Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Politics. This article was originally published October 24, 2012.
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.
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