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Forests, shores and the future: How one district can sway the state

The scenic 35th District faces questions about its own future even as it votes in a primary that could help determine the course of state politics.
The 35th District includes some of the state's great scenery.

The 35th District includes some of the state's great scenery. Seattle Top Story

On a bright summer day in Hoodsport, the booths of a street fair showed off local personality and skills. They offered crafts, souvenirs and treats. The Lilliwaup Community Club was selling skewers of tasty grilled oysters wrapped in bacon. A local craftsman displayed a wooden trailer home that was like a mini log cabin on wheels, complete with a porch and pot-bellied stove. Another booth offered hand-carved signs with such witticisms as “We Don’t Skinny Dip, We Chunky Dunk.” I poked my head into a booth with lots of black T-shirts, Ninja stars and items you'd never find at a Seattle street market: very realistic toy guns, one of which appeared to be a replica of a sawed-off shotgun. A Facebook friend of mine later joked about it, "You gotta admit nothing says lazy days of summer like a couple of kids playing No Country for Old Men."

They all offer clues to the identity of the 35th Legislative District: oysters, timber products, tourism, earthy humor and toys for discontented youth. Contrary to the joke, the district is a country for old men, and women, with a rapidly aging population and plenty of rural retirees. But it’s more than its demographics, as all places are. It’s district unlike any other, shaded by geography, history, and economy. It’s also at a critical juncture. Its dominant politician, state senator and Mason County commissioner Tim Sheldon, has been a pivotal player in determining control of the state Senate. The district has an independent streak and Sheldon, a nominal Democrat, helped tipped control of the state senate from his party to a coalition controlled by the Republicans. If there’s much about the 35th district that reflects old-school Washington, it also has real, contemporary political relevance.

This year's state Senate elections will be critical to determining whether Gov. Jay Inslee and his Democratic supporters are able to move ahead on raising new revenues to support public school improvements, put together a package of transportation projects to be financed by increases of up to perhaps 10 to 12 cents in the gas tax and create new incentives for controlling carbon emissions to help fight global warming. With only a three-vote majority in the Senate for the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, any seat that could flip is big.

Like much of the land around Puget Sound, the 35th District was settled and explored by whites starting in the mid-1850s, more easily done then by canoe and schooner than by land. Its shorelines offered both isolation and opportunity, especially the dense old growth timber. When George Vancouver’s naturalist, Archibald Menzies, observed the area in 1792, he was impressed with it as “one continued forest of Pinery." That “Pinery” is still a dominating feature, part and parcel of the district's dynamics and politics, not to mention its actual fragrance.

Map: Kate Thompson

The district ranges from Bremeton to the Olympic National Forest to the mysterious Mima mounds prairies, thought to be the trace of either glacial floods or prehistoric gophers. It covers remote wilderness where the sheriff's radios don't work as well as the bustling corridors of Highway 101 and I-5. The district's boundaries stay largely rural and exurban, generally avoiding most population centers.

Geography is a key to its identity and economy. Hood Canal is a vacation paradise in the summer, the shoreline encrusted with vacation getaways and retirement dream houses. It is Salish Sea waterfront that's still relatively affordable, unlike, say, the San Juan Islands or Bainbridge Island, though well-to-do Seattle families like the Nordstroms and the Gates have retreats along the canal. Driving along its shores is comforting in that you get that sense of the old Northwest that was accessible to everyone, including retired shipyard workers and machinists, the era when waterfront wasn’t just for the rich. Here, funky beach houses and blue tarps still have their place. State parks with beaches, picnic areas and boat launches appear at regular intervals. You’re in the lap of the Olympics, and shellfish beckon on the beaches. On summer days it’s bright and brilliant. Otherwise, it can be as wet and gloomy as it gets.

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Posted Thu, Jul 31, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Very wonderful article. Thank you for taking me out of the big city for a bit.

This might seem kind of a wierd response to an article about demographics and political attitudes, but something resonated with me and I had a deja vu experience, reading the description of the Hood Canal, of times in Southern Maryland on the Potomac or the Chesapeake Bay. Folks in the interior there include descendents of the native peoples, early settlers who fished and farmed, plantation owners, and ex-slave enclaves. Farmworker abuse and racism is still profoundly evident. But, homes on the waterways, not being the fancy ocean front, were often owned by working folks of all races from DC and Prince George County. In some ways, rural Maryland often feels like rural Washington.

Like the other side of the Puget sound and up in the northern counties, that whole Chesapeake and Potomac area is becoming more ex-burban and more upscale. While the particulars are different, we see the impact of nearish major metro areas on the old time (well 20th century) way of life of 'salt of the earth' folks on beautiful water based and rural areas.

It is the very particular, visual and specific story that you told that provides grounding for my deja vu experience. While specific histories might differ, the general point I appreciate is that individuals have a myriad of complex attitudes based on their history with a place and the increasing economic divide is rapidly putting incredible stresses on these places.

Posted Sun, Aug 3, 7:26 a.m. Inappropriate

This is some really good writing. I'm looking forward to learning about all the swing districts this way.

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