Election wasn't about 'change'

In Washington, voters showed less anger than a renewed sense of realism.
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King County Executive Dow Constantine.

In Washington, voters showed less anger than a renewed sense of realism.

Some expected this election to express the voter's desire for sweeping change, but in Washington, that wasn't the case. Voters in Seattle cast their votes for change in the dog days of August when they ousted two-term incumbent mayor Greg Nickels in the primary, but by fall, the electorate was more status-quo friendly. City council incumbents did well, King County council members too. Majority opinions on the school board and port were strengthened.

Take Dow Constantine's big win over change candidate Susan Hutchison. Even with so many folks in King County down on county government (a chronic condition nowadays), and with a well-spoken, telegenic candidate, experience trumped the fresh face, voters decided to continue Democratic rule of the county (though the office, technically non-partisan, is in reality not). Constantine is an experienced insider, ran a partisan race trumpeting both his party credentials and his rival's Republican ones, and it worked better than most people expected. Hutchison's campaign posed the question: Do you want the county to be run by a guy who is part of the problem? The answer was a resounding yes. Experienced trumped change.

The victory of R-71 was significant, but remember that it was upholding an act of the legislature, not making new law. Even conservative Hutchison, who isn't exactly known for manning the ramparts of gay rights, favored the measure, not so much as a rights issue but as a matter of settled law: The legislative process has rendered a decision, she said, so let's move on. The public vote was an important, validating, even historic, but it was underlining an act that had already been performed by elected officials.

Most significant was the defeat of Tim Eyman's I-1033, which suggests that while there is anti-government backlash to Obama's New New Deal, there is also an understanding in the land that there is a floor beyond which government should not fall. Eyman's law would have hamstrung not just evil Olympia (often a voter punching bag), but would have had the effect of drying up funding for local city and county governments. It was opposed by Mainstream Republicans, Chambers of Commerce, and it turned out a majority of voters. People might want lower taxes and less government, but they don't want their local governments drowned in the bathtub, to recall conservative Grover Nordquist's famous phrase about what he'd like to do. I pointed out that a number of Eastern Washington Republican strongholds opposed I-1033 at the ballot box, but the margin in some of those GOP areas is worth noting: it was defeated with nearly 60 percent of the vote in Adams and Lincoln counties.

So, in this time of recession and tea-bagger anger, there is still a belief that government is necessary and maybe even good in hard times. Washington voters had a chance to vote for radical change that seemed on the surface like it could be in tune with the cable news-hyped mood, but voters said no. The state's budget shortfalls and fiscal constraints are setting significant limits on what state, county and municipal governments can do, but the risk of making things worse seemed, well, worse.

For a state like Washington, whose very existence is largely due to federal funding and intervention (without it, no dams, no cheap power, no agriculture, no defense or aerospace industry, no railroads, no interstates, no Silicon Forest, no ports...) it seemed like a resurgence of realism.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.