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Redistricting commission finally draws the lines

Draft plan of the new Congressional districts in Washington

The Washington state bipartisan redistricting commission, which was supposed to finish its work last month, will probably just squeak under its Dec. 31 deadline in drawing new lines reflecting the 2010 census. As forecast by Crosscut writer Dick Morrill a year ago, the new (10th) Congressional District will be centered on Olympia. Welcome to Congress, Denny Heck!

The Washington system, supposedly nonpartisan, is in fact hyper-partisan, divvying up districts so that each party has more safe seats. An exception is where a Congressperson is vacating the district, as happens with Jay Inslee in the 1st, since (almost certainly) he’s running for governor. That reliably Democratic district is turned into what Slade Gorton describes as “the most evenly divided congressional district in the U.S.” It’s also no longer what you’d call a Seattle district as it slithers up the suburban/rural belt all the way to Canada.

Putting the new 10th district in the south Sound, centering on Olympia, will create a deep-blue district with all those government workers likely to send Denny Heck to Congress. (Heck lost in the 3rd in 2010 and has deep roots in Olympia as a former chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner. He’s also best buddies with Dean Foster, one of the redistricting commissioners.)

So it is a sweet deal for the Democrats in this one new district. Too sweet? They may have traded away far too much in getting that safe seat for Heck. To offset that Democratic gain, the Republicans get reliably solid districts in the 8th (Dave Reichert picking up lots of Republican voters in cross-Cascades Chelan and Douglas counties) and the 3rd. Joel Connelly in, analyzes how Rep. Jaime Herrera-Beutler in the 3rd will shed Democratic voters in Thurston County and pick up more Republicans by moving her district to the east, along the Columbia.

So the Republicans get to move two districts from swing to reliably Republican, and one new district (the 1st) from leaning Democrat to leaning Republican. The Democrats get the Olympia fortress and a somewhat more Democratic 2nd. You can do the math.

Seattle may lose the Inslee district from its political orbit but it gains a seat, the current 9th, by moving the 9th’s lines into south Seattle, creating a majority-minority Democratic bastion for moderate Democrat Adam Smith. (Democrats seem to have won on their two main demands: create a Democratic district for Denny Heck, and create a majority-minority district in south King County.) Smith also gains part of the tech-belt on the Eastside, notably Bellevue.

The new 9th is an unstable district, straddling upscale Bellevue and such ethnic burbs as Renton and Federal Way. With little time for a challenger to arise in the 2012 election, Smith will hold the seat, but it is likely to become a multi-ethnic battleground in the future. He’ll have a hard time being liberal enough for the Seattle voters, former McDermottites, without turning off the more blue-collar south enders and the centrist Bellevueites. It’s better suited for a big-hearted ethnic like Ron Sims (unlikely to want to return to D.C., by the way).

Smith will share the tech-belt on the Eastside, with its independent and somewhat libertarian voters and deep pockets for funding campaigns. Lots of Microsoft voters are also put into the new 1st, so you might say that Microsoft now has three districts (1st, 8th, and 9th), matching Boeing’s four (2nd, 6th, 7th, 9th).

Add it up and the GOP now has four safe districts (3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th), the Democrats own four (6th, 7th, 9th, 10th). The normally swing 2nd is now probably more Democratic, where Rep. Rick Larsen (D-2nd) gets a more urban district, shedding GOP voters inland. The real joker in this deck, politically, is turning Inslee’s old 1st district into a sprawling hodge podge, with Redmond and Bothell anchoring the south end and then meandering all the way up to the Canadian border amid rural voters and backwoods secessionists. This makes no sense, and it will compound the problems for all the liberal Democrats already lined up to seek Inslee’s seat. Republican John Koster, who has run twice against Rick Larsen, will be a likely quick entrant into the new 1st.

The remaining action is in drawing legislative lines, not quite done yet, where the balance of power in Olympia really is at stake. Here Democrats have a disadvantage, since the growth is in the moderate suburbs and so urban (read: safe Democratic) seats need to bulge outward to take more swing voters. Some forecast the switch of the Senate to the GOP in 2012 and a much narrower margin for Democrats in the House.

Good-government advocates always hope that redistricting will create more blended districts, creating competitive races and driving representatives toward moderate compromises. The Washington state system prevents one ruling party from crushing the other party, but it also creates what we are getting: more partisan districts for each party and ever-greater protection for incumbents. The new lines take two more swing districts out of that category, the 3rd and the 8th. In effect, only three districts of 10 districts are now competitive: the 1st, the 2nd, and the 9th. Redistricting might better be termed the decadal incumbent protection act.

Instead of drawing lines to protect the parties and incumbents, a truly nonpartisan commission could have moved the lines toward more logical districts that have urban centers of gravity, with related suburbs and employment zones. For instance: a north and a south Seattle District, plus single districts centered on Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett-Bellingham, Olympia, Vancouver, Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Port Angeles or Gray’s Harbor. We have a start with a north Seattle district (Jim McDermott), and those centered on Olympia, Everett, Vancouver, Spokane (Cathy McMorris Rodgers), and Tri-Cites (Doc Hastings).

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