Ever think a Republican named Nixon
would be missed? Neither did I. But I was surprised recently when someone from a fairly liberal public interest group told me off-the-record that they missed former state Rep. Toby Nixon
, a Kirkland Republican, in Olympia. Nixon was defeated in 2006 in a bid to step up to the state Senate from his House seat.
What was the group's beef? They were having trouble finding Republican co-sponsors for some of the bills and proposals they were pushing. Even in the Democrat-run Legislature, bipartisan support is an asset in helping bills through committee and giving them an aura of seriousness, even inevitability. It can also signal that there's less risk involved in supporting a measure. The bipartisan imprimatur suggests a public good.
It's also true that many bills have no particular partisan agenda. The old saying is that there are no Democrat or Republican potholes. There are also issues that cut across party lines – issues, for example, that have to do with fundamental rights, like civil liberties.
Nixon voted against the bipartisan pork package for Boeing. He was out front in trying to block the U.S. government's implementation of the Big Brother Real ID program to make your driver's license a computer-chipped national identity card. He has supported restoring voting rights of felons who've done their time in prison. He was – and is – dogged on open-government issues. He's still co-chair of the Washington Coalition for Open Government
, which is the advocate of shining the disinfectant of daylight on public process. It's the kind of coalition Toby Nixon relishes, drawing support from Democrats, Republicans, the right-wing Evergreen Freedom Foundation, labor, and the media.
was that he was a libertarian Republican. (Before he moved here to work for Microsoft, he in fact was an official Libertarian Party candidate for office in Georgia.) He was, and is, a conservative, but also an unconventional one. His voting record was to the right, but he also took some stands contrary to many others held by both parties. His being out of lockstep with his own party was refreshing, and often useful.
Nixon is unconventional in other ways, too. He is a Mormon convert but isn't missionary about his faith: "As a Mormon libertarian, I am no threat to anyone," he jokes over a recent lunch in one of the lodge-like dining rooms on the Microsoft campus.
The wipeout of the GOP in the 2006 election did a great deal of damage to the Republican Party locally, and much of it was self-inflicted. George Bush and Iraq dragged everyone down. It was a bad year, in some ways historically bad. But demographic trends and the state GOP drift toward extremism in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state didn't help.
GOP turnover in Seattle's Eastside suburbs was particularly notable. Recently, the place has been a hot zone of unconventional, swing-vote Rs. Slow-growth advocate Brian Derdowski was the Republican maverick of the King County Council for years, having to fight his own party and the GOP-loving development lobby to stay in office.
But it's the Eastside legislative districts closest to Lake Washington that have seen the most pronounced change. Bill Finkbeiner got into the Legislature representing the 45th District as a "Tom Harkin" Democrat, then switched parties and became a GOP leader in the Senate. Last April, he decided to get out after he bucked the majority of his party and cast a critical vote in favor of gay rights. Former state GOP party chair Chris Vance called the decision "terrible, terrible news." Then Rodney Tom, reading the suburban coffee grounds, switched parties, too, only he bolted from the GOP and ran for and won a Senate seat in the 48th as a Democrat.
The result of the Finkbeiner retirement, the Nixon loss, and the Tom switch is that the hot zone of independent-minded, reasonably moderate Eastside Republicans got royally f–, uh, fumigated in 2006. The lakefront "liberals" – with the exception of Mercer Island's Fred Jarrett – are gone.
Even the so-called suburban, Reagan-bred metrosexuals
– younger, suburban conservatives who seemed tuned in to the new 'burbs – have taken a hit. Luke Esser was defeated in his re-election bid, and Dino Rossi is on political Elba, plotting his possible return to reclaim Queen Christine Gregoire's crown with the help of surviving suburban "Dinocrats."
Seattleites are probably
thinking: Good riddance. The GOP in the city is extinct. The fact that an openly Republican candidate, Jim Nobles, announced this week that he was running for City Council was news in political circles because the last Republican to leave Seattle was thought to have turned out the lights not long after former Gov. Dan Evans, the ur-liberal Republican in this state, left office in 1977. As the die-off occurred, the once-solidly Republican Eastside has been swinging leftward to the middle, and now farther left, at least to a point. I noticed things had changed when I saw desperate Kirkland housewives holding Moveon.org cookie sales for John Kerry in Eastside parking lots.
Urbanization has been one factor in the swing – the Microsoft 'burbs are filled with sophisticated workers from other cities. Growth has brought on a whole raft of urban issues with which to contend. Transportation is now not just about highways but transit. The new suburbanites are often very green: They moved to a less-urban environment for a reason, often to be closer to nature. And social issues, like homelessness and housing affordability and dealing with greater racial and ethnic diversity, have put Democratic causes on the radar. Call it the Crossroads Factor.
Politicians have figured out that independent suburbanites will often reward socially tolerant, fiscally restrained, pro-business, pro-environment candidates of either party. Right now, the mo in those departments is with the suburban Dems. Think Rep. Ross Hunter, the moderate ex-Microsoftie who represents the 48th, which includes much of Bellevue, Redmond, and the Lake Washington Gold Coast. He is also widely seen as a prospect for an elected statewide office or Congress. Imagine that: a Democrat who might be able to use the crabgrass frontier as base for running for higher office. That used to be the exclusive turf of Republicans like Jennifer Dunn, Rob McKenna, Dan McDonald, or Rossi.
Mercer Island's Fred Jarrett
, lonelier than the Maytag repair man, also misses Nixon. "Very much," he says. In an email response to a query about Nixon, he wrote: "One of the things many of us relied on Toby for was his keen eye and insightful analysis of bills." Nixon says his mindset as a systems analyst for Microsoft was invaluable to helping him figure out legislation and how to tweak it and work the process in Olympia. The law book is called the Revised Code
of Washington, after all. Nixon's a details guy, and he clearly misses wrestling with the devil who resides in them. "He's still engaged in the process," Jarrett says. "I get several e-mails a week from him kibitzing on bills!"
But Jarrett sees ominous signs for the party if the Nixons are no longer electable: "The urban wing of the party looks like an endangered species. Republicans need to take this as a serious challenge, and it can't be attributed to chance. House Republicans have lost seats in every election cycle since 1994 and the net loss in urban areas is staggering. Nixon is an indicator species."
Polarization and partisanship is part of the cause, Jarrett says. "Our ability to maintain a stable democratic government requires that both parties have a robust, centrist core. I think we've seen the results of polarization." He looks at what the Democrats have done with envy. Seattle Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp "has been much more successful at building that centrist core. At the expense of people like Toby. It's a loss for both the Eastside and the [GOP] caucus."
Another guy who misses
the fray is new state Republican Party
Chair Luke Esser, who loved his time in Olympia. "If the Legislature is a heroin addiction," he tells me over a cell phone, "I'm on methadone now." Talk about political junkies.
Esser's job is to find good GOP candidates statewide, and he, too, thinks the party has to do a better job of developing candidates and healing internal rifts. "If we don't work together as a team, we don't have a chance of a comeback." He draws inspiration from Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
. The book shows how Lincoln led and eventually united a fractious group of rival Republicans in his cabinet and turned them into a winning team.
He says that Eastside Democrats are vulnerable and doesn't rule out that a Toby Nixon – even the
Toby Nixon – could make a comeback. "The Democrats are extended, like Napoleon enjoying a barbecue in Moscow," he says. The victories of 2006 have stretched them into swing or GOP-leaning areas where they might not be able to hang on in the post-Bush era. They are isolated and supply lines are thin.
He cites the man who defeated Nixon as a prime example of the GOP's hopes: Sen. Eric Oemig, the former Microsoft engineer. (And yes, Eastside candidates of both parties all seem to originate at Microsoft, just like Boeing in an earlier era.) Kirkland Democrat Oemig has made pushing for Bush's impeachment a centerpiece of his rookie session in Olympia. "They think they're representing Capitol Hill," Esser says. "They're not moderate in tone or governance." He thinks they may come to pay a price with losing touch with the pragmatism of their districts.
Defeat has not slowed Nixon, however. He's working on two projects that could help heal and focus the GOP and reform King County's election system.
Nixon describes himself as a "grassroots Republican" rather than a corporate Republican and like Esser thinks the party needs to come together on ideas. He also thinks he can address some of the unhappiness in those roots regarding the 2004 election debacle.
Nixon is key organizer of Initiative 25, a drive to make the head of King County elections an elected office and to get it out of the Department of Licensing. Every other county in the state has an elected officer overseeing elections. The group pushing the initiative, Citizens for Accountable Elections
, lists on its Web site supporters of the idea who include Republicans like Secretary of State Sam Reed, Democrats like State Auditor Brian Sonntag, Green Party and blackbox-voting activist Gentry Lange, and Ruth Bennett, state chair of the Libertarian Party.
It's a classic
Nixon coalition, one designed to solve a problem across party lines and appeal to the grassroots. It might also channel GOP anger into a reform cause that would take the heat off of Reed, assuming he runs for re-election in 2008. (Republican Party conservatives are angry that Reed played a neutral role in state and judicial efforts to sort out the close gubernatorial race of 2004, which Rossi lost by a whisker.) The King County Dems smell a GOP plot to seize control of the electoral process and are asking Democrats to "decline to sign." Given the anger at Reed and John McKay (the former GOP-appointed U.S. attorney who was GOP-fired) over their perceived failure to pursue allegations of election fraud, who can blame them for being suspicious?
Nixon is also currently organizing something he calls the Evergreen Leadership Conference, a gathering in Richland in mid-May that would bring together grassroots conservatives and Republicans to search for common ground in preparation for 2008. The focus, he says, will be "principles, priorities, and presidential politics."
With Nixon's talent for details, coalition-building, and his strongly held libertarian principles, he brings a kind of independent thinking that the GOP desperately misses. It's not Republicanism of the Dan Evans kind exactly – not necessarily centrist – but both principled and open to finding allies to solve systemic problems and support civil liberties. And if he can help remake the GOP's suburban grassroots, Nixon might not be missed for long.