same. Look, for example, at the three counties that gave Smith his largest raw vote margins: Washington, Clackamas, and Marion, between them contributing about 100,000 vote margins over Bradbury. (Smith beat Bradbury by about 110,000 votes.) Smith won Washington County by 58.8%. Could he replicate that today? Since that 2002 election, Democratic candidates for the legislature have marched across Washington County, taking over a majority of its seats; and a Washington County (and Clackamas, and Marion too) that voted against Democrat Ted Kulongoski for governor, all voted, fairly decisively, in Kulongoski’s favor in 2006, and elected new Democratic state legislators, and some Democratic courthouse people as well. Smith would have to work much harder to win those counties today; our guess if that if the election were held now, he would not do much more than break even in them. And the the relatively soft Democratic vote Bradbury pulled in Multnomah in 2002 likely wouldn’t be as easy to achieve today, either.

(And again, once again: Yes, the election will be held in 2008, not this year, and who knows what the environment will look like then?)

You could also consider the Survey USA approval ratings, which put Smith in uncomfortable territory, bouncing between 47% and 51% approval over the last year; Wyden has generally run about 6-10 points higher. (That said, Smith’s approvals are no worse than Kulognoski’s or Washington Senator Maria Cantwell’s some months back, so they should be taken with caution.)

The overall answer to the first question then is: Prospectively vulnerable, not to be mistaken for easy pickings.

Of course, that’s but one consideration. Other factors including the opposition: Smith is clearly not vulnerable to just anyone. He retains some popularity, remains a personally likable figure, and Republicans will scrap with all the energy they can manage to keep from losing the last statewide office they have. Democrats would need a strong candidate to take advantages of changing times. (Presuming, that is, the times don’t snap back to Republican-favorable in the next couple of years.)

As in 2002, the big prospect would be Kitzhaber. Out of office and unencumbered, running his Archimedes Movement, Kitzhaber remains both a major statewide figure without the controversy that goes with holding office; in 2008 he will have been out of office almost six years. (For all that, age would be no hindrance either: He turns 60 next March. ) He appears to be as popular as he ever was; when he seemed to be considering a primary run for governor a year ago, conventional wisdom gave him even odds at taking out a governor of his own party, and strong odds to win the general election if he won the nomination. If he started reasonably early and ran a solid campaign, he likely would enter the race at even odds with Smith to win it. Maybe better than that.

How would Kitzhaber run, how would he compare to Kitzhaber as Oregonians remember him (figures from the past up to and including Tom McCall have stumbled over that one), would he do the kind of campaign he needs to do? Answers to such questions become available only after he actually enters the race. If he does.

The Democratic bench is deep at this point. If Kitzhaber opts out (and pressure will no doubt be intense for an early decision, which would run counter to his style) no lack of other prospects may emerge. Representative Earl Blumenauer, Wyden’s House seat successor, has raised his visibility around the state and spent time building contacts around the country as well. If he ran – and he’s stayed coy about the prospect so far, but it has to be a consideration – he would be well positioned and formidable.

Lots of behind the scenes talking is obviously underway. No one is likely to go very public for a while. But Republicans will want to know for sure, soon, whether Smith is running. (As noted, expect for now that he will, though the transition to the minority and the probability of a tough race ahead would be discouraging factors.) If he doesn’t, the Repugblican scramble begins. Then – sometime in the months ahead – look for signals as to Kitzhaber’s intentions. A serious race to take out an incumbent senator will need to get underway by next summer; Kitzhaber will be pushed for an answer before then.

2008 Oregon Senate offers a variety of plausible outcomes. The games should begin before long.

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Would be highly interesting, say a year or so from now, to check back on the aftereffects of this decision goes . . .

Bill SaliIdaho U.S. Representative-elect Bill Sali has been elected to something else: President of his freshman class of Republican representatives. (The last such from Idaho was then-Representative Mike Crapo, in 1992.)

It is not a massive class, to be sure. But we will be intrigued to see how the choice holds up.

Comments more than welcome.

A hat tip to the correspondent who sent us a mail noting the development.

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The new slogan almost harkens us back to those days, almost two years ago, when Washington state’s political eyes were centered on Wenatchee because of the big trial over the governor’s race . . . but that’s just us.

Those of us accustomed to seeing the familiar “Apple Capital of the World” sign upon approaching Wenatchee will see it no more, the Seattle Times reports. The new sign graphically points out the city’s dramatic canyon and riverfront location, and its words link to that: “Wenatchee. Meeting Rivers. Meeting Friends. Meeting Needs.”


It’s part of an ongoing development: Places are tending to define themselves less by their natural or agricultural resources. Check out the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce web site and you’ll find a little thumbnail shot of an apple, and a screen-wide picture of east and west Wenatchee, stradding the river at twilight. Apples get a mention, but no more than that.

Check out the Wenatchee city site, and you’ll see much the same: “One of the most digitally connected places in the country, Wenatchee offers the perfect place to balance all aspects of life, from building a company to raising a family or meeting the challenges of a new career. Wenatchee is world famous for our apples but it has so much else to offer — like over 300 days of sunshine a year and a wonderful turn of the century downtown that serves as a vibrant arts, culture and retail center.”

Not everyone is thrilled. The Times pulled these qutoes from Wenatchee people:
“It sounds more like an outreach program than a city.” “This new [slogan] is too New Age touchy feely. [It] leaves me feeling like a phony.”

Okay. But spend a little time around Wenatchee – the city itself, not the countryside – and you’ll not find yourself thinking a lot about apples, either.

East Wenatchee – the area across the river from the main downtown, a place with more sprawling residential areas and even orchards from place to place – would fit the apple slogan reasonably well. But the main city of Wenatchee, banked up more steeply against high canyon walls, has an industrial feel with a middling dollop of gentrification. It has a surprisingly large and active downtown area, one of the most impressive courthouse centers in the Northwest, an impressive collection of restaurants – in all, it has much more an urban and almost big-city feel than any impression you’d get from an “apple capital.”

There’s also the fact that an accelerating number of the old apple orchards are being replaced by other uses. (A lot of housing developers just love the narrow flatlands along the Columbia River, especially north of town.)

At least the critics have had time to get accustomed to the changes, since the city council made the decision to change slogans a couple of years ago.

But increasingly, cities in relatively rural areas that do find ways to prosper – and often find those ways have only tenuous connection anymore to agriculture – will have to make choices between what was and what will be. Wenatchee seems to have made such a decision.

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The national or even regional real estate market is so large you can’t easily get your figurative arms around it. You wind up with oddities like a pair of stories in today’s Oregonian, headlined “Portland real estate goes own way – up” (actually, the story doesn’t very well justify the head) and “home building goes downhill.”

Pearl District (from Wikipedia)Maybe a little easier to absorb is the smaller-scale experience of a specific place. An excellent post on Blue Oregon lays out the situation in the Pearl District in near-downtown Portland.

The Pearl is Portland’s largest artsy and high-end district, blocks of refurbished warehouses now turned into restaurants, galleries and such – and condos, lots of condos. (Stroll by for a First Thursday art night and you’ll see the condo-ites overhanging their windows and balconies.) Condo construction has been brisk in this area, and so has the increase in condo prices. But in recent months, according to the post by Jenson Hagen, the bubble is bursting.

“They are still building these things like mad,” Hagen writes. “The John Ross by the new tram. The Wyatt will add another 245 units to the Pearl. The Strand is going up where I-5 crosses the Willamette. Their website claims an additional 1,335 condos are going up along the Willamette.”

But alongisde that, some disquieting trends. Hagen said that in July he started noting how many Pearl condos were available for sale on the major web site for such sales, Buying Pearl Real Estate. Those numbers rose from 266 in July, to 322 in August, 379 in September, 422 in October and 480 in November. The average condo price is not cheap – most you’ve seen listed in the last year or two run upwards of a half-million. But the numbers of condos offered for under $200,000 (steadily up from 13 in July to 41 in November) has risen faster than the average – an indicator of dropping prices.

Is that the distant sound of a train wreck we’re hearing?

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Last of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

In our list earlier this fall of four close House races, we picked the contest in Washington District 8 as the toughest and prospectively closest. We were right (not, of course, that we weren’t in a rather large crowd in making that assessment). The reasons were clear enough. And now, after election day, as a lot of Seattle area Democrats wonder what went wrong, those reasons and others often mentioned this fall stand.

close districts mapIt was, for some months, presumed to be a close race. It was, very close, close enough that the outcome wasn’t fully clear until well after election night. It stood a fair chance of being one of Republican House seats the Democrats could pick up this year, but it never seemed likely to be a runaway win.

Let’s review the main reasons Washington 8 was competitive to begin with. It is a historically Republican district trending Democratic, and based on the state legislative election results on November 7, you could reasonably argue the area has now shifted from “lean Republican” to “lean Democratic.” Fertile ground, in other words, for a Democratic challenge. The challenge, from former Microsoft manager Darcy Burner, was unified – no primary conflict – highly energetic and (increasingly as the year went on) well funded. Burner was a fine fundraiser and a reasonably skillful campaigner. Republican incumbent Dave Reichert was framed to a degree as a manipulated good haircut riding on the glory of an old criminal case he oversaw when he was sheriff of King County. And in a year of fury at President George W. Bush and the Republicans in charge in Washington, Reichert made the mistake of allowing himself to be identified fairly closely with them.

But don’t forget what’s countering that. While the 8th district is in transition, that doesn’t mean all the Republicans in it have crawled into caves – or that a lot of the voters are disinclined to split their tickets. (The transition probably goes along with increased ticket splitting; the heavier Democratic voting below may have slightly depressed Democratic voting above.) Burner was, if intelligent and enthusiastic, also a new candidate, with a learning curve not only on her part but also on the the part of the voters – they didn’t know her all that well. Because much of the campaign backing her was based on the anti-Republican mood, they didn’t learn a lot. But they did know Reichert, and for all his flaws, a lot of people in the area liked the guy.

Washington District 8

A week before election night, Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post Intelligencer visited a Drinking Liberally event in Seattle; he asked him what he was hearing in the 8th district. He said he had just finished a round of trips to morning coffees, and the core of what he described was this: Voters were torn between expressing a vote of outrage at D.C. Republicans on one hand, and voting for a guy they still kinda liked – Reichert – on the other. The people of the district were essentially torn between nationalizing and personalizing the election.

We’ve gotten some comment – and think there’s validity to it – that one of the late deciders in the Idaho 1st district race, in which Republican Bill Sali picked up late percentage points, was the massive (million dollar or more) wave of negative advertising against Democrat Larry Grant: “They were appealing to R’s to stick with the party, save the world from a Dem. congress and Nancy Pelosi. They were definitely not touting the virtues of their candidates.” Much the same was happening, possibly on an even larger scale, in Washington’s 8th district. (Remember that in contrast to some of the upsets in other red districts around this country, this was a serious challenge by Democrats perceived as such by Republicans far in advance of the election; they had plenty of time to prepare for this one.) In a race between a generally liked incumbent and a relatively unknown challenger, was that a decisive factor?

It could have been. After all, not much change was needed. This was, as already noted, a close race, winding up 51.3% for Reichert to 48.5% for Burner. In 2004, running against well-known radio personality Dave Ross, Reichert also pulled 51.5%.

Jim Brunner, guest-posting on David Postman’s Seattle Times blog, makes a good point (one often heard here, over the years): “In any race as close as Burner’s, you can pick your own favorite reason for why the race turned out like it did. Some have cited the ticket-splitting nature of the 8th District. Over at the pro-Burner Slog yesterday, Josh Feit said Burner lost because she ‘wasn’t such a good candidate’ and added ‘there was a lot of truth to the Republican rap that her experience didn’t match Dave Reichert’s.’ Others blame (or credit) the media, including The Times editorial board’s endorsement of Reichert. I tend to side with the people who believe Reichert’s comparative advantage in experience was enough to get him re-elected despite the prevailing Democratic current.”

(That post was a followup to one in which Burner complained that the Democratic tide this year “was clearly a wave that helped men more than women,” and seemed to argue that her gender was a debilitating factor. That argument makes no sense at all. Nationally, women expanded their presence in D.C. this year. And as for the Washington 8th district, Burner need only reflect on Reichert’s Republican predecessor, Jennifer Dunn, who won big here cycle after cycle and doubtless would have again this year if she hadn’t departed, on her own choice, in 2004. (We might note here that several of Burner’s post-election comments ring a sour note; she’s not setting herself up well for another run, if she had that in mind. Maybe some sense of that got through to voters in the 8th during the campaign, too.)

Wins for Reichert these may have been, but they also suggests how closely-drawn this district is, and how slim the margin for error. If the gradual transition from Republican toward Democratic continues, this district could become not just marginal but really difficult for a Republican to win. If Democrats next nominate a well-known local figure who can become as well known as Reichert by election day – and less susceptible to being negatively defined – and otherwise run as strong a race as Burner did this time, they could find themselve breaking through the finish line. It wouldn’t take much, at a time when Republicans are having to stanch increasing losses in this area.

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Third of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

Those Idahoans – some Democrats and some Republicans – convinced at the end of May that the nomination of Bill Sali would open the door to a Democratic nominee in the 1st congressional district of Idaho, obviously were shown on election day to be . . . not entirely right.

close districts mapNot entirely wrong, either. We’ve become convinced that an opening did exist, but the Democrats did not wind up taking advantage of it. That was not for lack of an appealing candidate or energetic campaign, both of which they had. Whether a similar opening will reappear in future elections is uncertain, but Idaho Democrats would be wise to focus a good deal of attention in this area.

Before going further, we should restate the outlines here. In its recent voting patterns, Idaho is as blood red a state as any in the country, laying reasonable claim this year to the top of the list. It elected no Democrats at all above the level of state legislator. In the first congressional district, Republican Sali defeated Democrat Larry Grant 50% to 45%; in the race for governor, Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter, a veteran elected official, defeated second-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brady 53% to 44%. Those were not massive wins, but a few local Republican disabilities should be noted. Otter’s campaign was relatively weak and accumulated bad headlines from the beginning of the year all the way through to about election day. And Sali was poorly regarded by a number of fellow Republicans, insulted and even threatened by two state House speakers of his own party and was blasted during the campaign by other Republicans, notably the candidate who came in second to Sali in the Republican primary for the House seat. Atop that was the hope generated by what looked like, and what in many places was, a national Democratic tide in the mid-term elections.

The easy response to these races and some others (such as those for state controller and superintendent of public instruction) is: A working majority of Idaho voters look for the “R” by the name and vote accordingly, and no other considerations enter in. And in most recent elections there’s been little evidence to the contrary.

This time, some evidence of a more complicated story does exist.

Idaho District 1

The first hints (and we noted these here) came in late summer. One was a poll by Greg Smith Associates, showing Grant leading in the race 21% to 15%. Those results were rapidly turned into a partisan chewtoy, but the far more significant finding got less public attention: A massive undecided percentage, more than 60%. Even in hindsight, that may have been higher than the actual, but it certainly pointed to a reality of the contest. It was too big a number to not reflect something serious going on.

About the same time, the Sali campaign made regular and repeated mentions of the need for Republican unity. This was unusual; such unity had been simply a given after nearly all recent Republican primaries, however hotly contested. It was not a given now, as the Sali campaign’s approach indicated, and suggested again that significant numbers of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were uncertain what they would do.

In the second half of October two more polls were conducted in the race, one by the national Mason-Dixon firm and the other by Smith, and their results were nearly identical. They showed the two candidates running close but again a big undecided, about a quarter of the electorate. The results were similar, with the undecided only slightly smaller, in the race for governor.

We know from a variety of other contests in Washington and Oregon – and reports of others elsewhere too – that the late Republican get out the vote effort brought out a significant red vote at the end. But that generally accounted only for two or three percentage points.

Let’s fine-tune this a bit. We’ve seen enough evidence, and gotten individual reports from enough people, to establish this much: Something, somewhere in spring or summer, caused a large portion of Idaho’s Republican-voting voters to question whether they would stay that course in November, at least in the case of the first district and probably some others as well. Whatever it was, wasn’t enough to make them bolt or join the Democratic Party, but it was enough to make them seriously question their existing voting patterns. Then, when the decision finally had to be made in early November, a big majority of them decided to “come home” and vote Republican again.

What was that first lever that caused so much indecision? And what triggered the “come home” decision at the end?

The first remains completely unexplained, though we’ll examine it further. The latter may have been something as simple as what one knowledgeable correspondent suggested: These are conservative people, who stick with what they’ve done before in case of a close call. Maybe so. Or is there more to it?

Look at the overall numbers and the win-loss record, and Idaho looks as much like a Republican monolith today as it did four or eight years ago. Apply a magnifying class, and you can see a different, possibly evolving, picture.

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Almost anything can become grist for a lawsuit, apparently. Not least the courts themselves. Or even – in effect – one court suing another over who has control of a legal case.

Washington courtsThat may be a slight twisting of the legal realities in City of Spokane v. County of Spokane, which made all the way to the state supreme court (which released its opinion today). But it isn’t far off.

At the end of 2004, then-Spokane Mayor Jim West (yes, him again, but not about that) sent the word to the Spokaken County offices: Municipal court would go it alone. State law allows, quirkily, a municipal court – which ordinarily is under management of the court district court – to break off and become its own separate entity. That is what West was proposing in the case of Spokane.

Litigation arose when the city and the county disagreed over whether the city or county would be responsible for certain cases which were still active in the court at the time of transition. (The Supreme Court mostly sided with the city.)

It’s what they call meta.

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Second of four posts on competitive congressional contests in the Northwest.

Our clearest tipoff that the Washington 5th district contest was getting close came through inadvertence.

close districts mapRepublican Representative Cathy McMorris, seeking her second term in the Republican district, was checking into a telephone conference call with Republican Senator Larry Craig and a group of constituents, on the subject of veterans benefits, a hot topic in the 5th. Before entering the general call, she had what she thought was a private two-way talk with Craig, and said she was concerned that the race in her district was becoming very tight. Craig remarked that polling numbers looked bad all over. Neither of them knew a reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review was also on the line, blocked from announcing his presence but able to hear every word.

That was confirmation – since there hadn’t been much objective evidence, such as polling – that Democrat Peter Goldmark was in fact closing on McMorris, putting her re-election at genuine risk.

It was a late-blooming race; Goldmark was more or less universally seen as a longshot when he entered earlier in the year. The seat once held by Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley was securely held by Republican George Nethercutt for a decade; having beaten Foley, Nethercutt was never again in serious jeopardy in the 5th. When he left to pursue (unsucessfully) a Senate seat in 2004, Democrats had high hopes that their candidate, a well-liked Spokane businessman who was well-funded, had a strong shot. McMorris, emerging from a three-way primary, clobbered him with 59.7% of the vote. In this Republican district, where the state legislative delegation was all Republican outside central Zpokane (and one Walla Walla representative), McMorris looked like a solid bet to hold the seat easily. In her first term, she engendered no major controversy or scandal, and seemed reasonably well liked personally.

Goldmark, though well known in agricultural circles, had never run for office before and had to introduce himself to the district. This proceeded slowly, especially since mass news media showed little interest in the contest, and since Goldmark was far behind McMorris in fundraising. (Fundraising picked up toward the end; he ultimately raised about $900,000 to McMorris’ $1.5 million – money was probably not the deciding factor here.)

Washington District 5

Aside from whatever the Democratic tide might contribute, Goldmark did have some issues. One, as indicated, was veteran benefits and care, growing out of a long-running story about veteran health care in eastern Washington. Another was the economic trouble many rural regions encounter; Goldmark made that his signal issue, and his rancher appearance and even his slogan (“riding with Goldmark”) keyed to his rural support. The rural areas are, of course, the most Republican parts of the district.

The end result was McMorris at 56.1% to Goldmark’s 43.9% – McMorris down by 3.6% from 2004, but not very close to a Democratic win.

Two thoughts about this.

One is that a diminished McMorris number this year isn’t what you’d ordinarily expect. When House members win their second terms, especially in districts (like the 5th) where their parties dominate, their numbers usually rise. Nethercutt’s winning percentage, for example, rose from 51% the year he beat Foley to 56% two years later, and that’s not an unusual development. Our speculation is that absent a Democratic tide – in a more or less “neutral” year – McMorris might have pulled around 63% or 64% this year. (That also reflects the greater attention to the race, and the larger Goldmark fundraising, than normally would have been the case.) Did the tide visit the 5th? Yes: It just didn’t reach high enough.

There is a strategic question buried in this, however, for the district’s Democrats to consider. Might the Democratic tide have been leveraged into more – and might it be if another tide occurs in 2008? To that, a qualified yes.

There are a dozen counties in the 5th district, and Goldmark lost all of them. His best (47.3%) was Whitman, home of Washington State University; he polled 45.5% in Spokane County, which is where about two-thirds of votes in the district are cast. (He did well, for a Democrat, in his home Okanogan County, with about 45%.)

But in that same election, Spokane County threw out two Republican state legislators, and two state senators – not the longstanding one senator – will represent it in Olympia. The county was marginal, maybe leaning Democratic (depending on how you apportion it) in legislative races.

Maybe as significant, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell carried the 5th district, riding over an energetic campaign by Republican Mike McGavick. Cantwell carried three counties in the district, Asotin (50.7%), Whitman (49.3%) and Spokane (50.1%). But a key percentage of people in those places switched from Cantwell to vote for McMorris in the next line on the ballot, and that killed Goldmark’s chances.

Votes for Democratic candidates can be found in this area. It may be that part of Goldmark’s problem was that he looked for them in the wrong place. The Washington 5th is far from a soft touch for Democrats, but the results suggest it is not entirely beyond reach either.

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The concession Tuesday by Darcy Burner in her congressional race in Washington’s 8th congressional district had to come as deep disappointment to her and her backers. But let’s put a little edge on that. This was one of the seats, after all, that Democrats had a really high hope of picking up, long before those hopes started sprouting in far less likely places. There are new Democratic U.S. representatives-elect in places like Kansas and Nebraska and both seats in New Hampshire. The Democratic candidate for the at-large seat in Wyoming – Wyoming – came closer than Burner did to knocking off first-term Republican Dave Reichert.

close districts mapBurner’s race was not the only case where Democrats were hoping for a big win last Tuesday: They were sensing the wave too in Idaho’s 1st and Washington’s 5th districts.

In this batch of posts we’ll consider why the wave didn’t lap up quite high enough in the Northwest, and what that suggests for the next cycle . . . which is, incidently, underway . . .

Let’s begin with the other district that was, somewhat, in play in this last election: Oregon’s 5th district.

It is sharply different from the other three in that it had a Democratic incumbent challenged aggressively by a Republican (making it a reasonably comparison with the one U.S. Senate seat up in the district, in Washington). It may, however, help draw a few pieces of the puzzle into focus.

When on October 19 we cited four seriously competitive U.S. House races in the Northwest, we included this one – ranking it as least competitive. The pending Democratic tide was one reason, but there were others. The incumbent, Representative Darlene Hooley, was reasonably popular, having served in office in the district for many years (in local and state office before Congress), is well-known and liked personally. There is also this measure: She had not had a really close race since winning the seat in 1996, but had one of her closer wins in 2004 over the energetic Jim Zupancic (53.1% to 44.3%). She’s never had a landslide. And her central Willamette Valley district has historically been lean-Republican; it is not predisposed against Republicans.

Oregon District 5

The Republican who entered the race, Mike Erickson – they weren’t exactly crowding the starting gate – but have absorbed those latter points and concluded: If just a few points of Hooley’s support, some of it Republican, can be peeled off, and the Republican then presented as an acceptable alternative, this could be winnable. Especially if you could, as Erickson could, self-fund the campaign. That at least seems to have been his campaign’s operating logic.

And after his campaign spent $1,559,363 mostly on TV advertising (most of it, from what we could tell, negative on Hooley) – to Hooley’s comparable $1,557,354 (she had money stockpiled for such an occasion), here was the Hooley-to-Erickson percentage: 54% to 42.8%, a bit better for Hooley than two years before.

Why did this $3 million race change so little?

The Democratic tide contributed, certainly. This race does suggest its limits: Against a determined and well-finance opponent, Hooley was only barely able to increase her percentage from last time. (The other three Democratic House members in Oregon, none facing as competitive a race, increased their normal numbers somewhat more.)

But we’ll suggest this too: Running a harsh negative race against someone who is well known and well liked is a high-risk and usually a no-win proposition. We also suspect that the deluge of TV ads had more negative than positive effect.

None of which necessarily means Hooley is invulnerable; and come the point she doesn’t run again, this seat will likely be home to a hot contest. (It was, for several cycles, before Hooley secured it.) But a challenge that actually puts a Republican over the top cannot be as simplistically designed as those up to now, and Hooley’s odds for 2008, if she runs then, are good.

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The Tuesday night Frontline documentary on PBS did a respectable job of overing last year’s Jim West tragedy in Spokane – casting it, reasonably enough, in a classic tragic form, of a man brought down by flaws from within. It did not seem to constitute, as some at the paper apparently had suspected, a sustained blast at the Spokesman-Review, the newspaper whose reporting eventually led to West’s recall as mayor.

Frontline West programThe paper nonetheless seems to have a hard time dealing with it. In the process, it seems to be considering changing an aspect of its own operations that, ironically, allow it to deal more effectively with reports such as this one.

The case, for those unfamiliar with it, concerned Jim West, a long-time Republican state senator elected mayor of Spokane in 2003. (One of the elements left out in the show is that West was generally deemed to have been a good and effective mayor, up to the point the storm hit.) In May 2005, the Spokesman-Review reported that West had been leading a double life, that he had been visiting gay chat rooms and – the paper said this was its main reason for the reportage – had used his position of mayor to further that social life. Somewhat separately, the paper’s reports also linked him to the sexual abuse of minors from years before, when he was a scout leader.

The stories, and they were ongoing for months, created a firestorm in Spokane, and led to a recall election which ousted the mayor. West died of cancer (for which he was being treated during the scandal months) earlier this year.

We followed the story as it unfolded, and read a substantial portion of the related materials the Spokesman posted on its web site – and it posted there not only the many stories in the case, but also many of the raw materials associated with them, including transcripts, tapes, documents and more. This extensive posting was not unusual behavoir for the Spokesman, by the way. Although much of its news content lies behind a pay wall, the paper prides itself on being unusually open in letting the public in on its editorial process and newsgathering. No other Northwest paper is nearly so open; we know of none elsewhere that entirely match it, and we’re big fans of it.

We’ll not here make a unilateral clearance of the Frontline program, but we will note that this was, after all, one episode of normal American television: It sought in less than an hour to explain a man’s life and a mass of reportage that ran to nearly a couple of hundred articles. It left a lot out; as we watched, we remarked on items not included. But then, had they been, the program could have gone on to several hours.

In the Spokesman’s News is a Conversation blog, Spokesman Editor Steve Smith (who was the key figure driving the coverage) had a number of comments today, pointing out errors of commission as well as omission.

I think their mistakes of commission (fact errors) and mistakes of omission were not malicious, in general, but driven by the demands of their narrative and their medium.

But the overall effect, I think, was to seriously dilute the depth, breadth and detail of our reporting and to place far more importance than facts warranted on West’s gayness as the cause of his fall.

Frontline got its Shakespearean tragedy – no one can dispute that Jim West was a tortured man. But I don’t think they got to the truth of the story. And I don’t think they ever understood Spokane.

Here are a couple of the fact errors spotted in an initial, cursory viewing:

• Frontline said that Robert Galliher’s first mention of abuse by West was in a 2005 interview. Incorrect. As we reported, he wrote about the abuse in a 2004 jailhouse letter to a psychiatrist who provided a copy of the letter to the newspaper. It’s posted online.
• Frontline says Galliher could not explain why he failed to report West sooner. Wrong. As we reported Galliher said he feared for his safety, accused West of orchestrating a jailhouse beating and had tried to avoid pointing a finger at a powerful politician with close ties to police.
• The source who first told Morlin he met West online and had sex with him was barely 18 and just out of high school at the time they first began chatting online and had just turned 19 at the time of their “date.” Frontline said he was 20. That is not an inconsiderable mistake given the nature of our reporting.
• The Motorbrock deception lasted less than three months, not the six months described by Frontline.
• West, not Motobrock, turned the online chats to sex.
• West, not Motobrock, raised the prospect of a job/internship at City Hall.
• West, not Motobrock, asked for the personal meeting in April 2005.

The Frontline story suggested the newspaper dropped its investigation of West’s past history of abuse after initial reports. That is not true.

More broadly, Smith wrote, “I thought the show captured a couple of legitimate sentiments; the sense of betrayal felt by Spokane’s gay community and the rage of ordinary Spokane citizens appalled by the mayor’s behavior, but not concerned about his sexuality. That is where Frontline badly missed the point. The producers claimed they came to town to use West as a beginning point for a discussion of the cultural divide in America, of the difficulty of being gay in a small city. They were so focused on the gay issue they forgot that West’s behavior, considered in either a gay or straight context, was simply repellent to citizens who expected a higher standard from the city’s chief executive. As Frontline producers knew, we often talked about the West story as if he had been seeking sex with 18-year-old high school girls, asking ourselves if we would make different decisions or pursue the story in a different way. Frontline viewers should ask themselves the same question and decide if sexuality was the issue or rep[e]llent conduct.”

That last point – would there still be a story if the sexual orientation had been reversed? – in a useful test, and in our view the stories pass it. We’d agree that Frontline was remiss, as it considered what to include or exclude in its report, not to take that point into account.

But it did have to pick and choose, and if it “got its Shakespearean tragedy,” well, that’s sometimes what reporters and editors do. One online critic today needled Smith, “Wow. Just wow. The immense hypocrisy of your take on the Frontline story and the total absence of self-awareness is staggering to read. Have you ever shown the subject of a story the copy in advance? Have you ever molded a story so that it would be more dramatic? As ‘head honcho’ have you ever taken a reporter’s copy and re-directed the focus?”

And the one bit in the Frontline program which really did reflect sourly on the Spokesman was not a fact or narration but a snip of video shot the night West lost his recall election, when Smith and others in the newsroom joked about possible headlines. (If you didn’t see the program, you can probably imagine what the “headlines” were.) Yes, it’s what happens in newsrooms, but in the somewhat tragic context it played like an outtake from Borat.

None of that really seemed to justify what looked like a deluge of negative comments on the Spokesman web site today. (Many were essentially just simplistic defenses of West; many came from outside the Spokesman‘s readership area.)

This whole case had its gray areas. We do think the Spokesman’s coverage and approach was justified, on balance. We can reach that conclusion, and sustain it in the wake of the Frontline piece, with some comfort because the Spokesman has been so open with its investigation.

Which is why we were a little taken aback by this comment on the main Spokesman blog:

An unintended consequence of the initiative is that every decision we make, no matter how routine or small, suddenly is exposed to national scrutiny occasionally generating jarring, off-point, crazy or even damaging responses.

We understand that the Transparent Newsroom isn’t about polishing our newsroom’s or national reputation. It’s about building credibility with our audience, here in Spokane and environs. But no one likes to be criticized in the personal way that Internet discourse encourages and some folks here are beginning to wonder.

If we open our doors to everyone and what we get in return is Tuesday ngiht’s Frontline, how can that possibly help.

We’d suggest that not only would the Tuesday program have reflected much more harshly on the Spokesman, but readers interested afterwards in sorting out the truth for themselves would not have had the many articles and raw materials to help in sifting the facts.

These comments – admitted not from residents of (though frequent visitors to) the Inland Empire, in suggestion that in these Internet days, there’s no longer anymore such thing as a local newspaper. As not only Spokane but the whole country found out once again, Tuesday night.

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This probably makes Washington Senator Patty Murray the most powerful member of the Northwest delegation in the next term: She has been named secretary of the Democratic Conference [that is, of the caucus], the fourth-ranking person in Democratic leadership. Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement was that “As Secretary of the Conference , Senator Murray will play a critical role in helping shape and set the Democratic agenda.”

Murray with leadership
Patty Murray, second from right; Majority Leader Harry Reid on her right

In the last decade, Idaho Senator Larry Craig chaired that caucus’ policy committee on the Republican side; that would be the last time someone from the region rose to a similar level in Senate leadership.

The appointment gives Murray considerable clout in the Senate. It also links her tightly to however well the Senate, and the Congress, do in the next few years.

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