Election days, for me, are like religious holidays for others — something precious to be faithfully observed and taken seriously.
Today's state and local elections are not of momentous importance. But my ballot, nonetheless, was mailed well in advance to the King County Elections office.
My earliest childhood memories, as a Depression-born kid, were of elections and politics. They were the way to create change, to lift ordinary people, and to overpower the specially-interested by votes on behalf of candidates who were, in the phrase of the time, "for the people."
I cast my first vote in 1940, at age six, when my father, a sawmill worker and union activist, lifted me to a voting machine in the Bellingham High School library so I could pull the lever on his behalf for President Franklin Roosevelt and a straight Democratic ticket. Later, as a high-school sophomore, I would in 1948 join my friend Sterling Munro (later chief of staff to Sen. Henry Jackson) in posting "Truman for President" handbills in storefronts and on telephone poles throughout the city. Just south of the city limits, on Highway 99, stood a huge billboard containing the visages of Sen. Warren Magnuson and Rep. Henry Jackson — both portrayed as approximately age 25 — with the message that they, indeed, were For the People and that we should Vote Democratic. In 1960, while living in Boston, I cast an absentee ballot in Washington, where I had not lived for several years. One of those votes was for Rep. Don Magnuson, who ended up winning narrowly. I lived in fear for several months that a recount, and examination of individual ballots, would expose my illegal vote.
Later, as an adult, I would come to know both Magnuson and Jackson, then Washington's senators, as I worked in national government and politics. They exemplified the best qualities I always associated with my home state. They were practical men who were on the right side of big issues but who, also, took care of the home folks.
It was easy to know the enemy in those days. There was Republican senate candidate Harry Cain, a McCarthyist of the first order who was easy to dislike (later, he underwent a metamorphosis, as if to atone for his early, reactionary sins). There were others who were not enemies but simply candidates of the other party: people such as Art Langlie, Dan Evans, and John Spellman, who were honest and public-spirited people even if they kept wrongheaded company.
Politics, in all, was about big things and about the public interest — nationally, yes, but especially here at home.
The environment, needless to say, has changed. Politics, now, is more about being elected and reelected than pursuing a positive, publicly-interested agenda. Here in Washington, and especially in the Puget Sound area, it has become difficult to distinguish those candidates who are "for the people" from those who are simply for themselves.
Our nominally progressive state, with a Democratic governor and Legislature, has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country. Burdens are heaped most heavily on those least able to pay. The same leaders have eroded the state income base with loopholes and tax breaks benefiting favored industries and sectors. When there are revenue shortfalls, they habitually return to regressive solutions to meet them. Ballot measures are used to raise funds for projects and activities which could never be approved through a deliberative legislative process. We will have our say on these in the November general election. Mayor Greg Nickels, and a majority of the Seattle City Council (Nick Licata being a notable exception), seem completely unable to distinguish the general public interest from that of the developers who give them campaign money and, in return, get huge public subsidies. County Executive Ron Sims in recent months has lifted himself out of that money-for-favors morass.
Yet, on our ballots, there are people worth supporting who still are For the People. These include State Auditor Brian Sonntag, House Democratic Leader Frank Chopp, and most of the Democratic congressional incumbents. I cast a vote for Terry Bergeson for superintendent of public instruction for having the guts to face down the powerful teachers' union to endorse WASL standards for public-school kids.
Our top-two primary system is being applauded by political analysts and citizens' groups who see it as somehow more progressive and open than traditional party primaries held in other states. Many of the same people are applauding a proposal to make more positions non-partisan rather than partisan — as if this, too, would make things cleaner and more progressive.
Earth to reformers: In this Balkanized, everyone-for-himself society, political parties are among those few institutions which still have the capacity to mobilize people behind common goals. They also foster accountability. Our state's party chairs are correct in challenging the top-two system. More power to the parties.
According to those who watch state legislative races, endangered incumbents in 2008 include, in the state Senate, Democrats Marilyn Rasmussen of Eatonville and Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island and Republicans Mike Carrell of Lakewood, and Val Stevens of Arlington.
In the state House, the endangered include Democrats Don Barlow of Spokane, Liz Loomis of Snohomish, and Roger Goodman of Kirkland and Republicans Jim Dunn of Vancouver, John Ahern of Spokane, Skip Priest of Federal Way, and Norma Smith of Whidbey Island. There are open seats up for grabs by candidates of either party.
Analysts will examine the votes cast today for Gov. Chris Gregoire and her fall opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi. Gregoire almost certainly will draw the heavier vote today. But that will portend little for November. The gubernatorial race has not yet gotten voters' full attention.
I'll be up late tonight, watching the numbers come in, even though November is when the real story will be told. Secretary of State Sam Reed predicts a slightly larger than normal primary-election turnout, which will be encouraging if it materializes. We seem to be slumbering sometimes, but 2008 just might be a year we become more fully awake to the choices in front of us.