Writings and observations

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.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

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.

Share on Facebook

Oregon

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.

Scratch Idaho, to begin with: There haven’t been major office Democrats in Idaho for some years now, north of superintendent of public instruction.

Washington has two Democratic senators – Murray and Maria Cantwell – and a Democratic governor, Chris Gregoire. Scratch Gregoire, since she’s in the middle of a hot re-election scrap. Cantwell had a strong re-election win in 2006, but there are better campaigners out there, and she’s not much known nationally.

Murray isn’t a lot better known, though she’s been in the Senate 16 years now and internally has risen to leadership. The OpenLeft argument for her is that she would be “both a balancing and reinforcing selection, she consistently ranks in the top third of the Democratic caucus in terms of progressive voting record. Further, the possibility of two anti-war, community organizers at the top of the Democratic ticket is very appealing.” Or too similar, with little background on the executive side or real immersion into major issues. There’s this too: She would be instantly compared, all over the place, to passed-over Hillary Clinton, and Murray’s more diffident style might not be up to it.

That leaves Oregon, where Blue Oregon recently ran a conversation on who Obama should pick – with a few local names thrown into the mix. Blogger Kari Chisholm’s list of 50 prospects included three Oregonians, which would seem to be the three to consider. One is Governor Ted Kulongoski, who has been a Clinton supporter – not necessarily a disadvantage if Obama wanted to reach across the divide; but likable as Kulongoski is, he doesn’t have a strong media presence. Neither does Senator Ron Wyden, though his assets are real: He is highly popular in the state, wonkish on a string of significant issues, and well known for working with Republicans without forgetting or softening his own point of view. But Wyden’s pre-Congress background was, like Obama’s, as a community organizer; as with Murray, wouldn’t that narrow things just a bit?

The single most logical Northwest vice presidential pick, in either party, in our opinion? The third Oregon name on Chisholm’s list: Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. He is one of the most instantly charismatic politicians the region has seen in the last generation. His electoral record is rock-solid. He has build a national network and ties, through serious policy work on health care. By way of background, he is a physician – not a bad matchup to Obama. He’d be catnip to the national media (his story as a small-town doctor would be irresistible, as would his preference to work his issue rather than scramble to Congress, as he could have). Especially if he campaigned nationally they way he did in Oregon, in jeans and boots and approach to match (a neat counterpart to Obama’s urbanity). He’d be both a credible and smooth national politician and down-to-earth guy.

Of course, our guess is that if he were asked, he’d turn it down . . .

CORRECTION We earlier attributed the Murray story to TalkLeft; it actually appeared in OpenLeft.

Share on Facebook

Idaho Oregon Washington

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.

Share on Facebook

Washington

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.”

Share on Facebook

Washington

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.

Share on Facebook

website

The Tri-City Herald‘s Olympia reporter/political blogger Chris Mulick has started a new feature, “setting the record straighter,” offering a bit of snark at spin he encounters. Herewith a recommend to keep an eye on it, and an excerpt from the first edition:

— The state Republican Party last month issued a press release referring to 8th Congressional District Democrat Darcy Burner, who is taking her second shot at unseating U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, as a “chronic candidate for Congress.” So I guess that makes Dino Rossi a “chronic candidate for governor.” And I don’t know what that makes Reichert, who has run for Congress one more time than Burner.

— The state Democratic Party has increasingly been trying to demonize the Building Industry Association of Washington and its support for Rossi. This week it issued a press release titled “What Olympia’s most powerful special interest lobbyists want Washington to ignore: Rossi’s abysmal transportation record.” That’s funny. I doubt all those labor lobbyists would mind if you heard that message.

Share on Facebook

Washington

More to come later, but for a now a few notes on the candidate filings in Washington, noting that a few more party additions could yet emerge . . . though probably not many . . .

bullet Overriding impression. No great surprises, which can emerge at the end of the process, but didn’t seem to here. Did notice a few more primary contests in places where they might not have been expected. Could this be in part out of a strategy (by either party, in various places) to lock up a given office in the primary by running two candidates? After all, this is a top-two primary – so if, for example, two Republicans can each outpoll a Democrat for an office, they’ve foreclosed a Democrat from winning the office at all.

bullet Contested. All nine U.S. House seats have major-party contests shaping up. At this point, the only one that looks really serious is in the 8th district. All of the state offices are contested too (we’d be looking at – in this order – governor, attorney general and public lands as developing the most interest). But the simple presence of candidates (a pretty substantial number, overall) offers the possibility at least for more.

bullet Ten candidates for governor. Of course, it comes down to Democrat Chris Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi. But how can you completely ignore Will Baker? Remember him? At least this time the Republicans can count their blessings that he’s allying himself instead with the Reform Party . . .

bullet McDermott. Of all major Washington officeholders, one who could prospectively be strongly affected by top-two could be Representative Jim McDermott, who in his central Seattle district just ain’t gonna be beaten by a Republican, but could possibly lose to a fellow Democrat in a November top two. That would still take a strong candidate, of course, and there seem not to be such this time around, though there are two other Democrats running in the district this year and two others with no party preference (and, oh, one Republican). One of them, though, does have a memorable candidate name: Goodspaceguy Nelson. Describes himself as a Democrat.

bullet Legislative. On the other hand, legislative seats overwhelmingly look to play out as they normally would; relatively few feature primaries involving incumbents, and a lot of the contested seats have the traditional one-D/one-R lineup. But some of them could play out in unexpected ways. We’ll keep an eye on the District 8 House seat being vacated by Shirley Hankins, a strongly Republican area where the candidate roster runs: 4 Republicans, 1 Democrat. Who clears the primary: The top R plus the D, or the two top Rs?

bullet Creative party time. You’re supposed to put in the proper party name in the “prefers” category; but not everyone does. Some Republican candidates write in “G.O.P.”, and in District 11 House candidate David M. Morris wrote, “Cut Taxes G.O.P. Party”. (Note: the P in GOP stands for “party.”) And there are some parties . . . have you ever heard of the party selected by Senate 40 candidate Timothy “Cleaver” Stoddard, the Salmon-Yoga Party?

Share on Facebook

Washington

Today’s Joel Connelly Post-Intelligencer column has a string of thoughts worth considering as Washington prepares for its entry into a redefinition of a primary election – one designed not to choose party nominees but simply to winnow the field to no more than two. A couple of the quotes he include seem to hit close to center of the issue.

That make clear that what you think of the new top-two approach depends a great deal on what you think of the proper role of political parties in our politics.

The new primary approach – the result after court decisions threw out the old “blanket” primary, in which (in the primary) voters could choose one candidate for each office, jumping back and forth among parties if they chose. The parties argued in court this meant their party members were being deprived of the ability to select their own nominees.

Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro: “To me, it’s much better than party preferences: The new system means interesting contests in places that haven’t seen a real race in a long time. . . OK, it means two Republicans running in some places, two Democrats in others. We have too many safe seats in this state. Safe seats make for lazy people.”

Ivan Weiss, Democratic chair of the 34th Legislative District: “They’re out to destroy the influence of the political parties.”

Our guess here is that, once the initial inevitable confusion passes, most voters will be okay with top-two, partly because it will give them a choice in November between the two most-preferred choices, whoever they are – which is more than many voters have now.

A case from this corner for why this may be a good idea:

The two major political parties are not tight-knit, closely focused political organizations like those in Europe or many other places. Because they are designed to appeal to half or (they hope) more of the total population, what they really are is informal political coalitions. As a practical matter, they are unofficial quasi-governmental entities. (Their internal operations are very, very tightly governed by law.) These are not stamp clubs or hunting associations. They are a dual monopoly on governmental power in this country, associative and organized categories more than they are ordinary, freestanding organizations.

This country has done well with its two big parties; internationally, the two-party structure seems to work better than does the system in some places of multiple splinter parties (which, in turn, usually need to form coalitions to form majorities in order to govern – much the way our parties do before the fact rather than after).

But like any human construct, the two-party system is imperfect, and it often becomes least perfect when one or both of the parties become rigid and narrow. In effect, lots of people become disenfranchised; politics turns mean and extreme; people split apart rather than work together. Sound familiar?

A bit of corrective may be in order. And the top two could nudge politics a little closer to the center.

Connelly’s take on this is a little different, and it’s a recommended read. And don’t take the foregoing as a roundhouse blast at the parties, which when functioning well are great mechanisms for political involvement and organization and can do a great job sifting and mediating between options, in personnel and policy. But they’re not perfect, and a little jar of the system might be a good thing for them.

Share on Facebook

Washington

Peter De Fazio

Peter De Fazio

This was a set-up deal – or a pretty good facsimile thereof. The timber payment bill has all the indicators of a partisan ambush, skillfully designed by the House Democrats. (Who knew they were as good at this?) It looks designed to put House Republicans on the spot. Which it did.

They’d have been better off to take the bait and vote to approve the Democratic proposal. What they’ve done instead is close to indefensible back home.

The immediate issue is timber money, the funds the federal government has been providing to rural counties that have a lot of non-property-tax-paying federal lands (especially forest lands) in their boundaries. Authorization for those payments has run out, and a lot of counties, most strongly in southwest Oregon but elsewhere too, are hurting. Congressional delegations through the region, including just about everyone and of both parties – Republicans no less than Democrats – have been trying to get the spigot turned on again.

One question has been, where will the money come from? House Democrats have come up with an answer: Reimposed – they had lapsed some years ago – royalties on offshore oil and gas leases. Republicans in the House have fought reimposition of those royalties for years.

Today the bill, sponsored by Oregon Representative Peter De Fazio, came to a House floor vote and lost, 218-192 (it needed two thirds). The region’s Democrats voted in favor, the Republicans (including Representative Greg Walden, who has pushed hard for timber payments) against, and President George W. Bush had threatened a veto.

You can ask the question, If top priority was getting a funding bill passed, why would De Fazio and his allies run one that was so likely to draw Republican fire and therefore likely doom it? (Of course, finding the money hasn’t been an easy thing regardless – Walden and other Republicans haven’t yet found a winning formula either.) But we suspect that will be superseded by another question: When the choice came to a decision between taxes paid by oil companies and desperately needy counties in the Northwest, why did those Northwest representatives vote on the side of the oil companies? That could be a deadly question.

That is why, as the Oregonian reported this morning, “The House exploded in a spasm of angry, fist-waving debate Wednesday with one Oregon lawmaker [Walden] accusing another Oregon lawmaker [De Fazio] of bad faith and deception over federal aid to depressed rural communities.”

Walden, who had been working with De Fazio on the issue, blasted, “This trail of broken promises and broken process has led us to the first fracture of this effort I can recall. And for what good? So somebody can say you’re for big oil and against teachers and kids? Give me a break.”

Well, maybe. But the question is nonetheless there: When the deal goes down, whose side are you on?

Ironically, this whole blowup isn’t likely to have much effect on either of these principals, since De Fazio is unopposed for re-election this year and Walden will surely cruise over his opponent.

But look over to Idaho, where Republican Representative Bill Sali is seriously opposed, and this from a press release from his opponent, Democrat Walt Minnick: “The people of Idaho sent Bill Sali to Washington to represent their interests,” said John Foster, spokesman for Walt Minnick, an Idaho candidate for Congress. “With one vote, he proved that he cares more about oil companies than he does about Idaho schoolchildren and local governments.”

That’s what they call a talking point.

Share on Facebook

Idaho Oregon