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Eastside politics: 50 shades of blue?

The Eastside Credit: Google Maps

Sitting before me is a precinct map of Greater Seattle. Our sprawling metropolis is a jigsaw of irregular black lines that define the micro-climates of our politics. This is the political landscape when viewed not by state, county or municipal boundaries, but by coffee klatch and community caucus.

The map details how precincts voted in the governor’s race of 2008 Christine Gregoire, Democrat vs. Dino Rossi, Republican, Round II. Gregoire won, taking 65 percent of the King County vote to Rossi’s 36 percent. The colors of the map show the percentage of the vote: precincts that went solidly for Gregoire are blue and green, precincts that she lost are bright red, pink or yellow. It’s a rainbow code of voting patterns.

No surprise, but Seattle’s eastern shore is mostly dark blue like Puget Sound on a summer day. Blue means Gregoire won by 60 percent or more, dark blue by over 70 percent. When you get across Lake Washington to the Eastside, the precincts are decidedly mixed, the blue shifting to green like the jade color of a glacier-fed lake. Gregoire won Mercer Island, Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote. There are definitely some enclaves that didn’t show enthusiasm for Gregoire, mostly wealthy communities near water like Hunt’s Point, Medina, Yarrow Point, Clyde Hill — The Points communities, as they’re called.

But the Eastside is not uniform. It subdivides into two distinct parts. East of Lake Sammamish, it looks like the Eastside as it used to be; the Eastside your parents knew. This is Dino Rossi’s home turf, and it’s distinctly suburban and exurban. It’s colored mostly pink and yellow, indicating that the incumbent governor received less than 50 percent of the vote. Jim Vesely of Mercer Island, a longtime Eastside observer and retired editor of the Seattle Times editorial page, confirms what the map seems to show: the “western shore of Lake Sammamish is the eastern edge of the Democratic party.”

The Eastside has always been a kind of false construct, more complex than how it is viewed from Seattle, with farmlands, high-tech campuses, booming cities, classic sprawl and a web of communities with different goals and traditions. It ranges from Bothell and Kenmore at the north end of Lake Washington to Renton at the south end; from the shores of the wealthy Bellevue Gold Coast to the “home of contented cows” in Carnation. It has long been Seattle’s “other” more than a unified entity; a region defined as “east” of Seattle rather than delineated by any cohesive element or landmark of its own.

The old view from Seattle was that, politically speaking, the Eastside was reliably Red, a Republican enclave that preferred roads, cars and single-family sprawl. Its mainstay was the Boeing engineer and his nuclear family, and a politics defined by the pragmatic conservatism exemplified by stolid, real-life engineers like former senate majority leader Dan McDonald of Bellevue and former senate transportation chair Jim Horn of Mercer Island.

But over two decades, there’s been a shift, with some ebb and flow. In 1992 Bill Clinton won the Eastside — the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since the Lyndon Johnson landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964. It was a signal that the area was changing. Microsoft was growing, a coffee chain named Starbucks was opening cafes in malls, the old Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue was being remade as a multi-cultural community gathering place and Democrats began getting elected from time to time to represent Eastside districts in Olympia.

Some Republicans also point to a watershed moment in the last decade: the two-term presidency of George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Bush’s Texas-style swagger turned off many Eastside voters, says Mariana Parks, a public affairs consultant, former Slade Gorton staffer and ex-Microsofter. Plus, opposition to the Iraq war seemed to galvanize suburbanites against Bush, says conservative commentator, activist and former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Carlson.

The election of 2004 seemed different from earlier ones as Kirkland women came out to host John Kerry bake sales. “Suddenly we had kids in Ramadi,” says Parks, who indeed had a son in Ramadi, Iraq. Disenchantment with Bush and the “weapons of mass destruction” debacle apparently influenced partisan attitudes in races closer to home too. And the culture wars redefined the Republican brand far to the right of most suburbanites. That problematic branding continues today in the age of the Tea Party and Missouri’s Rep. Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin.

The Eastside shift has gathered steam since the turn of the century. Starting with the 2000 election, there has been a striking movement at the legislative level. Five legislative districts represent the bulk of the Eastside: the 1st (Bothell-Woodinville), the 5th (Issaquah-North Bend-Snoqualmie), the 41st (Mercer Island-Bellevue-Newcastle), the 45th (Kirkland, Redmond, Duvall, Carnation) and the 48th (Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, The Points). In 2000, these districts sent nine Republicans and four Democrats to Olympia. In 2004, it was six Democrats and six Republicans. In 2008, ten Democrats and three Republicans. Democrats dominate where they were once flukes. The district that remains the most Republican? The 5th, located on the far side of Lake Sammamish.

The pot is being stirred this election cycle, what with the recent redistricting based on the 2010 census. That has changed the configuration of congressional and legislative districts. The 45th, for example, now has a slice of the more conservative Sammamish Plateau, and part of the 41st extends to Issaquah. Previously, the Eastside was only in two Congressional Districts — the 1st and 8th. Thanks to redistricting, it now has a piece of three, with the addition of the 9th.

The new districts sprawl well beyond the Eastside. The new 8th congressional district hops over the Cascades and goes north beyond Lake Chelan, making it even safer for its incumbent, Republican Dave Reichert. The 9th now extends from north Bellevue down I-405 and I-5 to Tacoma. An incumbent Democrat, Adam Smith was the beneficiary.

And the swinging new 1st district now stretches from The Points communities north of Bellevue all the way to Point Roberts, the only piece of Washington you can’t drive to without going through Canada. The New York Times recently described this new district as “weird.” One reason for its strangeness is that it is truly split, 48.9 percent Republican, 48.9 percent Democrat says Tim Ceis, who drew it with former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton. We’ll know a lot more about how it swings after Nov. 6th.

Elections always have their own, often very local dynamics: Candidates from either party will rise and fall on their individual merits, flaws or circumstances. The Seattle Times recently dubbed the race for the 5th legislative district senate seat as the senate’s “nastiest” and “most interesting.” State GOP chair Kirby Wilbur has described keeping the seat as the “lynchpin” to the GOP capturing the senate. Democrats see a chance to pick up the seat in a usually solid GOP zone. The Democratic candidate, Mark Mullet, has been endorsed by Republican Cheryl Pflug, who recently resigned the seat and has accused the GOP candidate, Brad Toft, of “egregious and disreputable behavior.” The Issaquah-Sammamish area has often featured some strange, bitter races that go beyond partisanship into the realm of feud.

Political analysis has to allow for trends and counter-trends, rules and the exceptions that test them. Still, while the Eastside landscape has been literally redrawn by the re-districting commission, there are signs of an emerging dynamic with regional consequences. The Eastside is turning color, from red to blue. Some might call it purple.

Don’t look for “Seattle Democrats” or “Yakima Republicans,” Jim Vesely says. Neither are on the Eastside’s cutting edge. The reasons for this are connected to the way the region is growing and the engines and attitudes driving that growth. Yet the new shade of political distinction is important. The Eastside seems to be mixing a new political color. Vesely calls it the Eastside’s “own shade of blue.”

Ask political experts what accounts for the “Blueing” of the Eastside and they point to one main factor: the job base. If the old Eastside was Boeing engineers, now it’s software engineers. The old middle class is being supplanted by a younger creative class drawn to Microsoft, Nintendo, Google and other tech companies, and the economy and spin-offs they spawn.

Political operative Tim Ceis, who represented Democrats in state redistricting and consults for Microsoft and other clients, says the new workforce, centered in Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland, is “younger, more educated, not necessarily from here.” They are living in communities that are rapidly becoming denser.

Bellevue, for example, has transformed its downtown from a center with a single shopping mall at its locus to a core with multiple office and residential high-rises, a large tech work force (Microsoft has moved some 3,600 jobs there), a transit hub, new pedestrian corridors and a central park. Wandering around, it resembles less the office parks of the old ‘burbs and more a built-out South Lake Union. The result: less auto-dependant residents with a more urban focus. As Vesely says of the Eastside’s urbanizing voters, “The new base is people who go home in an elevator.”

The job base is the egg, but the chicken, some say, is the Growth Management Act (GMA), passed in 1990. That blunt instrument of a law required urban planning, and forced the creation of an urban/rural boundary. Drawn in the mid-1990s, it was, according to Historylink, “a jagged line between the already-urbanized western portion of the county, where all new ‘urban growth’ will be directed, and the rural eastern portions, where only limited future development will be allowed.”

The consequences are illustrated well in that 2008 Gregoire-Rossi election map. The Eastside west of Lake Sammamish was targeted for higher density development, while the lands east of Lake Sammamish were largely left more rural or suburban, single-family oriented with some room for higher densities. The effect was profound. Development boomed and much of it shifted from sprawl to denser in-fill. Vesely says the “GMA was the rebirth of the Democratic party” on the Eastside. The outcome has given rise to a political equation voiced by Ceis: “Density does create Democrats.”

Not all density; it’s a matter of degree. There are some neighborhoods, like the Issaquah Highlands development, that are more dense than the old suburbs, bringing development more in line with Seattle single-family neighborhoods instead of the one-house-per-acre of the past. But, despite a jump to, say, six units per acre, these denser-but-not-dense affluent neighborhoods still trend Republican. There has been significant infill that has increased population without changing the political hue of many suburban precincts. It’s when you get into the realm of townhouses and high-rises that the balance seems to shift.

The urbanizing of the Eastside is reflected in many ways — an increase in racial and economic diversity for one. As has been widely touted, the old Eastside stereotypes took a big hit (as did Seattle’s “diversity” bragging rights) when the 2010 census showed that Seattle (at 66 percent) was more white than Bellevue (at 59 percent).

That’s a far cry from the Bellevue where Seattle families moved in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s to escape integration and court-ordered school bussing. More than 80 languages are spoken in the Bellevue School District. The growth in immigrant and Asian populations in neighborhoods like Crossroads have brought people more reliant on social services, and voting patterns that resemble South Seattle’s, says Ceis.

There is also support for transit, from buses to light rail. Eastside voters supported the expansion of Sound Transit, even if they’ve had big arguments over its route, and despite Bellevue Square’s Kemper Freeman, Jr., who unsuccessfully sued to keep rail off of I-90. The coming of light rail will lead to a massive remaking of the Bel-Red corridor, centered around transit oriented development, which will bring much higher densities for the workforce. As the Eastside’s “edge cities” turn into bigger cities, the citizens seem more willing to pay for services. This unlike unincorporated King County voters who lean to a lower-tax, lower-regulatory, lower-interference environment.

Still, the Eastside maintains a conservatism, at least when compared to Seattle. In some places, like Bellevue, it can be seen in the tug-of-war between a growing cohort of urbanists and competing developers, who are challenging the car-and-Bellevue-Square-centric vision of some of the older Eastside powerhouses, like Freeman. But there are also more complicated threads in the electorate at large.

Seattle pollster Stuart Elway reminds us that the state’s political DNA comes from multiple influences that often show up at the voting booth. “Seattle’s never voted against a tax, but the Eastside does,” he says. Mariana Parks points out that Eastside voters see no conflict in voting against a sales tax increase and voting for Patty Murray. The phenomenon is often captured by phrases like “Dinocrats” to describe suburban ticket splitters who voted for both John Kerry and Rossi in 2004. Current gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna is hoping that this year they vote for an Obama-McKenna combo, proving the existence of a decisive contingent of suburban McKennacrats.

Observers of tech voters also note that, even as the Eastside goes Bluer, it has not turned to a hard partisanship. The Eastside is no longer a place you’ll get automatically elected if you’re a Republican, yet no legislative seat is an automatic if you’re a Democrat. Says retiring Democratic state representative and former Kirkland mayor Deb Eddy, “People don’t just magically become Democrats.” For one thing, the Microsoft influence is felt in more than its workforce or its money, but in attitude.

Before Microsoft, Washington voters often reflected sometimes conflicting influences and impulses. The state is blue, Elway says, but not that blue. Seattle is big, but still an ideological outlier, the most liberal city west of Minneapolis and north of San Francisco. Historically, Washington’s base has been a mix that Elway describes as part northern tier populist and part western libertarian with a dose of strong union supporters. Any of these threads can show up and run counter to other trends in an election.

Thus, you get an electorate that can vote Obama, gay marriage and Eyman’s tax-limiting initiatives. The high-tech cohort has a strong libertarian streak, but it’s not the Republican blend of Ayn Rand and evangelical conservatism represented by Paul Ryan. Rather, it’s socially liberal, but with a Microsoft attitude that government isn’t very smart and people can run their own lives pretty well, if they have the right tools.

Andrew Villeneuve, a Democratic activist and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute in Redmond, says that while the changing demographics of the Eastside have opened the door for Democrats, they still have to step through the doorway. There is no room for complacency, he says. “Energy is a big thing out here. People want people with energy. That’s why Jay Inslee always got re-elected….that’s just the way people are over here.” The electorate is well-educated, restless, mobile, tech-savvy and focussed on practical problems, like transportation. Candidates who can get things done are highly valued.

As an example of Eastside pragmatism and contrast, Villeneuve cites the 520 expansion project. Eastsiders, he says, “look at the 520 argument, [and think] ‘What is so hard about replacing a bridge?’ Finally, our people said, ‘Can’t we just get the ball rolling? Enough already, let’s get the shovels moving.'” As a result, the Eastside is getting its part of the project built, right up to the Seattle city limits where inertia takes over. As Montlake resisted 520’s expansive concrete, the Eastside busied its shovels to build half of an expanded freeway and a new floating bridge.

Another example of the can-do spirit: When they needed a better bus system for commuting employees, Microsoft created its own, The Connector, sometimes called the best-run transit system in the state. The message is that the Eastside can get things done while Seattle dithers, argues and obstructs.

The Eastside is impatient, entrepreneurial and competitive, infused with the spirit of Bill Gates and his acolytes. Microsofties in politics are now an Eastside cliche. In the 1st Congressional district primary in August, the Democratic field included three former Microsoft women running against each other: Suzan DelBene, Darcy Burner and Laura Ruderman. The Eastside Democrats who do well tend to be centrists, pragmatists, even former Republicans, like the 48th district’s Rodney Tom. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island, Deb Eddy and Larry Springer of Kirkland and Ross Hunter of Medina are exemplars of the breed.

Republicans have an answer of their own: Steve Litzow took a Mercer Island legislative seat two years ago by the narrowest of margins and aims to keep it. He’s considered socially progressive (he was the first GOP state senator to declare for marriage equality), green and fiscally conservative, which means he’s the GOP equivalent of the Democratic right’s “Roadkill Caucus” of centrist Democrats. He has strong support too from Republicans in Bellevue.

All of which suggests that the model of pragmatic, socially progressive, can-do, fiscally cautious politicians might work for either party. In response, Democrats in Olympia have generally become more tolerant of centrists, even welcoming to them. Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp has been brilliant at seeing the opportunity to go into the suburbs and recruit “unaffiliated” candidates who fit that bill, says Deb Eddy.

Republicans have had less success and acceptance by the grassroots for their part. GOP consultant Tony Williams of Bellevue’s Washington2Advocates says Republicans need to “persuade ultra conservatives that winning is a good thing vs. winning the primary.” The social conservatism of the state GOP has helped to drive Eastside centrists and moderates like Rodney Tom and Fred Jarrett out of the party.

So, the Eastside could begin to play a key role as the incubator of a new politics of the center, located as it is as political middle ground between deep-Blue Seattle and dark-Red Eastern Washington. There are a number of opportunities.

For one, the Eastside is something of a political piggy bank for local, state and national candidates of both parties. The ritual crossing of the bridge to big-ticket fundraisers in The Points is standard. Seven of the wealthiest eight zip codes in the Puget Sound area are on the Eastside, the richest being Medina’s. On top of that, tech wealth has helped a number of candidates self-fund their campaigns.

Second, with money and pragmatism, the suburbs seem to offer the message that can attract the widest share of voters. You can see that in the current governor’s race messaging of Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna, both of whom have represented Eastside constituencies, and both of whom are suburban dads. Inslee speaks with the voice of economic and technological innovation. He has a green, urban agenda as well as an economic one.

McKenna has emphasized education with a reform agenda that is not classically Republican as we’ve come to know it. He wants to increase education spending (as a share of the budget), invest in higher ed (he’s no Rick Santorum) and he’s pro-charter school, the kind of reform that appeals to Microsofties and ed reformers who want to rewire public education in order to train a 21st century workforce.

Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman of Northwest Passage Consulting has represented successful Eastside Dems like Clibborn, Eddy and Springer. He thinks the current political dynamic on the Eastside is creating a “rush to the center” which could give the region statewide political power. “Fiscally conservative, energized, pro-transit, pro-education,” he says, is an agenda that could challenge old Olympia. Sinderman says the party that succeeds will be the one that answers this question: “Who speaks for the creative class?”

Vesely predicts that the Eastside will increasingly be seen as the center of the region. Seattle is inwardly focussed and not electing true regional leaders, he says. The last Seattle mayor to truly be embraced by the region was Norm Rice. The Eastside is poised to act more regionally out of need generated by growth and high standards. “The center of the state is the corner of I-405 and I-90,” declares Vesely.

GOP consultant Tony Williams agrees that the Eastside is well positioned to seize the center. He says he personally votes a straight GOP ticket, but he’d love to see a dynamic, diverse Eastside that moves strongly in the middle. “I would love to find GOP candidates who communicate like Rodney Tom, Ross Hunter and Judy Clibborn!” he says. “There’s clearly something going on — voters are up for grabs. Democrats have done a better job of attracting those people.”

A successful McKenna campaign, Williams says, would be key for transforming the GOP into a party with more centrist influence. He imagines McKenna building a new GOP network from a statewide perch in Olympia. “We need to get off the dime,” he says, eyeing with envy the Democrats’ Roadkill centrists.

Williams’ fantasy is a state divided into thirds: one third Seattle Blue liberals, one third Red dryside Republicans and one third Purple Eastside centrists. Out of that diversity could come progress. That idea might encapsulate the biggest advance for Democrats so far on the Eastside: they’re creating a new template that is not only working now, but might be paid the compliment of imitation by their adversaries.

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