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Posts published in June 2008

Parsing Smith, again

Is it something about Oregon Senator Gordon Smith's speech patterns that simply make him hard to follow? We had a tough time trying to make sense late last year of his big Iraq speech on the Senate floor, and the new video circulating today is no easier.

On one level, the Q-and-A here is transparent enough. The question was, "Do you support a much broader extension of partnership rights through, for example in our home state, the recent domestic partnership bill that has passed? And secondly how do you reconcile your position on partnership benefits with your support of the federal marriage amendment and the marriage protection act?"

Smith disposed of the first part easily and clearly: "I am fine with what the legislature did. I think it is a good accommodation of very legitimate demands by gays and lesbians."

The second question, though, seemed to send him backwards, forwards and sideways. His reply - you'd best listen to it yourself - seemed to revolve around concerns about defining marriage and especially federal as opposed to state determinations about it. But when he brought in the whole subject of polygamy, he vanished into verbal quicksand; you suddenly couldn't tell what he was in favor of.

Gotta love his conclusion, though: "And I hope you understand."

OR Sen: Rising in the Fix

Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post political blogger, has been something of a skeptic about the Jeff Merkley campaign in the Oregon Senate race against Republican incumbent Gordon Smith. His take for some time has been that Merkley hasn't "caught fire."

That sense seems to have changed (and we get the sense that it has in places elsewhere too) in his rundown today of the Senate Line, wherein he lists the U.S. Senate seats most likely to switch party control in November. Smith/Merkley has been on the list consistently, but over the months most often moving dwn the rankings. This week it moved up, from No. 8 to No. 6 (behind, in order, Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Alaska). Cillizza's take:

Regular Fix readers know that we have long been skeptical about state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). But to his credit, Merkley managed to win the Democratic primary last month over activist Steve Novick and now stands as something close to an even-money bet against Sen. Gordon Smith (R). Why? Obama is a heavy favorite over John McCain in the state this fall, and Merkley will surely benefit from a huge turnout in the Portland-area for the party's nominee. Merkley also caught a break recently when John Frohnmayer, a well known name in the state expected to take votes from the Democratic nominee, dropped his third party bid. Smith is paying attention and doing everything he can to win reelection, but he faces an extremely difficult environment.

The Walkscore metric

walkscore

Walkscore in Seattle

Into our ongoing lookout for indicators that may suggest partisan leanings by geographic location, strolls a promising entry: Walkscore.

This is a ratings tool, in this case rating neighborhoods by how "walkable" they are - meaning, among other things, how many business and service resources are available in walking distance. This relates, of course, to how urban an area is (and with rare exceptions, in recent years urban areas have trended strongly Democratic) but also to other factors, such as (often) the number of children in a neighborhood and the number of local vs. chain businesses.

The site Walkscore.com has ratings out for Seattle's neighborhoods, and a map (a piece of it reproduced here) showing where the most and least walkable areas in the city are.

Seattle overall is, of course, highly Democratic. In relative terms, though, a quick eyeballing gives the suspicion that the more "walkable" neighborhoods (indicated here in green) are also the more strongly Democratic. Thoughts? Does this look like a rough correlation, or not?

How the smoking ban killed bars, etc. (cough)

The smoking ban in Washington state covering bars and a bunch of other businesses, which went into effect in December 2005, was long fought as an economic nightmare, a killer that would savage a whole range of rtail businesses.

Except, apparently, that just the reverse happened: A new state Department of Revenue report says that business has jagged sharply upward ever since the ban went into effect.

We won't press the point too far; there are lots of reasons, not just one, that a business may do better or worse. The department is careful to say that it "asserts no cause and effect relationship between I-901 [the anti-smoking initiative] and industry revenues."

Still. For Washington bars and taverns, annual revenue growth in the three years pre-901 averaged 2.1% a year; in the two years after, the average growth was 9.7%. The total of food service and drinking places statewide (many of which were non-smoking beforehand) showed no significant change, from 6.8% average growth to 6.9%.

See also the item in the Slog ("Wasn't the smoking ban going to destroy bars?") about this.

ID: The downtown/grassroots split

Back around the fall of '05 we were hearing talk that the field of Republican candidates for the 1st U.S. House district in Idaho might include one Bill Sali, a state legislator not much liked by Republican leadership (among others). We heard that from a few people whose take on Republican field organization has been good. We did not hear it from any of the downtown Boise Republican inside crowd; those we heard from among the downtown crowd, in fact, were dismissive of the very concept, and initially convinced there was no way Sali could get anywhere. We thought otherwise, and didn't really seem to convince anyone until the primary election results gave the nomination to Sali.

This comes to mind in the rapidly-changing battle over the chairmanship of the Idaho Republican Party, which has been held by Kirk Sullivan, a well-respected downtown guy who is very much a part of the downtown Republican crowd, close to the lobbyist community, the congressional staffs, the legislators, the staffs of the statewide elected officials (and their principals, of course) and so on. He has personal support from most of them, from Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter on down. He's not a lightning rod kind of guy, much more the diplomatic than confrontational type, which makes the recent fierce struggle to oust him seem all the stranger. But then, it would seem, it's not really a matter of Sullivan personally.

The man who has been challenging him directly, former state Senator Rod Beck, is much more the lightning rod type. But the idea that Beck's candidacy for the chair is about something other than Beck now has got some support, with Beck's withdrawal from the contest in favor of attorney Norm Semanko (better known till now as a failed congressional candidate in 2006, as head of the Idaho Water Users Association, and as a new city council member in Eagle).

Beck told the Idaho Statesman that "I was convinced I had 55 (percent) to 60 percent of the vote. I think with Norm throwing in, he could get as much as 70 percent."

(Beck's new target is another Republican establishment guy, Idaho Falls attorney and former state chair - now national committeeman - Blake Hall.)

Without guessing at the percentages, our sense that Beck isn't far wrong in his analysis. The indicators we've seen are that while most of the downtowners remain happy with Sullivan, the grassroots activists are agitating for a change - and odds are they have the numbers. Two key indicators of that are two people close to those grassroots, Sali himself, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who say they are backing Semanko. The point is not that these two may sway a lot of people; but they are markers, indicators of where a substantial portion of the Republican organization is going.

Semanko, who himself has a strong diplomatic streak, will be put to a serious test if he wins - pulled in two directions. This could be one of those occasions where the effect of winning is to offer a demonstration of just how good a politician you really are, because he would sitting astride a serious split, and an increasingly emotional one.

Speculation curb

In a package of stories today on rising gas prices, the Oregonian included a McClatchy piece (bylined Kevin G. Hall) listing three moves regulators could take (endorsed to date, it notes, not by Bush, McCain or Obama) that could choke off some of the price increases. One is strengthening the dollar, which could have a wide range of other effects as well. A second is dipping into the strategic oil reserve, which probably makes sense but has some issues too.

The third seems a no-brainer: "Perhaps the quickest action, the experts said, would be ordering curbs on financial speculation. Financial industry heavyweights have acknowledged before Congress that such speculation is driving oil prices higher. Pension funds, endowments and other big institutional investors are pumping big money into index funds linked to commodities, including oil, driving up demand - and prices." Such restrictions could be enacted by a simple presidential order, or congressional action.

We've been watching for a while for a candidate for federal office, anywhere, to address this - it would seem one of the easiest and most useful steps available in the short term. Today, we ran across the first we've seen (if you've seen others, let us know), from Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley.

In a release on gas price policy, he offered support for the Consumer-First Energy Act (S. 3044) which among other things, he wrote, will "Stop Wall Street speculation by preventing U.S. contracts to be traded on foreign exchanges and closing the "Enron Loophole," which allows energy commodities to be traded on markets exempt from any federal, state, or local oversight. The Farm Bill included language that was intended to close the Enron Loophole, but the CFTC has said that it will not treat crude oil contracts as covered by the amendment."

This would seem an obvious political hammer. And to useful purpose, too.

The coming of Blackwater

book

Blackwater

Idahoans are famously suspicious of government power - talk about black helicopters was big stuff a decade ago, even by way of a member of Congress. By those standards, this latest ought to set the bells and whistles on full alert. Quoth the Coeur d'Alene Press: "Blackwater Worldwide, a private security company, wants to build a regional law enforcement training center in North Idaho. The North Carolina-based company is negotiating a contract with the Idaho Peace Officer Standards & Training Academy to provide space and instruction to law enforcement personnel."

Ah, yes, just the thing to shed Idaho of its hard-right militia reputation.

If you don't know about Blackwater, you should: " self-described private military company founded in 1997 by Erik Prince and Al Clark. It has alternatively been referred to as a security contractor or a mercenary organization by numerous reports in the international media." There's an excellent recent book on the company, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Jeremy Scahill, which covers the detail, including its immense involvement in Iraq. And many of the controversies surrounding it, there and elsewhere.

Trish Christy, a spokesman at POST, said the agreement with Blackwater is scheduled for discussion at the POST Council meeting Thursday morning, though it still is in relatively early stages. She pointed out that it would involve Blackwater building facilities that would be leased by Idaho peace officer training - it would be a north Idaho version of the training center at Meridian - and that Blackwater people would not be doing the training.

Okay. But why would Blackwater be building a facility far from its North Carolina haunts solely for someone else (there may be others in addition to POST) to lease out? And if that were cost effective as such, why wouldn't POST just build its own? The only sensible answer is that Blackwater has other plans for north Idaho. Of some sort.

(Writing about this agreement, a pro-Blackwater site offers this quote in support: "They're the Cadillac of training services," said J. Adler, national executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "You've got the best of the best teaching." But according to POST, they won't be doing any teaching.)

We're told by an e-mail that a petition effort, opposing the Blackwater deal, is underway in the Panhandle: "When the public heard that Idaho POST was possibly entering into agreement to be a tenant in a Blackwater facility, they became alarmed. Petitions are being signed by citizens that don’t want Idaho POST to enter into agreement with Blackwater."

Keep watch on this.

OR: Frohnmayer out

John Frohnmayer

John Frohnmayer

There is this: The Oregon Senate race just got a smidge simpler, with Independent (large I, as in the party) John Frohnmayer dropping out today. But we're doubtful the overall field, led by Republican incumbent Senator Gordon Smith and Democratic nominee Jeff Merkley, has changed greatly as a result. (Note that his campaign website doesn't reflect the dropout, though it has been widely reported.) The Associated Press quotes him as saying "he has had a tough time rounding up campaign money and grass-roots support."

Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian suggests there could be some genuine fallout: "While Frohnmayer is a former Republican from a well-known GOP family, he's been running a candidacy that carries more appeal to the political left. He made a bit of a splash early in his race last year when he urged Congress to move forward with impeaching President Bush. In that sense, he looked more like a candidate who would compete with Merkley for votes than with Smith. One poll from last year even pegged Frohnmayer's support at 14 percent, which if true could have made him a real factor."

Talk to Frohnmayer and you'll find his stances do generally match more closely (at least in the hotter issues of this year) with the Democratic than the Republican side, supporting Mapes' point. At the same time, we're skeptical he would have drawn (in practice) more than a small percentage of the vote - far less than the 14% one poll indicated. And Smith has been trying to position himself as less and less conservative, aiming to pull in as many Republican-leaning centrist votes as possible. Our guess is that Frohnmayer, in or out, probably represented close to a wash.

It does, however, simplify the race - into a more focused Democratic/Republican contest. And that may not be so good for Smith in this year.

Veep NW?

The new piece on OpenLeft about Obama/Murray leaves us a little skeptical: "I have learned from a trusted inside source that the Obama campaign has approached, and held talks with, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) as a possible Vice-Presidential selection."

But maybe it's about time to run through the idea of a vice-presidential pick - either party - from the Northwest. And to suggest that it looks less than likely.

Start with the Republican side; we can deal with it quickly.

Without launching into debate over the exact meshing of qualities that Republican nominee-presumptive John McCain ought to look for, we could safely say that he would be looking for someone with substantial experience, a background of election to major office, with no important skeletons rattling around, someone broadly acceptable to his own party and at least not a drag elsewhere (preferably better than that). To that extent, not so different from Democrat Barack Obama. In McCain's case, you could also say someone younger, but not necessarily too much younger.

Who from the Northwest fits? There's one Republican governor, Idaho's C.L. "Butch" Otter, but Otter, skilled candidate though he is, wouldn't help with some components of the party and does have a skeleton or two for the national media to play with. There are three Republican U.S. senators in the region, but all three have disqualifiers: Larry Craig's issues are obvious enough to need no restating; Mike Crapo has had health issues; and Oregon's Gordon Smith is running for re-election (and, were he to withdraw, his seat would most likely fall to a Democrat). House members are rarely picked, and none of the Northwest's jump out as having the powerhouse skills and broad support to turn swiftly into national-level candidates. (Not on the Democratic side, either, for that matter.)

You could mention - it probably will be at some point - Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, formerly governor of Idaho, who has strong campaign skills and has spent some time on the national stage. But among other considerations, would McCain want someone from the Bush Administration, just as he's trying to do his distancing thing? Seems doubtful.

The possibilities open a little more for Obama, though not much. (more…)

Redoing the neighborhood

Tough run-down, crime-ridden areas do get changed. You can find a number of districts in Seattle or Portland that have been changed, and in many ways improved. But can you do it drawing out of the area's original character and without - it has to be said - gentrifying the area, to the point that few of its original residents can even live there anymore?

Question arises on North Aurora in Seattle, a street we've watched periodically over the years and which clearly needs, as the phrase goes, some spray 'n wash. How to deal with it well is a tough question. A useful piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer today addresses some of that without glossing over the difficulties. It has some depth, and it's worth a good review.

Got your earmarks right here

The Tacoma News Tribune has just put together a neat list for Washington state that ought to be replicated elsewhere: A database of congressional earmarks in the state, notably in Pierce County.

(The reporter by the way was Niki Sullivan, whose byline seems to be consistently turning up on some of the most useful political/governmental reporting in the Northwest in recent months.)

The paper had some help: "The News Tribune analyzed a database prepared by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses technology to help citizens learn more about government, of about 350 earmarks in the 2008 federal budgets that would benefit Washington state. There are likely more: There are a total of 11,500 earmarks this year – the second-highest number ever – and some are so vague that it's impossible to tell who's getting the money."

The Truth-o-Meter

We've added a new widget to the site - scroll down and to the right, you'll see the PolitiFact.com truth-o-meter. It's not strictly a Northwest thing, but we think it might be useful.

There, you'll see statements made by or about candidates, and marked as truthful, halfway or (in the really bad cases) "pants on fire." And you can click through to the main site and check out whatever statements you might have heard by or about the candidates, to see what the background and facts are.

A good many people have difficult sifting this stuff. The truth-o-meter might actually help.