Dec 30 2006

What changed

Published by at 9:45 am under Idaho,Oregon,Washington

We’re living in a different region and country now than we were a year ago – more different than was true of the year prior, a year ago at this time. Some trends of significance spun around in whole new directions; some others picked up fresh speed.

We can’t know for a while, of course, which will be sustained or overhauled in the next year or two. But let’s take a moment and relfect on some of what made 2006 consequential for the Northwest . . .

bullet Initiative-by-rich-ideologue turned back. It’s worth remembering that when the batch of initiatives funded by wealthy out of state interests reached ballot status in Washington, Oregon and Idaho (and elsewhere) in mid-year, the common assumption was that most of them at least would pass easily. Instead, they got slammed, decisively: Property measures in Washington and Idaho, budget measures in Oregon, and more.

Part of it may come to this: At the beginning of the year, few people knew the name “Howard Rich,” and by late fall, it was a household word. That astounding development was in effect a lifting of a curtain to show the guys operating the machinery – and once voters understood how they were being manipulated, they reacted. This is a development new in recent years, and it could fundamentally change politics in the region and beyond for years to come.

bullet Unified government in Oregon. Oregon has not had a governor and unified legislature of the same party in 16 years. Or consider this: 2007 will mark the first time in half a century that all three Northwest states have had unified governments – governor and both legislative houses controlled by the same party. Is that of interest to anyone but a political scientist? That depends on what those unified parties do with their pwer, what affirmative uses they put it (and poor ideas they refrain from).

bullet Republicans in Oregon: No obvious direction. To restate a point often made in the afterwash of the November 7 election, Oregon Republicans have come to a crisis point. For years, they have operated under the theory that if they could only nominate a candidate for governor who wasn’t tagged as “far right” and weighed down with social conservative baggage, they could – no, would – win. In 2006 they did what Democrats did in the 2004 presidential race, nominated a candidate (Ron Saxton) who didn’t thrill but was thought to be the guy who could win. When he didn’t, and in fact lost decisively to a Democrat who had no unworldly charisma or massive popularity going for him, the longstanding theory smash to earth. So the question: What should Republicans do now? If a Saxton couldn’t win, then who will?

All of this is of issue in Washington too, where Senate candidate Mike McGavick was high on the list of the wise folks at the state GOP organization who figured he was positioned just about right – enough local background and social liberalism for the West Side, enough economic and other conservatism for the East Side – to pull off a win. His loss was the biggest for a Senate seat in the state in a generation. So now what?

bullet Shifting the urban suburbs. The Eastside of King County is now Democratic. Not Republican, as it was six years ago, or mostly Republican as it was four years ago, or marginal, as it was two years ago. The city of Boise has made almost a precisely comparable transition in these years – this is a city now (as it was not in the last mayoral election) where a candidate with Democratic background finds it of more benefit than handicap. In more subtle ways, pieces of Washington and Clackamas counties (in the Portland Tri-Met) did the same. How long-standing will these holds be? A question to ponder till the next election.

bullet Albertsons going away. The corporate grinder in 2006 took away one of Boise’s, and Idaho’s, landmarks with the sale of Albertson’s, one of the largest supermarket chains in the country. Sure, there are still “Albertsons” stores around. For how long is another matter; by year’s end the renaming was already underway in some parts of the country.

bullet Emergence of illegal immigration as a big but not sucessful political issue. Up to 2006 this seemed to be a perennial underground issue, one that touched a lot of nerves but that politicians seemed reluctant to grapple with. But beginning early in the year and continuing through most of it, the issue gained visibility. It failed, however, to elect: Its big proponent in Idaho, Robert Vasquez, lost his primary race (though he came in second out of six candidates), and in Oregon Ron Saxton seemed on balance to lose more than gain out of it.

bullet Housing market hits the brakes. This seemed to come as a shock to some; to us, the slowdown arrived about on schedule. And we’ll predict further the trend will accelerate in 2007.

bullet A building revolt against Measure 37 in Oregon (and its counterparts). Voters in Washington and Idaho smacked down rough counterparts to Oregon’s Measure 37 in 2006. That may be somewhat reflective of Oregonians’ attitudes toward the measure. As reports later in the year about massive timber company claims and the like began to proliferate, and as polling began to suggest Oregonians would reject the measure if they had it to do over again, you get the sense that there’s some maneuver room available for the 2007 Democratic Oregon Legislature.

bullet Sempra out, and it’s not alone. The energy company Sempa had been looking at building a coal-fired plant in southern Idaho, which drew larger and larger opposition. At some point a critical mass hit and the usual cry of “jobs! jobs!” appeared to lose its potency, and in March Sempra backed out. Later in the year, new Governor Jim Risch took a series of tough environmental stands (maybe his old forestry school training at the University of Idaho was kicking in) that appears to block the path for similar developments any time soon. Or will this be a point of reversal for new Governor Butch Otter?

bullet Timber lands selloff. A mostly under-the-radar story through 2006 concerned the gradual but massive selloff of northwest lands by timber companies, often in favor of equity or management companies. The Oregonian in March published one of the few pieces to substantially address this: “Historically, giant timber companies managed vast empires that included both mills and forestland. At their peak, International Paper Co., Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and Boise Cascade Corp. owned more than 25 million acres. But tax and business changes over the past decade encouraged specialization, and companies increasingly split ownership of the trees from production in the mills.”

bullet The 10 commandaments failure. 2006 was not a good year on the social-conservative front. Advocates lost an abortion-related ballot issue in Oregon that most observers originally thought would pass. And in Boise, voters slammed a ballot initiative to require the placement of a 10 commandments monument in one of the city’s greenbelt parks. (Common speculation: Many voters were simply disgusted with a phony issue.)

bullet The one change in the NW congressional delegation: Republican Bill Sali. In a year when Congress changed greatly in many places, the Northwest wound up seeing almost no change at all, and this one seat which changed occupants did not change party control. It did, however, generate the Northwest political quote of the year (surely repeated far more than any other). It came from the usually amiable House Speaker Bruce Newcomb near the end of the 2006 Idaho legislative session; furious at Sali, he said, “That idiot is just an absolute idiot…He doesn’t have one ounce of empathy in his whole frickin’ body, and you can put that in the paper.”

bullet The Building Industry Association of Washington goes splat. The BIAW remains a powerful force in Washington, but it took big hits in 2006, most notably in the Supreme Court races it underwrote, and lost spectacularly. (Watch for an itchy trigger finger in Democratic Olympia in 2007.)

bullet Swapping newspapers like trading cards. Not a regional matter only, of course. But the Northwest saw local fallout from the big Gannett/Knight-Ridder/McClatchy deal. It saw announcement (coming to fruition in January) of the King County Journal closure, the loss of a mid-sized daily newspaper. It saw what finally begins to look like end-of-tunnel light in the Seattle newspaper legal war. It saw the end of home delivery of the Oregonian across much of the state. It saw a big selloff by Lee Enterprises (including a large weekly at Newport, Oregon). And it saw general circulation declines, especially at the big dailies. Not good trends for the medium which does the most serious job overall of keeping people informed.

bullet Without overstating – we’re really not trying to overstate this year – political blogging really is beginning to “arrive.” We don’t want to get involved in the latest smashup between NW Republican and the Oregonian‘s Steve Duin about this. But we would note that a number of blogs have had some discrete (albeit small-scale) impact on races; candidates over the course of this year told us about specific effects that Ridenbaugh Press posts had on their campaigns. We’re not talking about massive blogger impact here, but whatever it is, it was a lot more than in 2004.

Best piece of evidence of blogging’s arrival? The ban imposed on Dave Oliveria’s Huckleberries community block at the Kootenai County courthouse last May. You don’t do something that stupid unless they’ve got your attention.

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