"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.
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Among the many lessons of the Portland flouride vote concluding Tuesday was, as the Oregonian pointed out, this: Money does not always win elections; it more often follows a likey winner than dictates who one will be.

The movement in favor – led by a city council that decided to bring flouride to a city that repeatedly had rejected it – spent more than three times as much as the scattered opposition, which seemed to have a disorganized message (ranging from conspiracy theorists to people who simply like their relatively pure water the way it is) and disorganization as well. It surely did not break on any conventional ideological line; in this election, liberals battled liberals.

But people wanted what they wanted, and that was more or less what they wated before – and by comparable margins: The rejection vote was borderline landslide, so there was no mistaking it.

On the other hand was the expression-of-opinion vote in Clackamas County on the Tri-Met light rail development into that county – periodically dubbed Clackistan – where a good many resident fiercely dislike any intrusion from the big city to the north and like to maintain their independence from it, such as they can. The light rail project, which is good to go and set for completion in another couple of years, wasn’t going to be stopped however the vote went.

The takeaway from the vote was this: A middle. There were two ballot issues, and they actually cut differently. On one of them, about 57% of voters said they did not want county resources to be used on the project. (The county split geographically; areas to the north were strongly in favor.) But a second measure to allow property transfers involved with the project passed.

Parse carefully.

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Politics – in the campaigning end of it, that is – is full of people “stand firm”, who are resolute, who have the backbone to stick fiercely to their principles.

Most of this is garbage, of course. Effective political people know that blind adherence to points of view often generates either little accomplishment or, sometimes, deep defeat. For a politician, it can put you at risk. For an organization, too.

Which brings me to two widely disparate kinds of groups with similar problems: The National Rifle Association, and Oregon’s public sector unions.

After the Sandy Hook shootings late last year, my thought about what the NRA ought to do, as a matter of self-preservation and in the real interests of its membership, was simple: Compromise. Give in a bit on some of the ideas, such as universal background checks, that even President Wayne LaPierre strongly supported only a decade ago. A few such modest moves would be enough to position the NRA, and by extension many gun owners, as well within the mainstream, without giving up anything very important to their interests. Politically, that was the smart move.

As we know, they didn’t do that. Short term, this may not matter, but long term, after a few more mass shootings (which as we all know will happen), this will be an over-stiff branch that rather than bending with the wind may be broken by it.

Similar point, and the real subject today, applies to Oregon’s public section labor unions.

The topic of the day for them is singular, but in-state significant: What to do about the heavily escalating cost of PERS, the public employee retirement system, which is one of the most generous in the country.

The costs of paying for those obligations is cutting deeply into budget for public schools and almost everything else, and probably only a sliver of people in Oregon would argue that costs ought to be trimmed. That could be done with no substantial damage to retirees, as part of an overall budget and revenue package. The Oregon school boards association has proposed a PERS change that might in fact bear down in some retirees, but Governor John Kitzhaber has proposed one that seems to hit a sweet spot – saving quite a large chunk of money but impacting retirees only very lightly or, in most cases, not at all. Proposed in his state of the state, it would objectively seem easy to support.

But the public sector unions have a great deal of clout among the Democrats who have the majority in Oregon’s legislature, and they are resisting any changes at all. The co-chairs of the budget committee, Senator Richard Devlin of Tualatin and Peter Buckley of Ashland, last week delivered a PERS proposal that sits about halfway between “nothing” and the Kitzhaber. Reports suggest it will be jammed through soon.

Even that seems to be too much give for the unions.

As a whole, Oregon is fairly labor-friendly and there’s not the kind of widely-trafficked animus against public employees you might find in, say, Idaho. But that’s not immutable. Imagine this scenario: The co-chairs’ PERS plan or something even more watery passes the legislature (and Kitzhaber has said that if the co-chairs’ plan is what passes, he’ll sign it). In response, someone (not hard to come up with prospects) develops a ballot issue to impose much tough changes on PERS, and argues that the choice is between either a big payday for a fraction of the retirees, or more teachers in the schools. And Republicans running for the legislature lash themselves to those ballot issues – and run with the argument that it became necessary only because majority Democrats are too beholden to the public sector unions.

In that scenario, both the PERS benefits (in anything like their current form) and the Democratic majorities in the legislature (which are thin) would be at risk.

This risk may not be this year, or even necessarily next. But eventually.

Bend or break.

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A broad take on Jay Inslee, in the few months since he was elected and then sworn in as Washington’s governor, has been that he’s full of smiles and intentions of working with everybody, but that there’s not been a lot of coming down clearly on policy, one way or another.

That ended today, as these things often do, with numbers.

His proposed budget calls for $1.2 billion in targeted education increases, among other things. His thematic statement was that “I feel deeply that my number one priority is to help rebuild our economy, get people working again, and take important steps toward building a workforce for the future. And that begins with education.”

Also begins with spending more than Republicans would like, and that’s notably important among the Republicans who now control the Senate.

From Inslee’s press release: “Inslee has said repeatedly that the state cannot fund its basic education obligations by making deeper cuts to vital services for children, seniors and vulnerable adults. Instead, the Governor proposes closing tax breaks and extending tax rates set to expire June 30 — a 0.3 percent business and occupation tax surcharge paid by doctors, lawyers, accountants and others and a 50-cent-per gallon beer tax.”

That sets out with some clarity what he wants to do. It also marks out the battleground for the remainder of the session – or, if he holds to his determination (he and the House Democrats), however many subsequent special sessions lie in wait.

This has become a battle of wills. If Inslee’s approach has been to build up political chits till now, he’s reached the point where spending them will become necessary.

Washington’s legislative session is about to get a lot more interesting: The sides have now begun to fully collide.

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Oregon Republicans convened for three days starting March 8 at Seaside, for their annual Dorchester conference. (photo/Randy Stapilus)


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In his opening remarks at the 49th Dorchester conference, the organization’s president remarked that, since former Governor Vic Atiyeh was unable to attend this year’s event, it marked the first time in at least three decades that no current or former governor of Oregon had attended the signature Republican event.

That was as useful a factoid as any to underscore the point and usefulness of the conference: Trying to figure out what the future of the Oregon Republican Party ought to be, and how to make it successful. That was much of the point in 1965, when future Senator Robert Packwood helped organize the first one. It has taken on some urgency now, with Republicans out of power in the legislature and holding but one major office (the 2nd U.S. House seat) in the whole state.

Dorchester is known for blunt talk, a willingness to face up to the problems. So it was on the main event on opening night Friday, when Kerry Tymchuk, formerly of Senator Gordon Smith’s staff and now of the state historical society, moderated and posed questions to a panel of three, selected in part by differing ages, a college student at Portland State University (Tymchuk quipped that her role with the college Republicans would be like heading up college Democrats at Brigham Young University), an ex-urbanite father living in rural Washington County, and a veteran of Oregon Republican politics with background in the 60s of leftist radicalism.

If they didn’t come up with definitive answers on a path forward, they did illuminate some of the obstacles and at least a number of ideas.

Asked why they were Republicans, the answers emerged unsurprisingly: It was the party of personal responsibility, work ethics and limited government and non-reliance on handouts. It did not apologize for the country, they said; one remarked, “it’s the patriotic party, not the pity party.”

Asked what was, in their view, the major issue of the day, “fiscal responsibility” was the prevailing choice. The former 60s radical remarked that “I’m not so much worried about protecting my social security as protecting my freedom,” and she warned, “Communists are out there.”

Following up on some of that, the college student suggested, “If we fall, the world falls.”

Tymchuck asked for some cross-generational commentary, and he got some. The exurban father said of the millennials that they seem not to have a sense of where the money is coming from the pay for all the enormous bills (college costs, presumably, among them) that are being run up. And there was a comment about some younger voters being “brainwashed.”

But the college student had some suggestions too: Older generations, she suggested, are sometimes “obsessed” with social issues (not spelled out, but presumably including abortion and gay rights) that are turning into big electoral losers for the Republican Party.

“I’m so sick of losing,” she said. (Tymchuck pointed out that Oregon hasn’t had a Republican governor since before she was born.)

That led to a Tymchuk question about whether compromise was, or ought to be, a dirty word among Republicans.

The responses were uneasy and actually somewhat nuanced. There was some acknowledgement that Republicans are increasingly being tagged as uncompromising, and that they’re increasingly getting nothing rather than the half a loaf they otherwise might get. But the 60’s veteran drew cheers from the crowd when she said, “I don’t personally want to compromise with the Democrats … They’re liars.”

Added up, there was certainly recognition that the Oregon Republican Party has some big problems. Solutions? Well, they had the rest of the weekend to continue searching for those.

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We’ll concur here with Peter Callaghan of the Tacoma News Tribune in hauling out the dictionary and declaring that talk – like that of Democratic Seattle Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles – that the new management of the Washington Senate amounted to a coup, is excessive.

It i certainly unusual, at least in the Northwest, for two members of one party (Democrats) to break away and join with the opposing (Republican) caucus to form a new operating majority, after the general election apparently had left the Democrats in charge.

But they did it according to the rules – the majority rules. Which they changed, as well, on Monday, opening a tasty assortment of changes that could wind up benefiting either side.

If the “coup” talk among some Democrats was a little much, so too was the talk among some Republicans that theirs was a “bipartisan” coalition. Not really. When the two Democrats who shifted over were a former Republican legislator (Rodney Tom) and a near-Republican breakaway of long standing (Tim Sheldon), that’s hardly the case. When a Democrat came up with the label for their governing caucus as BINO – Bipartisan in Name Only – that sounded like a joke destined to stick, because there was truth in it.

But the governing caucus is legit.

This majority does however has the look of a highly flammable coalition. The demands of a single member could throw it into question, which is why one-vote majorities always have a hard time keeping effective control. If the caucus is closely cohesive and not given to firey displays of personality, it can work. But it only takes one to create a serious issue, and there are some distinct personalities in this caucus.

They’re running a high-wire act. All the Senate Democrats have to do is sit back and watch … and comment.

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A statistical rundown of presidential votes by congressional district has been completed – for the three Northwest states at least – on the Daily Kos site, and it offers some real perspective on just how Republican or Democratic the various districts in the states are.

This is least useful, probably, in Idaho, where the two congressional districts are very nearly each as Republican – very. It does show that the second district is incrementally less Republican than the first; In 2012 it went 33.1% for Barack Obama and 64.1% for Mitt Romney (in 2008, 37.1% for Obama and 60.5%) for John McCain). That compares with the first district’s 2012 of 32.2%/Obama and 64.9%/Romney (in 2008, Obama/35.1% and McCain/62.5%) – hardly a difference at all, when the overall margins are so large.

In Oregon’s five districts, which like Idaho’s didn’t change massively with redistricting, the numbers are a little more distinctive.

By far the most partisan-leaning district of the five was the Portland-centric 3rd, where in 2012 Obama took 72% (Romney/24.7%) and in 2008 won with 72.9% (McCain/24.3%) – a much more sweeping partisan dominance than even Republicans in Idaho. It was also much more sweeping than in the Republican-oriented Oregon 2nd district, where the Republican presidential nominees won but by less than landslide numbers (2012 Romney/56.8%, Obama/40.5%; 2008 McCain/53.8%, Obama 43.3%). In fact, the appropriate Oregon mirror image to the Republican 2nd now would be not the 3rd, which is much more blue than the 2nd is red, but rather the first district, where Obama both cycles won by about as much as his Republican opponents did in the 2nd (in the 1st: 2012 Obama/57.3% Romney/40%; 2008 Obama 59.6% McCain 37.7%).

The other two districts, roughly the southwestern quadrant of the state, are closely comparable, with clear but lesser Democratic leads. In the 4th (centered on Lane County but including much conservative territory), Obama won in 2012 by 51.7% to 45.0%; in 2008, by 54.2% to 42.7%. In the 5th, the numbers were not far off from that: Obama in 2012 by 50.5% to 47.1%, and in 2008 by 53% 44.2%.

The largest interest in these numbers, though, should be in Washington state.

Here we find a genuinely wide range of results. The single most partisan congressional district in the Northwest is here, in Seattle’s 7th district, where the Obama wins both cycles were enormous (79.2% to 18.1% in 2012, and 80.4% to 18.0% in 2008), significantly exceeding even the Oregon 3rd. The third most partisan CD in the region is immediately south of Seattle, the much-reconfigured 9th district, where Obama overwhelmed Republicans in both cycles (in 2012, by 68.3% to 29.6%, and in 2008 by 68.6% to 29.9%).

Of the 10 Washington districts, the Republicans won the presidentials both time in just two, the easternmost. Their strongest was the Tri-Cities-based 4th, where they nearly won landslides both times (2012 Obama 37.9% to Romney 59.7%, in 2008 Obama 39.2% to McCain 58.9%). They approached that in the 5th (2012 Obama 43.7% to Romney 53.5%; 2008 Obama 46.3% to McCain 51.2%). They are clearly Republican-leaning areas, but not overwhelmingly so by comparison with the districts around Seattle.

The 3rd district, now held by a Republican and commonly described as a Republican district, is more marginal than you might think. Romney did win it in 2012, but only narrowly (Obama/47.9%, Rommey 49.6%), and McCain lost it in 2008 (Obama/50.9%, McCain 47.1%). And while the new 8th district has been commonly described as a Republican gift to Republican Representative Davie Reichert, this may come as a shock: Obama won it in both cycles (20120 Obama/49.7%, Romney 48.1%; 2008 Obama 51.5%, McCain 46.8%). Democrats might want not to give up in the 8th.

When it was formed by redistricters, the new 1st district looked maybe a tad more Republican than Democratic, but in any event very close. But the presidential numbers show that new Democratic Representative Suzanne DelBene’s win there may be no fluke. Obama won in its contours 54.1%/43.3% in 2010, and by 56.3%/41.9% in 2008.

And the newly-redrawn Washington 6th and 10th look a little more Democratic, based on presidential numbers, than that – about in lines with expectations.

All of which may provide some guidance as political people plan out their races for the cycles ahead.

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Washington has been getting national notice for its long-running stretch of Democratic governorships, with 32 years now passing since the last time a Republican (John Spellman, a King County executive, in 1980) – the longest unbroken run by Democrats for that office in the country. (That’s eight elections; by comparison, the GOP in much more Republican Idaho stand at five.)

But what does that really indicate about Washington – or Oregon, which is close behind at seven consecutive Democratic gubernatorial wins?

Both a little less and a little than meets the eye. Republican John Carlson, who himself was one of those losing Republican nominees for the office (in 2000), has out on Crosscut an excellent recap of those races from 1984 to present, running through explanations of why those races turned out as they did. It’s a highly recommended read as a fine recent overview of Washington politics.

Allowing for some quibbles and a small slice of partisan view, Carlson’s take here seems fair and reasonable. He writes, “Washington is more liberal today than it was during the Reagan era, but of those eight races, one was essentially a tie, one was squandered, one was blown in the primary, two were lost at the national level, and two others were unwinnable.”

The two unwinnables (quibble: no race is totally unwinnable, but these were surely extremely difficult for a challenger) were the re-election campaigns for Democrats Booth Gardner and Gary Locke. “Essentially a tie” was the Chris Gregoire win in 2004 (a fair description) – the Republican there (Dino Rossi) was a coin flip from winning. And the others? They were a combination of poor Republican choices, either of nominee or of specific campaign tactics, and of the national political environment, especially presidential races. Washington’s gubernatorial elections run in the same cycles with presidentials, so the national picture is apt to have some significant impact. In 1980 and 1984, when Ronald Reagan won Washington, that may have helped Republican candidates a bit (though 1984 was when the Democratic streak began, owing partly to a bum economy at the time). But since then, the state has voted Democratic for president, more and more strongly, and that must have been one of the factors boosting Democrat Jay Inslee this year.

Also worth noting: Many of these races have been close. This year’s was roughly a 52-48 race; so (roughly) was 2008; 2004 was a near-tie; and 1992 was another 52-48. That level – fairly close, albeit with a Democratic edge – seems to have emerged as a norm, barring a governor who is personally either very popular or unpopular.

So what of Oregon, where the governors are elected on the off years? Is there a shorthand for those races?

The last Republican to win in Oregon (twice) was Vic Atiyah, in 1978 and 1982. From 1986 to present, it’s been all Democrats. What lessons can be drawn from those elections?

First, they may be consistently Democratic, but they’re generally not strongly Democratic. Of those seven races, there was just one true landslide: Democrat John Kitzhaber’s in 1998 (64.5%) over Bill Sizemore. Otherwise, the best Democratic percentage in those seven races was the 52% won by Neil Goldschmidt in 1986. In three of those seven Democratic wins, the Democrat won less than 50% of the vote (2010, 2002 and 1990). That’s a little misleading, because minor candidates siponed off several percentage points in some of those elections. But at least two of those races, Kitzhaber’s win in 2010 and Ted Kulongoski’s in 2002, were genuinely close.

Were any of those races “unwinnable” for Republicans, as the campaigns began? The judge at least from the end result, Kitzhaber’s in 1998 probably was: He was a popular governor running at a time of general good feelings in the state, and at a time when there seemed to be some edging away from Republicans after their 1994 peak (though the party did gain four seats in the state Senate that year). 2006, widely seen at the time as a highly competitive year, seems less so in hindsight, with a national move toward Democrats (they seized control of the state House that year).

Aside from those years, did the Republicans throw away their chances with their choice of a nominee, or general campaign strategy? In 2010 Chris Dudley had his flaws as a candidate, but it’s hard to argue with the closeness of his loss – the closest Oregon gubernatorial race in more than half a century. Might another candidate (Ron Saxton, say, instead of Kevin Mannix) have won in the close result of 2002? That’s almost impossible to know. (Might the more moderate image of Saxton denied him the base enthusiasm, or increased third-party voting, enough to deny him as well the win?) And the Republican candidates in 1986 and 1990, Norma Paulus and Dave Frohnmayer, then as now are the kind of Republicans who many analysts have said the party needs to run to win, but neither race was razor-close.

The larger conclusion may just be this: As voting has solidified in Washington and Oregon, a slightly but importantly larger number of voters have locked in to voting for Democrats for major offices, not enough to guarantee Democratic wins but enough to give them a consistent clear edge absent some unusual extreme headwind. Republicans statewide in these places, it seems, have to wait for good luck as well as make no mistakes when the opportunity arises. Neither condition by itself seems to be enough. For now, at least.

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