Writings and observations


At Pike Street Market, Wednesday afternoon/Stapilus

A decade ago exactly, we watched the new year in at a ceremony of sorts outside the Idaho Statehouse, presided over by area elected officials (Governor Dirk Kempthorne and Mayor Brent Coles were there, if memory serves). It was a worthy enough midnight ceremony, in the snowy slush, at a time of peace and economic growth, but an undercurrent of uneasiness persisted. This was the night of Y2K, when people all over the world were wondering if their computer operations – and many of their operations overall – would survive to the next day.

They did, of course. And life went on.

Tonight, we close out a decade that in hindsight turned out to be worthy of real trepidation. Happily, there doesn’t seem to be tremendous concern about entering this new one – more a sense of relief at getting out of the last.

We spent most of the day wandering around Pike Street Market in Seattle, and there life went on as usual – the sellers promoting their products, the fish mongers enthusiastically throwing their fish from place to place. Life went on.

On the ferry in early evening west to Bainbridge Island, the ride had plenty of people, but wasn’t packed. The security was theoretically set on high, and maybe steps invisible to the passengers were taken, but no one seemed too stressed.

It feels like a different kind of new decade opening from that opening the year 2000. Maybe it portends a better decade. At least we can hope.

See you on the other side.

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Marijuana is Safer book

A possible trend in the decade to come: Moves toward legalizing and regulating pot. That’s not a flat prediction. But if the legalization ballot measures on the California ballot next year pass – and there’s some reason to think they will – that could constitute a tipping point.

Not least because it would suggest to politicians, those who write and pass and enforce the laws, that an approach different from the currently dominant lock-em-up approach might actually be more popular than many of them now think.

There’s already some move in that direction. A Washington legislative proposal by Representative Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seatte, in Washington would legalize marijuana and allow it to be sold in state liquor stores, to customers 21 and over, and subject to taxes.

Her immediate stated goals were fairly modest: She “wanted to start a strong conversation about the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.” And for this session, that may be as much as it does. But if California passes the ballot issues? The session in 2011 could look a little different.

All brings to mind a recently-read book, Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?, by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano and Mason Tvert, with the Northwest connection of a foreword by former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper. The book’s point is not simply pro-pot; it argues that alcohol is substantially the more dangerous of the two, and that migrating some of the alcohol crowd over to pot would result in improved public safety. Their argument is compelling.

As are some of the anecdotal points. Stamper tells about the meetings he’s had with cops asking them how recently they got into a fight with someone drunk on alcohol – typically within hours or days at most – as opposed to stoned on pot, which is not at all. And this: The percentage of people in the Netherlands, where marijuana is legal, who have tried pot is about half of what it is in the United States. And much else.

From a politics point of view, a couple of chapters near the end of the book are especially noteworthy. The approach they take, comparing the problems associated with alcohol and pot and suggesting diminishment of them overall if pot were legalized, worked in Colorado and may be replicated in California. (The strategic model is worth study by anyone in politics.)

A recommended read, as we approach possible policy changes in this new decade.

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You really can’t blame Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter for touting positive local economic news wherever he can find it – to the point of expressing a thrill at the earnings level at Micron Technology. (Can recall governors often expressing pleasure at business expansions; can’t recall a governor ever doing so at the mention of a quarterly statement.) Governors are supposed to tout their states.

But the problems Idaho faces are real and serious. Consider this snippet from a New Republic/NPR report:

“it’s now clear that Boise shared the fatal flaw that led Las Vegas and Phoenix into disaster. To be blunt, all three of the westernmost big metros in the Mountain West got way too entangled in hyperactive real estate activity. Construction and real estate industry concentration figures tell the story. In Las Vegas and Phoenix, famously, the share of employment in the main construction industries and real estate reached 13.4 and 12.8 percent of all non-farm jobs in 2006 — astonishing numbers that gave those metros a reputation. But as it happens, Boise was right there with them, despite its other strengths, and by 2006 had located its own 12.8 percent share of employment in building housing and offices and selling property. By comparison, the average for large metros around the country on this remained just 8.0 percent, and it was 10 percent for the other Intermountain West metros.”

Drive around the growth areas of Ada and Canyon counties, look at all the empty new buildings, and the numbers come into concrete focus.

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One in a series of posts about changes, or lack thereof, over the last decade around Northwest politics.

Washington looked a good deal different a decade ago – it looked like a closely-split state, a place whether either party could about as easily catch a break. It 2000, for example, it had a true cliffhanger of a U.S. Senate race. In the upcoming Senate race for 2010, Republicans have had a tough time getting a top-drawer candidate at all.

Here is where Washington was a decade ago in partisan office-holding:

Office Democrats Republicans
U.S. Senate Murray Gorton
U.S. House 5 4
Governor Locke 0
Statewide ofcs 7 1
St Senate 27 22
St House 49 49

And here is where Washington is today:

Office Democrats Republicans
U.S. Senate Murray, Cantwell 0
U.S. House 6 3
Governor Gregoire 0
Statewide ofcs 6 2
St Senate 31 18
St House 61 37

It shows up most strongly in the legislative numbers, where the parties went from something very close to parity a decade ago (exact parity in the House) to serious Democratic dominance.

The parallel to Oregon is overall fairly close. As in Oregon, not a lot changed in the central urban areas (Democratic) or the rural regions (Republican). The shift was in the suburbs, and it was profound. Eastern King County was still clearly Republican a decade ago; now by most measures it is clearly Democratic (the persistence of Republican Representative Dave Reichert notwithstanding). The patterns are similar, and the moves and development notably in parallel. (That applies to a considerable extent in the Spokane area, on a smaller scale, as well as Seattle.)

What will the next decade bring?

There’s no particular reason to think the political shifts are over, though some reason to think the Democrats, with their big legislative majorities, have come somewhere close to maxing out. A good part of what makes the difference could have to do with what face the Republican Party puts on itself in the next few years.

Something to watch: The congressional race in the 3rd district, for the seat held for more than a decade by Democrat Brian Baird. It has been held decisively by Baird, but the overall voting patterns are a close split. Either party could realistically win the seat; and what’s more neither party’s nomination is locked. What chances do Republicans have for a comeback? (After all, with the right approach, Attorney General Rob McKenna is a fair bet for governor in 2012.) Watch this 3rd district race; it could provide a number of clues for what will come next.

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The attempt at taking down Northwest Flight 253 as it approached landing at Detroit – an attempt in progress before it was stopped – gives cause for some reflection on airline security. We’ve addressed this before, but some of the same wrong lessons emerge once again. So, once again.

Today’s editorial in the Oregonian, “Screen the passenger, confirm the administrator,” had some fair enough points (such as confirming the Transportation Security Administration nominee, held up presently in the Senate). And its criticism that intelligence (in this particular case at least) has failed to properly flow through the system is of course right.

The touching faith in screening technology is another matter: “The bomb ingredients that Abdulmutallab sought to detonate were hidden under his clothing, sewn into his underwear. If he had been sent through one of the advanced, see-to-the-skin screening machines, a screener would have seen them. As Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has urged, those machines should be in place at any airport where passengers board planes bound for an American airport. Schiphole Airport in Amsterdam has some of the machines, but Abdulmutallab evidently wasn’t required to pass through any of them. Some resist the use of the machines on the grounds that they are invasive, in that they can make passengers appear to be unclothed. But, says DeFazio, a member of both the Homeland Security Committee and the Aviation subcommittee, this effect can be diluted with software that dulls the appearance of the human body, while retaining the ability to detect contraband.”

The idea that screeners can keep out anything that might be used to damage an aircraft is ludicrous. A well-prepared McGyver could probably use the electric system and other components that are natural parts of aircraft to do the job. Beyond that, the idea of endlessly chasing endlessly new hazardous substances is a formula only for driving ourselves nuts. This latest maniac, after all, went through security systems at one of the best-secured airports in the world (Amsterdam) and easily got through.

Another person who has beaten airport security, often and flagrantly and even visibly, is Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for the Atlantic, who coined the apt phrase “security theatre” for the madness we now see in our airports. (Goldberg regularly has smuggled onto planes, at well-secured airports, all manner of hazardous materials, simply to demonstrate conclusively how easy it still is for someone determined to do it.) Interviewing Bruce Schneier, security consultant, who describes: “layers of annoying, time consuming, ineffectual, static – but automatic and scalable – security systems.”

And he says: “I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can’t be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures. We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.”

Once more to the Oregonian editorial: “The good thing about the sophisticated screening machines is that they defuse the corollary complaints about profiling.” And why is it such a good thing that grandmas from Omaha, school kids and American businessmen who fly from point to point half of the year all still have to take off their shoes, empty their pockets and . . . whatever else TSA can imagine . . . instead of focusing attention on the sliver of people who represent credible threats? Really: The people who have created these problems on our flights fit within a very narrow description. Instead, we do the “politically correct” and treat us all as potential terrorists, instead of devoting most of our attention to the relative handful that represent serious threats. Profiling in some other contexts is a bad idea born of bigotry; this kind of profile represents simple history and experience.

(El Al, the Israeli airline often described as the most secure in the world, focuses hard on profiling. There seems a useful lesson here.)

We can’t make the world perfectly safe. But we can at least quit terrorizing ourselves and tying ourselves up in knots.

A COMMENT from Anon: “I think you are being unfair to the screening machines. I think we need to test their efficacy. Let’s make them de rigueur at Presidential banquets and receptions and see how the power people adjust to their use. Then we can decide whether to share the benefits with the hoi polloi at airports. ‘…And even the president of the United States must sometimes stand naked…’”

Our response: Remember that electronic images, once obtained, are subject to easy recapture and duplication – I don’t care what sort of security is said to be built in, a hacker *will* hack if the motivation is there. Just a matter of time. So let’s see – a parade of de facto naked celebs, including the first couple, which can be reverse-engineered to produce a life-like image . . . think the motivation (financial and otherwise) would be there? Sure, by all means, try it out on them first.

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Of interest: A spreadsheet the Idaho site Fort Boise has put together showing that a number of the state occupational and business licensing agencies (which have been bunched together under the Bureau of Occupational Licenses) appear to be running a deficit.

This could be somewhat illusory, at least in some cases, because of when fees are requested and when paid (a point Fort Boise notes). Still . . . another area in tough financial times, and one you might not have thought of.

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One in a series of posts about changes, or lack thereof, over the last decade around Northwest politics.

You can say of Washington and Oregon that there were major changes in politics over the oughts. In Idaho, not so much – or at least, they’re harder to spot.

Let’s start with the score sheet from 10 years ago, as the dreaded new millennium hit:

Office Republicans Democrats
U.S. Senate Craig, Crapo 0
U.S. House Chenoweth, Simpson 0
Governor Kempthorne 0
Lt. Gov. Otter 0
Statewide ofcs 5 2
St Senate 31 4
St House 58 12
Co Commissioners 99 33

Now here’s where we are today, 10 years later:

Office Republicans Democrats
U.S. Senate Crapo, Risch 0
U.S. House Simpson Minnick
Governor Otter 0
Lt. Gov. Little 0
Statewide ofcs 7 0
St Senate 28 7
St House 52 18
Co Commissioners 104 27

Very close to a wash. Democrats picked up one of the congressional seats, no small thing, and gained a little ground in the legislature (three seats in the Senate and six in the House). But Republicans gained two statewide offices the Democrats had a decade ago, and added to their under-recognized courthouse strength. And those start-of and end-of decade numbers were not aberrations; they closely reflected the state of Idaho politics for each cycle through the decade.

The Republican dominance has been overwhelming, and there don’t seem to be many gaps in it. Here’s another way to look at it. In the last decade, there have been three contests for the U.S. Senate (once with an open seat), 10 for the U.S. House, and 14 for partisan statewide elective offices – a total of 27 contests for major office. Of those contests, Republicans won 25 and Democrats won two. This is too lopsided to explain away by an occasional weak candidate or campaign.

This kind of political freeze is a remarkable thing. It is a lot different than the story in Washington and Oregon. But it is also a lot different than Idaho traditionally has been. The 90s in Idaho were an arc from something not far from parity between the parties at decade’s beginning, to overwhelming Republican dominance at decade’s end. The 80s were less dramatic, but still represented great Republican strength around 1980 diminishing by decade’s end. Earlier decades went through cycles and transitions too, but not this most recent one. The pendulum, which once swung with some regularity, seems stuck in place.

Magnify down to the local levels, and you see not a lot different. Kootenai County, decades ago solidly Democratic and then for a couple of decades a swing county, has settled for approaching two decades now as solidly Republican. Canyon County, which in theory should be more competitive and once showed signs of moving that way, gives little indication of it today (though that may change somewhat). Of the northern Idaho counties once considered a Democratic base, only Shoshone generally can be said to remain so, and Nez Perce and Latah could be considered swing counties.

The small Democratic gains in the last decade have come in two kinds of places: central urban areas and resort/tourist centers. They have turned the city of Boise Democratic and may be solidifying small Democratic bases in the other larger cities in the state (enough to elect a Democrat to the state House in a central Idaho Falls district, for example). Teton County may be majority Democratic now – it was competitive in 2000 – and Valley County shows signs of competition (though that could collapse with the Tamarack Resort); and Blaine County is ever-more Democratic and even liberal. If those trends continue, Democrats may in the tens pick up more urban-area votes in places like Nampa, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and maybe Twin Falls.

Maybe. It’s been slim growth so far.

We’ll be coming back to this in the months ahead. For now, these raw numbers should be an indication that something large and significant has happened in Idaho politics, probably both structurally and in the hearts and minds of Idaho voters themselves. After all, they could turn Idaho politics upside down in a single election, like the next one – if they choose to do that. And how and why they make their choices is, again, a matter we’ll return to.

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One in a series of posts about political changes, or lack thereof, over the last decade around Northwest politics.

In some ways, Oregon Republicans probably would love to have a do-over on this last decade. But what exactly would they do over?

Here is where Oregon was a decade ago in partisan office-holding:

Office Democrats Republicans
U.S. Senate Wyden Smith
U.S. House 4 1
Governor Kitzhaber 0
Statewide ofcs 4 0
St Senate 13 17
St House 25 35
Co Commissioners 28 56


And, after a decade in which all of the statewide seats have turned over and U.S. House seats have been up every two years, here is where it is now:

Office Democrats Republicans
U.S. Senate Wyden, Merkley 0
U.S. House 4 1
Governor Kulongoski 0
Statewide ofcs 4 0
St Senate 18 12
St House 36 24
Co Commissioners 23 49

Only partisan offices are included among the statewides and county commissions here; and there was some shifting among counties in choosing to have partisan or nonpartisan offices, so those comparisons are a bit of apples and oranges.

On the local and rural level, Republicans have held in just fine. And there hasn’t been tremendous change on the urban side, either: A decade ago, Portland and Eugene were Democratic, as was much of central Salem, and they remain so.

The battleground has been the suburban areas. Washington County – Oregon’s second largest county and containing many of its suburban communities – is the mot instructive. A decade ago, nearly all of Washington County was in Senate districts 4, 5 and 13, all which elected Republicans to the Senate, and House districts 3, 5, 8, 9, 24 and 27, which elected four Republicans and two Democrats – countywide, 7-2. In what are roughly today’s counterpart districts (Senate 14, 15, 17, 18 and House 27-30 and 33-36) the total score now is 11-1 for the Democrats. Washington County has been growing, as has its representation, and it has been growing more Democratic at the same time.

That’s the big partisan shift over the last decade, the reason the Oregon Legislature went from solidly Republican a decade ago to solidly Democratic now, why a Democrat only barely elected governor in 2002 won fairly easily despite being heavily outspent in 2006, why Republican Gordon Smith, a strong winner in 2002, was ousted in 2008. Most parts of the state didn’t change their minds about these races. But Washington did, and to a slightly lesser degree Clackamas, the state’s third-largest and also suburban.

There were some smaller-scale shifts, too. Smaller urban centers in Oregon moved Democratic – Salem (Marion County is now majority-Democratic in registration), Medford and even Bend; the central Bend House district now has elected a Democrat to the legislature. These are changes at the edges, though. The larger pattern has fallen more solidly into place with each of the last few elections.

So much for the oughts; what about the teens? Politics does not stay static forever, which means Republicans will recover, sooner or later? But, sooner or later?

An early indication may come as soon as January, when the tax referenda votes come out. They won’t be definitive, but they could provide a sense of how people feel about the ruling Democratic majority – and it is now a majority strong enough to govern unilaterally and to be held accountable for what it does and doesn’t do.

Watch especially the suburbs. What could make the central cities go Republican, or the vast lightly-populated places go Democratic, is hard to imagine. But the suburbs shifted once this decade. They could do it again.

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A new decade brings with it that wonderful political tradition known as redistricting. And just in time for the new year, a fine online (and free!) toy for all the political wonks . . .

Dave’s Redistricting App is a 50-state map/database device (reliant on Silverlight), and maybe the best free device for political mapmakers around. The best thing about it is that it drills down to the precinct level, which is unusual for free interactive political maps.

This will be fun for Washingtonians and Oregonians who contemplate the possibility of a new congressional district. But it also allows for redistricting on the state legislative level, so Idahoans can join in the fun.

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As we look back on the last decade (and year for that matter) on the diminishment of the news, we might see some opportunity ahead for redefinition of what news is. That thought arrives via the AP report out today about the top news stories of the year in Washington state.

These are, in other words, the biggest news, the most newsworthy, stories of the year across the state. (Every state, or nearly all at least, compile similar lists annually.)

Number one was the November shooting of four Lakewood police officers. This was a powerful, dramatic, wrenching story without doubt; it was properly big news. It was somewhat unusual in that the incident was an ambush of police who were not at the time even interacting with the public.

But did the world, or Washington state, or some big portion of it, change as a result? Did we learn anything very new? In this case, a psycho decided to kill police officers; most of us probably know that this is (sadly, certainly) a part of the world as it is.

Story 2 was voter approval of the “everything but marriage statute.” That was a major change in the state, and marked a significant change in the cultural outlook nationally. Story 3 was the state’s 9%+ unemployment – a huge new fact of life facing and affecting (directly or indirectly) all Washingtonians. Story 4 was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s closure as a print operation – a major turning point in communications, news reporting, politics and economics in the state. Story 5 was the Boeing decision to go to South Carolina for its new 787 production line, a development with large-scale implications for the Puget Sound.

So what is news? What are the priorities? Maybe, in this time of turmoil, we may want to pause a bit to consider.

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