Back from a cold and snowy week in Minnesota, still hustling my new book, Seattle seems downright tropical. My first act on return was to turn down my thermostat; it seemed unseasonably warm here.
Several weeks in other towns have given me a chance to observe other places and, also, to see my home place in better perspective. Here are observations for this long weekend.National politics
A week ago it seemed possible that Arizona Sen. John McCain might be weakened, rather than strengthened, by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's surprisingly early suspension of his candidacy after Super Tuesday contests. Romney surprised again Thursday, Feb. 14, by dropping out of the race altogether and urging his delegates to vote for McCain. McCain thus will be able to concentrate now on uniting his party, raising money for the general election, and fending off the continuing irritations of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's minority candidacy and radio host Rush Limbaugh's rage against him (McCain).
McCain and Romney clearly do not like each other. Romney's endorsement of McCain should be seen not as some instant change of heart. Rather, Romney's endorsement positioned him well to be McCain's running mate and/or the 2012 Republican presidential nominee should McCain be defeated this year. Having lost to McCain in this year's nominating race, and having withdrawn quickly without causing damage to his party, Romney has pleased many and offended few among national Republican leaders.
McCain still is hostage to events in Iraq or in the economy. But he need no longer fear Romney's reactivation of his candidacy before or during the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn.
On the Democratic side, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama now is the indisputed frontrunner and is presented with both the pluses and minuses of that position.
Most media have predicted an Obama victory this coming Tuesday, Feb. 19, in Wisconsin. Yet polls at this juncture show New York Sen. Hillary Clinton only a few points behind Obama and within reach of what would be seen as an upset victory there. Should that happen, the Obama campaign's sense of inevitability would be tarnished as the two candidates prepare for the big March 4 showdowns in Ohio and Texas. Clinton continues to hold double-digit leads in both those states.
Overall, though, Obama remains in the stronger position. He has momentum, energy, and increasing flows of campaign money on his side. An important portent: Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the strongest and most respected African-American figure in the House of Representatives – and a longtime civil-rights movement leader before his election to Congress – this week changed his super-delegate voting pledge from Clinton to Obama. That was a signal to other black elected leaders who signed on early with Clinton that it was now acceptable to make the same move.
A Clinton upset victory in Wisconsin would allow her to change the subject from a string of recent losses to Obama and from reports of infighting among her campaign managers. The latter usually precede defeat.
Minnesota is a state much like Washington. I found opinion among politically active people there to be much the same as here. That is, Democrats are excited by Obama's candidacy. Yet, with less excitement, most would accept Clinton's nomination if it came to that. Both Obama and Clinton must tread carefully until Ohio and Texas – and in the weeks thereafter, if Clinton remains in the race after March 4 – to maintain the sense in their party that either would be an acceptable standard bearer. Toughening rhetoric, charges and counter-charges, and edgy media campaigns now emanating from both camps could polarize opinion among Democrats and make it harder to come out of their Denver convention united.Infrastructure politics
While in Minneapolis, I visited the site of the Interstate 35W bridge across the Mississippi River, which collapsed last summer. Sub-zero temperatures, biting winds, and weeks-old piles of snow on the ground had not deterred construction workers building its replacement. Huge covered, heated tents protected them as they made daily progress.
Neither our Alaskan Way Viaduct nor Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington has collapsed, requiring such immediate replacement. However, I could not help but think, as I watched the construction crews in Minneapolis, that the job was being done start-to-finish there in a few months, whereas more than seven years after the Nisqually Quake called attention to the vulnerability of the aging viaduct and 520 bridge, state and local officials here had not yet arrived at final plans for their replacement or repair. Plans under discussion are provisional and subject to substantial change.
Minnesota is a progressive state which expects high performance by its public officials. Minnesotans would not tolerate for a moment the delay and fumbling existing around our viaduct/520 bridge issues. One particular thought crossed my mind: Does Gov. Chris Gregoire not recognize that she took office pledging fixes in both places and, in 2008, is still light years away from getting it done? Her Republican challenger, presumably Dino Rossi, no doubt will remind voters of that fact on a regular basis in the gubernatorial campaign. Both the viaduct and bridge are state highways. Any governor has it in her/his power to bring fix proposals to the Legislature and to drive them to conclusion, either with or without full support of local officials.
Minneapolis has a light rail system which is a convenient link to the airport but which does not make enough stops in the right places to generate ridership and revenue to sustain itself. A cautionary story for folk here. Federal money appears on the way to extend our Seattle light rail system beneath hills and across water to Husky Stadium, although local money also will be required. The University of Washington regents agreed long ago to cooperate in getting light rail to the University District. However, if you talk with officers of the university, you will find that most believe present bus service to the campus area is excellent and, moreover, that they anticipate the huge hole-in-ground and street disruptions attending light-rail extension to Husky Stadium with fear and loathing. Regents may wish to revisit the light rail station issue as they simultaneously examine how and with what money they propose to renovate Husky Stadium. Light rail also has become wrapped up in the debate about costs and configurations of the Montlake-adjacent 520 redo.
If all these decisions remain in limbo entering the gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, those in charge – and presumed to be not effectively dealing with them – will be on the defensive.
Minneapolis and Seattle are not alone in confronting the need to spend immediate billions on transportation and infrastructure upgrades. The questions here, as everywhere, have to do with priority, practicality, and affordability.