"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.
Pierce County council

Pierce County Council

Washington’s Pierce County has some of the hottest politics going for those who enjoy watching the unpredictable. It has emerged as Washington’s key swing county.

Its raw numbers are significant – it is the second largest county in the Northwest, behind only King. Its key central city, Tacoma, is solidly Democratic, but accounts for less than a third of the county’s population, and the rest is widely variable. Pierce went for Democrats for most of the major offices – for president, for governor, for U.S. House, all candidates winning decisively around the state.

Below that, things get more complex. Pierce voted for the losing Republicans for lands commissioner (incumbent Doug Sutherland) and treasurer (Allan Martin). It also voted for Republican Rob McKenna for attorney general, which – since McKenna won strongly overall – wouldn’t be a big deal except that his Democratic challenger, John Ladenburg is the current Pierce County executive. And a string of Pierce-area legislative seats were hotly contested and very close.

The race to replace Ladenburg has been heated and very close. Evidently – and based on current run-throughs of the county’s ranked voting formula – Democrat Pat McCarthy seems to have defeated Republican Shawn Bunney, but only 50.7% to 49.3%.

And there’s this: Pierce has a seven-member county council, and five of its members are Republicans; the two Democrats are based closely on Tacoma. One of them, Tim Farrell, “half-jokingly said he sees himself as ‘the leader of the resistance’ on a council with a Republican supermajority. Farrell said he works well with chairman Terry Lee, Dick Muri and Shawn Bunney. He described them as moderate Republicans. But he fears a Republican supermajority could lead to a shift to more conservative policies.”

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We’ll give the award for closest general election result this year – possibly not statistically, but in raw numbers – to the contest for Washington County (Idaho, not Oregon) sheriff.

Incumbent Republican Melvin Williams defeated Democratic challenger Scott Crimin by one vote – 2,125 to 2,124. One more time: Don’t ever let anyone tell you a single vote doesn’t matter.

That’s lot tighter than the commission race over in Clark County (Idaho), where Republican William Frederiksen beat Democrat Ernest Sill by five votes (out of 373 cast in the race; it’s the smallest county in the Northwest). And there were, to be sure, just two state legislative decided by fewer than 1,000 votes, both involving Democratic incumbents, one who survived (Brandon Durst in Boise, 431 votes) and one who lost (Jerry Shively in Idaho Falls, 270 votes).

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Others could be doing this in other states too, usefully: The Seattle Times now has up a database of layoff announcements from this year around Washington state.

The list covers layoff announcements of at least 20 jobs each.

The database shows eight such announcements in October, with job cuts upward of 1,700. (Remember that these are are only private and only those done in batches of 20 or more.) November has five such announcements involving somewhat over 600 jobs; but there’s time left in the month.

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Not really news, other than that what you have here is a substantial public figure speaking utterly honestly about the dark underside.

A USA Today article about the maneuvers that keep many college athletes in classes and even headed to graduation, but in the weakest possible classes, includes a quote from Boise State University football player Marty Tadman: “You’re going to school so you can stay in sports. You’re not going for a degree. … It’s a joke.”

An “A” for ouch.

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Yes of course – congressional (and legislative) reapportionment won’t happen until after 2010, and after the next general election. But now, with this 2008 election under out belts, we actually have enough raw material to work with to evaluate how congressional-level reapportionment might play out in another two and a half years or so.

For one thing, we have what looks like a stabilizing political picture in most places around the Northwest – after some years of change, the partisan balances for most races changed less this election than in the last, or even the election before that. That’s no guarantee of the future, of course, but some reason to be believe that areas running generally Democratic or Republican now may not change enormously in the near term.

The economic slowdown is a relevant factor too, since population growth is likely to slow, relatively locking into place a number of existing patterns.

So what might we be looking at?

First, mostly the number of congressional seats we have now. Idaho is almost certain to stay at two seats after 2010 (though if growth picks back up, a third in the round after that may be realistic). Washington is closer to a gain of one seat, though the odds look less than even. Oregon is a close call, though, and various studies have estimated it just within or just outside the margin for a one-seat pickup. It’s close enough that we probably can’t know with any certainty until after the census is in.

Given all that, what might the legislatures and governors in the three states do about divvying the districts?

Bear in mind first the differing theories about whether you’re better off with a districts that has lot of variety in it, or a district more homogenous, more of one kind. Of such arguments will politicians be grappling – and spinning.

IDAHO. The last time congressional reapportionment really mattered in Idaho was more than 40 years ago, in 1966, when Ada County was shifted from the second to the first congressional district. Ada was Republican, while the rest of the 1st district then was fairly closely balanced between the parties; that shift gave the first a Republican lean that persists today.

Except for a couple of odd situations. One is that the 1st this year actually elected a Democrat, Walt Minnick. And the other is that the 2nd district, because the city of Boise now leans Democratic, is less Republican than the 1st. Assuming Minnick is re-elected in 2010 (not that we automatically assume it – it will be a battle – but he will be the incumbent), the split between the districts could be a big battle again. The exact run of the border line through Ada County could be bitterly fought over. And you could see the idea of a few rural Republican counties (Lemhi, Custer) brought into the 1st to redden it up. Or maybe 2nd district Representative Mike Simpson, who has a safe seat, is considering moving on, and Republicans in control of the legislature don’t want to shift Republican votes out of the 2nd. The line between districts could be the first of interest in Idaho in a long time.

WASHINGTON. Washington very likely keeps its nine seats, and they are likely to be juggled around a little. Not enormously. The two geographically large districts east of the Cascades, both currently strongly Republican, are unlikely to change enormously. And of the seven districts to the west, six are held – and in recent elections, strongly held – by Democrats, so even a little shifting between them isn’t likely to generate major outcome changes.

However, there is the case of District 8, a geographically small district in eastern King County with significant population bases – mostly Democratic – to its north, west and south. Democratic remappers would like to turn this district blue, and they could probably do that with ease. Imagine, for example, throwing a slice of Seattle into this district: That could be fatal for any Republican candidate in a district currently pretty closely balanced, and it could be done without much reddening in, say, the Seattle-centric 7th district. There’s not a particular reason to think Washington’s House delegation will shift in 2010 from its current 6-3 Democratic, but in 2012 it could easily go 7-2 based on remapping.

OREGON. Here’s the biggest area of interest, and not just because of the close to even odds the state may get another House district next time.

There’s a great post and line of discussion on Blue Oregon about how the state might be split into either five or six districts next time. One poster, drawing on the growing blue voting patterns statewide, argues that giving Republicans one safe district (the 2nd, which includes everything east of the Cascades and part of southwestern Oregon) isn’t necessary – Five districts could be devised giving Democrats an edge in all. He writes: “All five districts now have a Democratic lean, but none are absolutely safe should a Republican wave year happen. I say it’s worth it to have the default be five Democratic districts, instead of four mostly safe seats and one where we can barely compete at all.”

It’s an intriguing map, creating a coastal district (which runs in the north from just northwest of Portland, south along the coast, and inland to Medford); another running from east Portland due east, mostly along I-84, all the way to Hells Canyon; another including most of east-of-Cascades but balanced on the west by Lane and Douglas; a central Portland metro district; and a fifth including still another slice of Portland, south through Clackamas to the Salem area and over the mountains to include the area around Bend. Cleverly drawn; Democrats could realistically win in all, though the drafter acknowledges that most of them could be lost by Democrats too, come the next strong Republican year.

The picture gets even more interesting if you throw in a sixth district: “Ashland, Bend and the Gorge are either keystones of a new blue inland district, or they’re wasted on a district that will never be won. Let’s discuss which it is.”

Odds are that in Oregon as in Washington Democrats will be drawing these lines. Doesn’t mean the decisions will come easy, even so.

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Idaho Oregon Washington

Not to keep beating this thing into the ground, but a story out of Yakima (at the Herald Republic) brings home again how Democrats do better in urban areas and Republicans in rural.

The context is that we’re talking about the Yakima area, which in living memory, more or less, has been a solidly Republican place. Yakima County has been for some time the largest county in Washington (about 220,000 people) that’s been reliably Republican.

For 2008, it still was. But is it being chipped away? While Republicans won Yakima across the board, the margins were a little closer. And then there’s House 14A.

Of the three legislative seats in Yakima-centered 14, the Senate seat went unopposed and House B was a runaway. But House A, pitting Republican Norm Johnson against Democrat Vickie Ybarra, Johnson winning just 53.3%-46.7%. Part of the reason was money: Ybarra collected and spent about twice as much of it as Johnson. More interesting was the way the votes broke down geographically: Ybarra swept the precincts inside the cities of Yakima, Union Gap and Selah (and even little Tieton), while Johnson, by larger margins, took everything outside those cities – which turned out to be just enough to win.

This turns out not to be unexpected. Johnson was quoted as saying, “I would have been a fool to think I could have carried everything in Yakima.”

It’s those urban dynamics. Yakima, meet Seattle. And Portland, Boise, Spokane . . .

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1SUPERBUG AT THE HOSPITAL There have been a few national stories about new unusually dangerous microscopic organisms which have gotten their big boost by way of hospitals, but most of those cases have been on the east coast. The Seattle Times has an outstanding report out today about “MRSA, a drug-resistant germ, [which] lurks in Washington hospitals, carried by patients and staff and fueled by inconsistent infection control. This stubborn germ is spreading here at an alarming rate, but no one has tracked these cases — until now.” (And again: Stay out of hospitals if you can . . .)

2WISH LIST What should the Obama Administration do early on? This may be the time to get those preferences in, and the Bend Bulletin has one of the best regional wish-list pieces out so far. Their request includes three items Obama specifically called for in his campaign: “including tens of billions in road and infrastructure investment in an economic stimulus package; extending the tax credits for renewable energy producers for 10 years, rather than one; and fixing the cycle of catastrophic wildfires and underfunded federal agencies that leeches money from popular recreation and environmental programs on an annual basis.” (Haven’t been able to find a free link yet, unfortunately.)

3THE SWITCHYARD Sometimes obscure government grants can have profound effects, an in the case of a rail switchyard upgrade which would be important both for Roseburg and Coos Bay. Rogue Pundit has a useful followup out.

4HOUSING DEFICIENCIES Lots and lots and lots of new houses were built in the last few years, in the Northwest as elsewhere, but hardly any for lower-income people. In a Eugene Register-Guard general package on the squeeze placed on lower-income people, was this item on lack of affordable housing: “Just about 4,800 affordable housing units and Section 8 low-income housing vouchers are available to the more than 20,000 people in the county who qualified for low-income housing based on the 2000 census, Eugene Urban Services Manager Richie Weinman said. And only about 100 new units of affordable housing are added each year, he said.”

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The protests against California’s Proposition 8 – the voter-passed measure which sought to overturn a state Supreme Court decision in favor of same sex marriage – which spread around the country on Saturday were no big surprise in many places. Large rallies in Seattle and Portland – local officials (including Portland’s gay mayor-elect) even lending their support – were pretty much what you’d expect. But another regional story jumped out:

The Idaho Falls Post-Register (the story is behind a pay wall) reports today that on Saturday, “Roughly 50 people gathered in front of the Bonneville County Courthouse with signs such as ‘Say No to Hate,’ ‘Hate is not a family value’ and ‘What if your children grow up to be gay?'”

They did not specifically take aim at the LDS Church, key members of which were central in the push to pass Prop 8. Or the array of local community leaders who sent the big bucks to California to support its passage. (The Post Register reports that $100,000 came from the prominent VanderSloot family, among about 50 area residents who sent in $1,000 or more each.) But their visible presence on the street, in Idaho Falls, had to come as something of a shock.

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Harold Bohm was born 88 years ago in Iowa. He worked in law enforcement for many years, and in driver training. he has lived in the same house at Klamath Falls for 30 years.

When he walked up to the local Division of Motor Vehicles office to renew his drivers license, he brought with him his existing license, which he had held for many years, his a much-worn copy of his birth certificate, and a current passport.

Not good enough.

More documents please.

Some reasonable objective evidence that applicants for a drivers license (or renewal) are who they say they are, seems sensible enough. But bureaucracy so easily tips over into unreason, and that can top over into revolt. When seems to be where this 88-year old, retired law officer and long-time resident, seems headed.

Theory and practice are colliding here, and the Oregon Legislature next session may be well advised to give some weight to practice.

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Maybe the tightest major race this year in Washington was for state lands commissioner, pitting Republican incumbent Doug Sutherland against Democrat Peter Goldmark, who ran for the U.S. House two years ago.

The win, for Goldmark, was 50.3%-49.7%; any closer and you’re into governor ’04 territory. A question: how many counties did it take for Goldmark to (just barely) win?

Six, it turns out.

Goldmark map

Goldmark yellow, Sutherland green

King? Jefferson? San Juan? Check – they’re the solid reliables. Snohomish and Whatcom? Nothing unusual. But Okanogan . . . therein lies the value of being a native son, that being the only way Goldmark could have one that one . . . although, in truth, he could have won without it . . .

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1SALMON/ENVIRONMENT Perspective on the salmon debate from Rocky Barker/Idaho Statesman noting that the impending change in the Northwest’s congressional delegation, combined with the change of presidential administrations, may mean an entirely new approach for salmon. Even before January: He points to this week’s dam removal agreement on the Klamath River as “a major shift in the government’s position on dams in the West.”

Let’s unpack that just a bit, expanding the view. The Washington congressional delegation hasn’t changed, but there are critical changes in the other two. In Oregon, Republican Senator Gordon Smith is being replaced by Democrat Jeff Merkley, who is considerably greener; in the House 5th district, where one Democrat replaces another, newcomer Kurt Schrader is likely to be a bit more green-oriented than Darlene Hooley. In Idaho’s Senate delegation, Republican Jim Risch replaces Republican Larry Craig, but the change could be significant; Craig presented himself as almost always flatly opposed to environmental proposals, while Risch turned out to be as green as most Democrats on the environment during his months as governor. (That probably will give Senator Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson a big assist in developing their environmental efforts in the Owyhee Canyonlands and White Clouds area, respectively.) And, there’s the change from the 1st House district from Republican Bill Sali to Democrat Walt Minnick, who has been active in environmental groups.

Put it together, and what was a fairly close balance on environmental issues now tilts decisively green in the Northwest delegation. And that’s before you get to the impact of the Obama Administration.

2VOTE COUNTS And still they’re counting votes in Washington. And especially in Pierce County, where they’ve been trying out both traditional and ranked-choice ballots. Earlier deadlines for ballot delivery could help.

3POWELLS REMAKE Book people will have opinions, without a doubt, about the new exterior at Powell’s City of Books – the flagship – in downtown Portland.

4COLLEGE ENROLLMENT For the first time in more than a decade, Oregon threw some serious money at its higher education institutions. And now (in the Oregonian, but reflected in other papers around the state as well): “. . . the state’s universities hired faculty, increased pay, improved student services, stepped up recruitment and built and renovated classrooms and labs. In addition, Oregon more than doubled the money for college grants this year and launched a statewide campaign to tell students and their parents about it. The message worked: More than 15,430 students in Oregon public universities received $33.8 million in state grants this fall, more than twice last year’s numbers. The economy also is a factor, because more students seek higher education when jobs are harder to find.”

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There are 80 precincts in the portion of Ada County lying in the 1st congressional district. Very roughly speaking, most of the city of Boise, and the areas to the east of it in the county, are in the 2nd district; again roughly, Cole Road, which runs north-sound through the center-west of Boise, is the dividing line between the districts.

That area in the 1st district is the part of Ada County generally voting Republican, in most places heavily so. It voted, for example, for John McCain over Barack Obama – decisively so. But it voted in the 1st District House race for Democrat Walt Minnick over incumbent Republican Bill Sali in numbers much higher – 31.7% higher, enough to give him a win of almost 5,000 votes in that part of Ada County; enough, in turn, to provide his winning margin. Even in the precincts Minnick lost decisively, he heavily outran Obama and other Democrats (generally 25-50% higher). These were people who did not vote for other Democrats, just this one.

Is there anything to be learned from these 80 precincts?

Maybe a little, and we’ll start here. First point is that Minnick’s win was spread around a bunch of the precincts, not concentrated in a few; he won 51 of the 80 precincts. So the simpler approach is to look at the precincts Sali won. Do those have points of commonality that make them stand out from the others?

Generally speaking, yes: Most of them are rural, among them the most rural and relately remote areas in Idaho’s population-heaviest county. The precincts in the far north edge of the county, in the foothills north of Eagle and northwest of Boise (1, 2, 4) were substantial Sali wins. The precincts in the far southern reaches of the county (123, 125 for example) were substantial Sali win areas. The interstices between the cities – some of the areas between Eagle and Meridian, between Meridian and Nampa and between Meridian and Kuna – gave Sali good numbers. The rural area around Star did well for him. And, generally, his old state legislative district and home turf around Kuna stuck with him, delivering solid margins.

Minnick’s margins? He won some rural precincts, but mainly he racked up numbers inside the larger growing cities: primarily Meridian, Eagle and western Boise. These have not been friendly areas for Democrats up to now, but they made a highly unusual exception this time.

The nature of that, in those specific precincts, ought to be research project #1 for Idaho Democrats over the next couple of years. Some of it may have to do with the specific dynamics of this race; maybe Sali, specifically, turned some of those people off. It could be that Minnick personally made a sale here; or it could be a combination of the two. It might be that this unusual voting pattern won’t be replicated in 2010; or it could be a harbinger, a signal of opportunity to come for other Democrats. Whatever’s the case, there’s an important development here, maybe the most important single twist in the elections of 2008 in Idaho. That much we can say with some confidence, even without yet being sure exactly what it means.

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