Battleground for Legislature runs through Issaquah
October 5, 2010
By Warren Kagarise
The battleground for control of the Legislature is on the shores of Lake Sammamish.
Republicans, re-energized after a decade of defeats and defections on the Eastside, hope to shift a handful of lakeside districts back into the GOP column. Incumbent Democrats promise difficult fights to hold the suburban territory in and near Issaquah.
Democrats hold sizeable majorities in Olympia. The party outnumbers Republicans 61-37 in the House of Representatives and 31-18 in the Senate. Gov. Chris Gregoire is also a Democrat.
The effort to change the political calculus is focused on House and Senate races in the 41st, 45th and 48th legislative districts — the upper-middle class communities arranged around Lake Sammamish.
“I think it’s probably a pretty safe bet that the Republicans will pick up some seats, but I don’t know how many,” Washington State University political science professor David Nice said. “My guess is that, no matter who ends up in majority status in either house of the Legislature that the majority is not going to be a very big one.”
The national mood and incumbent fatigue could also influence state contests.
“We’ve seen elections like this before, in 2006 and 1994, where big, national tides sweep through a lot of state legislative races,” Nice said.
Republicans used to dominate on the Eastside, but Democrats started to make inroads in the 1990s. The end of the transformation came in late 2007, after then-Sen. Fred Jarrett left the GOP for the Democrats.
Observers expect the 5th Legislative District to remain a GOP bastion — at least until after redistricting in 2011. Only the 5th District has GOP representatives in the Senate and both House seats.
John Wyble, a Seattle political consultant and former adviser to unsuccessful 5th District House candidate Dean Willard, said the Eastside electorate focuses less on the political party and more on the candidates.
“Voters are looking for some independence. They want to see that their candidates aren’t necessarily following a party line,” Wyble said. “They want to see some fiscal responsibility and making sure government is accountable and people aren’t wasting their money.”
Candidates started to fan out across Eastside neighborhoods in late spring to knock on doors, months before the summer primary and the November election.
In addition to the usual concerns about education and transportation, voters also had questions about state spending, persistent budget shortfalls and partisan clashes.
“Folks in the district, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, have the same kind of core values,” state Sen. Eric Oemig said. “They want to see the investments in education. They want infrastructure that actually works. They want the Goldilocks-size of government. Those characteristics haven’t changed.”
Democrat Oemig faces Republican Andy Hill in the race to represent the 45th District, a mishmash of suburban and rural communities stretched between Kirkland and Duvall. The district includes part of Sammamish.
“I don’t get as much of the throw-the-bums-out, but I do get a lot of questions and a lot of people saying, ‘I think we need change and we need new people in there,’” Hill said. “There’s definitely a sentiment out there of what’s been going on isn’t working.”
The independent-minded electorate in the battleground districts around Lake Sammamish is also resistant to partisan labels.
“A lot of what I hear now is, ‘Are you a new guy or an incumbent?’ I go, ‘I’m a new guy.’ They’re like, ‘Great, you’re in,’” Republican Steve Litzow said. “It doesn’t matter the party. I hear a lot of that.”
Litzow, a Mercer Island city councilman, is locked in a tight race against incumbent Democrat Randy Gordon to represent Issaquah and the 41st District in the Senate.
Gregg Bennett, the self-styled moderate Republican in the race to unseat state Sen. Rodney Tom, attributed the anti-incumbent mood to the polarized environment in Washington, D.C.
“I think there’s a sense of frustration and it emanates from their feeling of helplessness by a lot of what’s happening at the federal level,” Bennett said.
Republican-turned-Democrat Tom represents the 48th District, a middle-to-upper-class enclave between lakes Washington and Sammamish. The district includes the South Cove and Greenwood Point neighborhoods in Issaquah.
“This is a socially moderate, environmentally progressive, fiscally conservative district,” Tom said.
The independent streak is on display as the senator heads door to door in district neighborhoods.
“Even if I go to a strong Democrat door, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘I’m not really a Democrat.’ Or if I go to a strong Republican door, they’ll say, ‘You know, I’m a moderate,’” he said. “Everybody wants to say that they’re a moderate, whether they are or they aren’t.”
The electorate could indeed send more Republicans to Olympia, but Diane Tebelius, the former state GOP chairwoman challenging state Rep. Ross Hunter for a 48th District seat, said Republican challengers must present a compelling case.
“I think it’s a good year to be a Republican candidate, but not just any Republican candidate,” she said. “You have to be able to say you’re not going to be the same old, same old.”
But politics as usual could benefit the 5th District representatives, Glenn Anderson and Jay Rodne, amid the uncertain election season. The district includes most of Issaquah and Sammamish, plus North Bend and Snoqualmie.
Rodne faces Democrat Gregory Hoover in November. The race for the other House seat features Anderson and challenger David Spring in a rematch of the 2008 contest.
Wyble, the political consultant, said the race could hinge on spending and taxation issues.
“I think this year they’re going to really look at candidates who have a record of fiscal responsibility,” he said. “Anderson and Rodne have been pretty anti-tax the whole way through. That’s kind of where voters are right now.”
Change in Olympia
Defeats of Eastside Democrats could mean reduced influence for the region on key committees. Hunter and Tom serve as architects of the state budget.
“It takes awhile to build up the kind of seniority to chair some of these committees and to really make their voices heard,” Seattle political consultant Christian Sinderman said. “Every time you have turnover, you lose a little bit of clout and you lose a little bit of the ability to move an agenda.”
Observers said Eastside Democrats filled a modern-day role similar to past efforts by moderate Eastside Republicans in the mold of former Gov. Dan Evans.
“The core group of moderates who have worked really hard to bring a balanced perspective and common sense to Olympia have been this group of Eastside Democrats who have really found their voice and become very powerful,” Sinderman said.
If Republicans seize control of either house, the shift is all but certain to mean more squabbles between the Republican-held chamber and Gregoire.
Nice, the political science professor, said the arrangement could mean a “much more difficult” path to pass legislation. Furthermore — “barring a miracle,” he continued — the Democrats and Republicans in Olympia seem loath to reach a compromise.
“Judging from the way the parties have been doing things nationwide in the past 20 years or 30 years now, that’s going to mean a lot of quarreling and conflict and difficulty getting much done,” Nice said.
Hunter said GOP legislators from battleground districts could instead foster bipartisan cooperation in the Legislature.
“As you get more moderate Republicans, you’ll see more cooperation across the aisle than you do when you are reduced to having the smaller subset who largely come from safe Republican districts,” he said.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.