Writings and observations

There’s been some chatter in Idaho political circles about the idea that Democratic legislative sucesses, few as they are, have made the Republican caucuses ever more conservative – and so, the operative control of Idaho’s legislature ever more conservative.

To which the essential reply is: Well, yes, they have.

Some Democrats seem to have been made uneasy by comments like those of Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review, who asked in her blog, “Could it be that by electing more Democrats, Idaho voters actually bought themselves a more conservative Republican Legislature?” And proceeded to answer yes.

We agree with Russell’s analysis, and we’ll take it a few directions further.

The concept of winning Democratic legislative seats at the expense of knocking off “pretty good for a Republican” Republicans is one that some Idaho Democrats are having a hard time with. Nationally, Democrats in places like New England and the Great Lakes for years had a hard time with it. They got over it, with results the nation saw last month.

So, they might recall, did Republicans over the last three decades, as they went after historically conservative Democrats. The national Democratic Party was for decades split between its liberal, moderate and conservative portions, but Republicans solved that problem for them starting in the 80s and more sweepingly in the 90s, as the GOP became the dominant political party in the south, turning that region into its strongest big base. This was partly a process of philosophical sifting out: Conservatives migrated from the Democrats to the Republicans, and the Republican Party – which for decades also had wings across the spectrum – came to be much more conservative. That made them much harder to beat in the south, and a number of other places.

But that dynamic has two sides, and we saw it most strikingly this year. Vast areas of the Northeast and the Great Lakes last month – following more subtle tendencies in the last couple of elections – swept Republicans from office. Those regions rapidly are becoming a Democratic base, in part as Republican voters who are liberal or moderates – and in those parts of the country, there were still plenty of them – moved over to the Democratic column. Nationally, we seem to be moving toward a completion of the philosophical party switch that began in earnest in the 60s, as the Democrats move toward something called liberal and the Republicans called something called conservative.

An earnest caveat right here: Those two terms about political philosophy are so badly abused and misinterpreted that we use them only under extreme protest. For purposes of this article, we’ll use the terms as they are most commonly used, but that is so imprecise that the reader is hereby given grave warning about them.

To recap quickly: Where have the Republican gains from Democrats taken place? In places where relatively conservative Democrats – those most like most Republicans – once held sway. And where have Democrats picked up? In places where Republicans acted less like stereotypical “conservative Republicans” and closer to the ways of Democrats.

You can see this all over. In Washington state, Democrats picked up a big batch of Republican seats in the state legislature last month. Did they get them in the conservative reaches of rural Washington? No, not a one. Not a single one. They got almost all of them in the Seattle suburbs – in the areas where Republicans, by and large, have had to compromise the kind of conservatism that their rural bretheren had stuck to. (The only exceptions east of the Cascades were in two Spokane-based district – also heavily suburban.)

Two years ago, the Idaho Democrats gained two Senate seats, both in the Boise area. The two Republicans who had held them – Sheila Sorensen and Cecil Ingram – were solid members of the Republican caucus (read: they were not liberals by any reasonable definition) but among the most moderate members of the caucus, among the easiest for Democrats to deal with. In replacing them with Democrats, the Idaho Democrats removed from the Senate caucus two of the members who were most inclined to work with and compromise with them.

This year, much the same happened on a larger scale when Idaho Democrats won five Boise House seats. Like Sorensen and Ingram, these mostly were Republicans who – partly because of where they lived, which is to say places which were less hard-edged conservative and includes more Democrats in the population – who, while certainly partisan loyalists, sometimes were found toward the moderate side of the conservative Republican caucus. Their departure leaves a larger percentage of that caucus in the hands of more conservative members.

Where Democrats go at this point toward picking up more legislative seats is unclear. But the single most logical piece of turf that seems to stick out is Latah County, whose legislative district currently elects one Democrat and two of the most moderate Republicans in the Idaho Legislature, Gary Schroeder and Tom Trail – moderate enough that they have often infuriated other Republicans (because of philosophy) and are almost partisan outliers.

Many Idaho Democrats have resisted seriously going after them, in part because they admire their stands on education, the environment, worker rights and other subjects. But if they want to pick up votes, places like Latah – moderate Republicans and all – are where they will be found. Both Schroeder and Trail have substantial local popularity, and we’re certainly not predicting they’ll be beaten (and surely not easily) anytime soon. But when one day they do leave the legislature, there’s a good chance Democrats will take those seats – will, at least, if they exert themselves.

And if that happens, the Republican legislative caucuses will become a little more conservative.

Democrats in turn may find that if Republicans – becoming increasingly conservative, including in their ranks ever-fewer Schroeders and Trails and Ingrams and Sorensens – occupy a narrower philosophical tent, that tendency will over time open more ground for Democrats to exploit. That is the strategic eventuality Democrats will face, that the Republicans they like best and appreciate most are those most directly standing in their way. (That is what the Republicans learned nationally a long time ago.)

These are trends, of course, and trends do not mean destiny. Both parties, or either, could upset all of this by embracing, rather than expelling, their moderates. Or by redefining themselves.

Share on Facebook


power poleWhat was it people always used to say, about adversity bringing us together? Okay, sometimes it does. But not always.

David Goldstein of the Horses Ass blog is one of the many Seattleites left in the dark by Thursday’s massive windstorm – still in the dark. And he has some issues about it:

“Down here in South Seattle, we tend to have a little chip on our shoulders about what we perceive to be a less than equal share of city services, so it didn’t escape my attention this morning when I called Seattle City Light for an update, and they proudly announced that they had restored all the downed feeders in the more affluent North end of the city, leaving us in the South end to freeze our asses off in the dark. The recording said that of the 55 feeders originally down, the 30 remaining are all in the South. Yippee.”

Share on Facebook


The great forest lands of the Northwest are in largest part public – a whole lot are national forest lands, or state-owned lands. But big, significant portions of those forest lands are privately held, many by timber companies and others – a growing number – by companies simply managing them, with no particular tie to timber.

forest in NC IdahoWe’ve been accustomed to the idea that these lands are almost a supplement to the public lands – logged to a greater degree, yes, and privately held, yes, but seeming not so different. But they are different, always have been and most certainly will be, and a new report from Potlatch underscores that. (A hat tip here to the correspondent who pointed this out.)

Idahoans are accustomed to thinking of Potlatch as a timber production company, what with its big plants at Lewiston and elsewhere, and it still is to a point. But it has been formally reorganized as a REIT – a real estate investment trust – and while it did that for tax and other business reasons, the reorg also highlighted the way the company is changing and its ongoing direction. Potlatch is the owner of 1.5 million acres of land, about 100,000 to 120,000 acres in Idaho alone. Think about the value real estate has taken in recent years, and the development growth Idaho has seen, and the shape of things to come begins to emerge.

Here’s the key part of Potlatch’s statement from Monday:

“After reorganizing as a REIT earlier this year, we began a process of taking a very deep look at all of the values associated with our land holdings,” said President and Chief Executive Officer Michael J. Covey. “Through this intensive land value stratification process, we have identified those lands that are non-strategic to our core forestland operations. These higher valued forestlands are available to be sold over time and the proceeds may be used to fuel the growth of the company through acquisitions, or to pay down debt or execute a share repurchase program.”

Potlatch’s entire ownership of 1.5 million acres is located in desirable rural and mountain regions across the country. A significant portion of Potlatch lands have key attributes that make it superior recreational property. Additionally, in keeping with Potlatch’s long tradition of managing forestland using the highest levels of stewardship, our forestlands are third-party certified.

“Potlatch’s Idaho land holdings are located in the beautiful north-central part of the state, which has long been known for its spectacular wilderness, white water rivers, salmon, trout and steelhead fishing and big game hunting,” said Vice President Land Sales and Development William R. DeReu. “Potlatch properties in Minnesota are rural, forested and located within a few hours drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Arkansas ownership, like Minnesota, offers exceptional opportunities for hunting and outdoor recreation in a beautiful mixed hardwood and conifer forest,” added DeReu.

This should be considered new-directional, since Covey took over as CEO only earlier this year – this has the mark of a direction with the new administration’s brand on it.

Imagine a large part of 110,000 acres up for sale in north-central Idaho: the region could be transformed.

Of course, we don’t yet know how many of those acres will actually be posted for sale or new use. And there are limitations. A correspondent notes that “Potlatch entered into an agreement a couple of years ago with Trust for Public Lands, The Nature Conservancy and the feds to place conservation easements (logging ok, no development) on up to 70,000 acres of their Idaho lands for which they were to receive $40M from the federal treasury” – and that may be a significantly limiting factor. Or, in the nature of these things, possibly not as limiting as we think.

But you can get some indication from recent developments in Oregon, where Plum Creek Timber has filed a huge Measure 37 land use claim which could open the door to development – residential, commercial, industrial? – of 37,000 acres of forest land in Lincoln and Coos counties. That claim could fail, for several reasons, and even if it passes legally it might never be (probably would not be) fully executed.

But it shows the direction publicly-held timber companies, with their huge asset base and limited ability to accelerate their quarterly profits the way some others do, may be looking. Some of those directions could change very face of the Northwest.

Share on Facebook


As Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard cautions, it’s only a step. But it is a step, this latest poll showing Clark County residents strongly in favor of expanding light rail to their side of the river.

We’ll admit to a biased view. My sister is an example of a would-be eager user of such a system. She lives in east Vancouver, near I-205, but takes regular classes and does other work at Portland State University, in downtown Portland. Getting from one to the other is quite a bit of work and a big pain. If she could catch the rail up on her side of the river, the commute would be easy (especially with the extension now underway that will run straight through PSU). Her kind of situation is far from unique; Portland and Vancouver are part of one big metro area.

There are additional specific arguments. They run from the extreme traffic jam-ups at the I-5 Columbia River area, a daily mess and slowdown (probably the worst jam spot in the Portland area) to the shape of Vancouver – the densest population core running east-west, in parallel to Mill Plain Boulevard, creating a logical route for light rail. (A lot of Vancouverites would doubtless use it to run between the big residential areas and the downtown area lying southwest of most of them.

The light rail concept has seemed DOA for lack of public support. In 1995 voters in Vancouver rejected the idea of light rail development, by about 2-1. Despite that, Pollard (who has some personal popularity to trade on) and some others have continued to push for it. And now the margins have flipped – a poll by the interstate Columbia River Crossing study group now shows 68% support.

On top of that, even more metro Oregonians – 76% – say they would like to see the rail lines run across the river.

Part of all this may be the continuing expansion of the rail system, MAX (part of the Tri-Met transit system) to cover increasing areas around Portland – from about a 50-mile run east of downtown Portland to Gresham and west to Hillsoboro, more recently north to the airport and the Expo center, and soon south to Clackamas. It is useful and heavily used.

Another part may be the worsening traffic, and growing reailization of the extremely high cost of coping with them in any event. One of the reasonable objections to light rail has long been the cost; but in some places, we’re approach points where the cost of expanding roadways is becoming no less. (Bear in mind the fracas in Oregon’s Yamhill County, where a a consulting company has argued that the only practical way to build a much-needed bypass highway is to poll not only the new road but an existing free-passage highway, 99W, as well – an idea that clearly is DOA politically.)

The toughest part of a Vancouver expansion – how to pay for it – wasn’t on the poll. That’s no minor consideration, of course. But prerequisite to getting the money (with the change in control of Congress, some avenues for funding may be opening) is getting the public support. And now, in marked change, that seems to be on the way.

Share on Facebook


Two headlines today – in various places, but for one the Idaho State Journal regional news roundup – about Idaho’s newly elected and incoming superintendent of public instruction, Tom Luna.

They say: “Idaho schools chief embellished federal resume,” and “Luna fires 20 at Idaho Department of Education.” Depending on one’s point of view, the two really do, or really don’t, belong together.

The embellishment (broken by the Associated Press) concerned Luna campaign literature saying he was “Appointed Senior Adviser to Secretary of Education Rod Paige by President George W- Bush,” when he was appointed instead by Paige as a “Special Assistant” – a substantial difference. (We’d offer for review as well our take from this spring on Luna’s federal years.)

The second is self-explanatory, other than that the names of the employees were not released.

Share on Facebook


Up in Alaska, state and a lot of local governments have a great deal of oil-based money to play with. Seattle, which has about as many residents as the state of Alaska, does not: For big projects, it needs state and even federal bucks.

Alaskan WayTherein lies the catch with the otherwise clearcut Alaskan Way project. Akaskan Way is a limited access roadway rising above downtown hugging the shoreline of the Puget Sound, allowing traffic from north or south of downtown a direct route to the other side (along with exits and entry to downtown), at – surprisingly often – good speed and efficiency. There are two significant issues. One is that quite a few people think it damages the view along the downtown Seattle shoreline (which to a degree it probably does). But much the larger is this: The old road, built back in the 50s, is unsound, is cracking and could collapse when another earthquake hits.

There are three solutions: One is to route the Way along ground level, but that gets little support, since although inexpensive it would mean subjecting the through traffic to the downtown grid, defeating the purpose. Another, supported by Mayor Greg Nickels and a majority on the city council, is to build a tunnel, route the traffic underground, a fine approach from the driver’s standpoint but also extremely expensive (about $4.6 billion, and rising). The middle path, supported – we now know – by Governor Chris Gregoire, would rebuild the current elevated road, more or less, at a somewhat matter price tag (about $2.8 billion, and rising).

That latter position went public on Friday, along with indications from the governor that she and the city were in gridlock over the difference. She also suggested a way to broak the gridlock: An advsory vote by the voters of Seattle.

That seems rational. The choice, while involving no lack of technical aspects, is clear-cut enough for a public consideration: Would you rather get a tunnel and pay more, or a raised highway and pay less? Most people in Seattle probably would have little difficulty reaching a conclusion. Gregoire, for her part, said she would abide by the results. (A vote probably would be needed by the start of April to allow time for follow-up legislative action.) The city’s response to the idea is not entirely clear.

There is a little catch, though. What about the people in the rest of the state who will be supplying state money for a Seattle project? Do they not get a say?

Just that point was made Friday by state Representative Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, a Republican caucus leader, and it is likely to be echoed elsewhere.

It is not an insoluable issue. But negotiating with the rest of the state probably will have to be on the agenda for Gregoire alongside the apparently rugged negotiations with the city of Seattle, and it might require no less effort.

Share on Facebook


Not a lot of Idaho legislators were close to former state representative, now U.S. Representative-elect Bill Sali, but state Senator Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, certainly was.

Gerry SweetThe past tense refers not to the relationship, which continues tightly, but to Sweet’s role in the legislature – he has resigned his seat in the Idaho Senate to become Sali’s in-state district manager. He’s a logical choice in that regard.

There are other regards. Sweet was hashed last session for missing a lot of votes so that he could attend to his pribvate business, which often meant attending gun shows and similar events. The Associated Press reported then, “he absences of Sen. Gerry Sweet, R-Meridian, drew criticism from some lawmakers who say he hasn’t paid enough attention to one of the Legislature’s most important panels. Sweet didn’t vote on 63 of 200 budget bills for fiscal year 2007, based on figures provided by the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to The Associated Press.”

But then, while the job of state senator is part time, that of district manager of a congressional office is full time. Usually.

FOLLOWING: With his letter of resignation lodged, the district’s Republican central committee has about two weeks to nominate replacements (usually three are nominated). The governor then picks one – which leads to the question of which governor will make the choice, Jim Risch or Butch Otter? The time frame would allow for either to do so . . .

Share on Facebook


We count ourselves lucky: We lost power for only about six hours last night, after a full day of warnings that it could easily happen. Kept us off line a bit, but no damage done.

Government Camp - ODOT roadcam photo A grocery store clerk we know wasn’t quite so lucky. The ferocious winds tore down a 100-foot evergreen in her yard, smashed it to the ground, missing her house . . . and her neighbor’s house, barely . . . but not the neighbor’s $18,000 boat.

And that was small stuff to what others went through. An estimated million people lost power at some point in northwestern Washington – much of Seattle was hit – and five or more days may pass before it is restored in some places. The Portland metro region and nearby coast saw outages for about 375,000 people. (Just imagine being the power repair guys trying to deal with this. From accounts we’ve seen so far, they appear to have done an extraordinary job.)

Washington reported four deaths from all this, so far. In Oregon, the search continues for people who – what could they have been thinking? – insisted on climbing Mount Hood; the death toll on that Oregon landmark is way above normal.

This is turning into a biting winter.

Share on Facebook

Oregon Washington

The big Seattle law firm Preston Gates & Ellis is one of the power players in Seattle.

This is old shoe downtown clout: The oldest big law firm in Seattle, one of the biggest (420 lawyers) and big names – yes, the Gates in the name is Bill’s father, and he was big deal in the Puget Sound well before anyone had heard of Microsoft, and even now cuts a big swath in Washington business and politics. (It does represent Microsoft, too.) The political clout roster would start with former Senator Slade Gorton and go on from there. And they are only the best known of many big figures here.

It has been Seattle owned and based, up to now, but that is changing: At the turn of the year it will merge with an even bigger firm (a little more than twice as big), Kirkpatrick & Lockhart of Pittsburgh. Like Preston Gates, it has offices scattered around the globe. (Informally, the merged firm will be called K&L Gates – notice which name of the Seattle three will be retained.)

Spokesmen maintain that the merger will change virtually nothing at Seattle, other than link it more firmly to the global marketplace; no change of personnel or clientele was indicated. Our interest, though, is that in the power structure of Seattle, there may be a little change. Preston Gates has been an independent, freestanding operation in Seattle, a free agent to an extent, operating as it will; now it will become part of a larger system. How the change will affect it as a business and professional entity is one thing, but we have to imagine it will affect its stance and role in the community, if only in subtle ways. It will be, after all, part of something still bigger, now.

Share on Facebook


Acautionary note, as the title suggests: When you post on a blog, you’d better assume anyone and everyone – to include your critics, your your business partners, your mom, people you never have and never will meet – may wind up reading it. Those of us who grew up with publishing through print and broadcast – put it out there and it’s out there, never to be fully taken back – may actually have a better grasp of this than today’s high schoolers, who use web myspace pages to communicate (some of them think, incorrectly) just between themselves.

Such discussion runs into our subject area in the case of John Statler, a council member at Medford, who earlier this year started experimenting with a blog, Statler’s Rogue Valley Views. Nothing wrong with that, of course; many public officials blog (and we’d enjoy seeing blogs from more of them).

Last summer he unleashed onto his blog some thoughts about his perceptions of activities in Medford city government. Such as: “The City Council has a majority of Council members who meet outside of the public arena and make decisions and give direction to the City Manager also in a way that is outside of public arena. The City Manager and his staff have exhibited a significant level of incompetence in tracking the direction given by Council in a public arena.” And there was a good deal more, not much of it complimentary.

In a post yesterday, Statler explained, “The article wasn’t really meant to be a public document. It was really an experiment in blog formating. The article itself was my attempt to search for meaning in how the council discusses matters. I was primarily motivated by the City Manager taking me to task for having, perhaps, a bad memory. Turns out I didn’t have a bad memory after all. I decided to leave matters alone after writing the post. I felt it would be better to see what the results of the upcoming election might be before pursuing the matter further. Now there will be several new council members.”

Not that any of this has made the other council members happy once they found what was released to the world, and the subject has now become a topic (probably Topic A) at the Medford Council. Other council members said they have not been meeting secretly and have done nothing wrong. One them asked the state ethics commission to intervene, only to be rebuffed. (It may not have known exactly what to do about blog posts.) On the other hand, if Statler wanted to get the attention of the other council members, well, he certainly got it.

A point to remember: Meetings are sometimes open and sometimes not, but blog posts always are.

Share on Facebook