Best of 2012: Norm Dicks and ‘The Great Consensus’

Norm Dicks.

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 March 5, 2012.

This is the way a political era ends — not with a single bang, but with a series of seemingly unrelated shocks to the system. Late last week, with the twin shocks of Rep. Norm Dicks' decision to retire this year and the defection of three Washington Senate Democrats to give the Republicans a temporary budgetary majority, I detected the loud cracking sounds of an ice-bound river breaking apart.

Given how fluid and "disruptive" our business sector is, and the West Coast's penchant for inventing futures before the rest of the nation, it is surprising to consider just how settled a political order we have had in our state. The ice on the river of change has become very thick, as for example the run of progressive-Democratic governors dating back to 1984. But big logjams on a swift-running river can turn explosive when they finally come apart. That's happening now, and will characterize our politics for the next half-decade or so.

I would call this long-lived political settlement the Cold War Consensus. Congressman Dicks is the embodiment of it, being our most dedicated partisan of Defense spending and Boeing and going all the way back to 1968 when Dicks joined Sen. Warren Magnuson's staff. Maggie himself, aided by Sen. Henry Jackson, pushed the tradition back into the heart of the New Deal,  serving in Congress from 1936-80 and creating a vibrant class of political proteges, including Dicks. The result, though we rarely pause to admit it, has been an extensively militarized economy in our state, for both Defense contractors and our many military bases. More about this below.

The other part of the Great Consensus has been Democratic sway in Olympia, most notably under the shrewd discipline of House Speaker Frank Chopp, who has been co-speaker or speaker since 1999 and whose political roots go deep in Seattle's traditions of social activism and the many institutions set up to help the poor. Like many powerful speakers, Chopp has built a network of loyalists, many of whom owe their elections to his help, and is able to be the unelected governor of the state, since all decisions flow through him, even more than the constitutionally weakened office of the governor.

The Olympia part of the Great Consensus has been to service the major political interest groups in the center and the left, in return for their loyalty each election. Those major interests are: environmental groups, public employees, unions, teachers, Indian tribes, Boeing, minorities, and the social services. It has meant a pragmatic focus on jobs, roads, schools, and community colleges, with a well-tended safety net for the poor.

Business interests have tended to go along with this Consensus, in part because it is so powerfully entrenched, but also because they get benefits as well: low taxes for the wealthy, many special dispensations for powerful businesses, and a highly regressive tax structure. Also, both Dicks and Chopp are consummate deal-makers, not policy-types, so you can work with them if you are powerful enough and loyal enough. The big exception has been higher education, particularly the University of Washington, where business interests and Chopp's budgetary priorities diverge sharply.

The result of all this is neither pretty nor easy to modify. Our tax structure, for instance, favors the rich (no income tax) and large businesses (many exemptions), while being severely regressive on the working class (high sales taxes and punishing sin taxes) and on small business (who pay a crushing B&O tax). The state budget is skewed to social services and away from the kinds of investment that help modernize our economy. And we are deeply dependent on the Defense sector, which is likely to be diminishing fast. Further, with the state's economy shifting quickly from a Boeing-led economy to a Microsoft-led new economy, our politics lags far behind.

But maybe for not much longer?

Let's take these twin peaks of our local political geography in order, starting with the Cold War Consensus. Seattle and Los Angeles were the great beneficiaries of dramatically increased Cold War spending after World War II, in part because the wars after 1945 were mostly in the Pacific. The result was a boom in base construction, shipyards, airplane factories, Defense-related research, hydropower to produce base metals, and medical research. Thus was born Pentagonia, or the Gunbelt, with the three top states in federal spending being California, Texas, and Washington.

It was a huge gusher. Defense spending on basic research and development was 12.6 percent of the total federal budget in 1965, an amazing figure. This created computers and the new Silicon Valley economy centered on Stanford, with the Pentagon being a crucial customer for the early state of high-tech products. It also created smaller research towns in the Tri-Cities, Alaska, and Great Falls, Idaho. In pouring money into medical research, the government launched the U.W. Medical School (chief patron, Sen. Magnuson), which powered the ascent of the U.W. as a research powerhouse.

Some cities, such as San Diego, turned into military colonies. Others, notably Portland, which bet on the wrong war-horse (shipbuilding), were bypassed. Cities that were in Pentagonia grew very fast: Metropolitan Seattle, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Denver grew fivefold, 1940-90, which is triple the national rate of growth. Dallas and San Diego grew tenfold. Portland's rate was threefold growth. And with this growth, thanks to the Pentagon policy of moving military targets away from central cities, came increasing suburbanization. (My source for many of these figures is U.W. historian Margaret Pugh O'Mara's invaluable book on the Silicon Valley syndrome, Cities of Knowledge.)

These surges also "nationalized" the sleepy cities of the West Coast, since the new megafirms such as Boeing were multinational, science-based, and able to recruit nationally. They lay outside the orbit of the local business elites. Eventually these developments awakened a new political class, which took over state politics (the election of Gov. Dan Evans in 1964), King County's civic agenda (led by Jim Ellis in the late 1950s), and Seattle politics (the election of a reform slate, starting in 1967, and the first modern mayor in 1969, Wes Uhlman).

With Boeing, Seattle placed a double bet, one on Defense spending and the other on a powerful global business that combined manufacturing jobs for the working class and high-tech engineering for the new economy. In the process, Seattle became a kind of classic company town, with nearly all politics orbiting around the central imperative: keep Boeing humming. Seattle-area Congressmen, whatever their liberal views on other matters, all lined up to do Boeing's bidding, with Sen. Henry Jackson and Rep. Dicks, who rose to be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, the quarterbacks. Tacoma, Bremerton, Renton, Tri-Cities, and Everett became key localities in the Gunbelt.

Norm Dicks' last hurrah was in wrestling the huge contract for Air Force refueling jets back to Boeing after it was almost lost to Airbus, as well as keeping much of the 787 assembly business in Everett and the new generation of 737s in Renton. The man deserves an honored retirement! Even with Boeing's headquarters in Chicago and with its need to diversify its manufacturing to save costs and please foreign buyers, the company's dominance of the Puget Sound economy will linger for many decades. And of course there are tremendous unrelated benefits (protecting Puget Sound, developing downtown Tacoma, feeding the research economy, and protecting wilderness) that have come with such accumulated power and seniority by Congressman Dicks.

Our politics, however, will continue its drift from the Cold War Consensus to the New Economy imperatives: research, liberalized environments to attract highly educated new workers, higher education calibrated to these needs, and infrastructure to keep the global trading economy moving smoothly. Watch out, Olympia!

What happened last week in Olympia may well be short-lived but also indicative of how the old barons are about to be toppled. Three conservative Democrats in the Senate defected to a unified Republican caucus, turning the Democratic 27-22 majority into a temporary coalition majority. It's a way of highlighting the more austere Republican budget, trying to bargain some concessions from Democrats who managed to avoid more deep cuts to education by a bookkeeping trick (paying the last month's education tab in the first day of the subsequent biennium). The result is a Congress-style smack-down and a storm of recriminations. It's also a good election issue for the GOP and an early test of strength for the emerging Republican regime led by Rob McKenna.

The episode recalls a very similar one in 1963, and nicely outlined in the excellent new biography, Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics, by John Hughes. Then too a new Republican team was emerging from years in minority status, resulting in the election of Dan Evans as governor in 1964, a Republican sweep of 16 seats in the House in 1966, and the rise of Slade Gorton to Attorney General in 1968. The result was a 12-year period of dominance by a pro-education, moderate Republican regime.

The triggering explosive in that logjam was a coalition, put together by Gorton and Evans in 1963, that toppled House Speaker John O'Brien, whose abrupt, abrasive style finds echoes in Speaker Chopp today. The surprise toppling began when six conservative Democrats, led by Bob Perry of Seattle and William "Big Daddy" Day of Spokane, bolted their party to join with the House GOP in electing Day as Speaker and putting Republicans as chairs of key committees. O'Brien never knew what hit him until too late, and the daring maneuver helped catapault Evans to his victory in 1964.

In many ways, that 1963 revolt typifies how powerful speakers and their political coalitions hang on too long, refuse to listen to reform elements in their caucus, and focus their weapons on the other party while blind to the rebellion within that will topple them. One indication of this simmering rebellion against the Chopp regime was the noisy threat by Nick Hanauer of taking his big wallet over to the Republican gubernatorial candidate unless the Democrats yield on their stand-pat, pro-teachers' union positions on education reform. Hanauer, a venture capitalist, typifies how the new economy is producing a more reform-minded, outcome-based, impatient politics than the serve-the-interest-groups approach of Chopp and mainstream Democrats.

There have been other shocks recently. The Boeing decamping of its corporate headquarters to Chicago, along with the failure of WaMu, the sale of Safeco, the loss of the Sonics, the defunding of the U.W. indicate how the business sector has been losing its clout, perhaps by opting for the go-along politics of the Great Consensus. Kemper Freeman, the main man in Bellevue politics, is losing clout and failing to elect his allies to the city council. Mayor Greg Nickels, a classic politician who assembled the major power players of Seattle (developers, greens, unions, city workers, U.W.), suddenly evaporated politically in 2009.

A five-year effort by education reformers, business interests, and the Gates Foundation in shaking up Seattle Schools, a bastion of slow-change reform, went up in smoke with the last election, capped by the (oh, cruel!) decision by Superintendent Susan Enfield to defect from this district in order to take up the top job in Highline schools.

Let me end with a few very tentative predictions about how this breakup of the frozen river of our politics might work out. First, it will take about five years to settle out, just as happened with the rise of Evans, 1963-68, and the transformation of Seattle politics, 1967-73. Second, the new leaders will be less "parochial," rather than mostly tending to local needs as Norm Dicks magnificently did. These new leaders will reflect the globalized perspective of modern Seattle and be more like Howard Schultz, very popular elsewhere though resented here for selling the Sonics. Out state is hungry to play on a larger canvas, as Indiana, Colorado, and Florida do.

Third, the new political center of gravity will shift from Seattle, with its "expressive politics" and exotic causes, to Bellevue, with its politics of the new economy, education, quality of (middle class) life, environmentalism, low taxes, lighter regulation, and moderation on social issues. Figures like McKenna, Ross Hunter, and Rodney Tom, Eastside centrists, will gain in influence over those like Frank Chopp, Rosemary McAuliffe, and Mike McGinn. Related to this and fourth: the new politics will be Microsoft-influenced in the sense of being data-driven, results-oriented, and non-partisan — as opposed to the past era of tending to the needs or organized constituencies.

Whether the Republicans slough off their bad old ways and extreme wingers to rise to this challenge or whether the Democrats can manage a transition of power and policies — that is the big question for this fascinating next few years in our politics, as in many states and cities.

Meanwhile, a tip of the hat for Norm Dicks as the master architect of a powerful consensus that built a surging and dynamic and prosperous state, one that ultimately was able to diversify from its Cold War economy. It's an enormous legacy. Moreover, like any master politician, Dicks understands the key factor of timing. He knows what his tired body is telling him, and also that his times, they are a-changing.

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