When I moved back to Seattle after living in Kirkland for most of the 1980s and '90s, one thing disappointed me. My votes for Congress and the legislature no longer seemed so consequential. In my current district there is little drama: Democrats are anointed year after year, Jim McDermott is Congressman-for-Life. For the most part in Seattle, the D machine makes it choices and we validate them.
Not so on the Eastside, which was and often is an interesting battleground. Red turf in the '80s turned purple, and in some cases very blue. But the suburbs were not particularly party-label oriented. Races between liberals and conservatives became more and more competitive. My Kirkland legislative district could be represented by a pro-business Democrat, or a libertarian Mormon named Nixon. The First Congressional district swung between R's and D's. Things were up for grabs. When I went to the voting booth, I knew my vote mattered.
Even though I mostly voted for Democrats, I felt a sense of agency and independence. I had choices beyond strict partisanship. The Republicans and Democrats in the suburbs often defied easy labeling. There was a mainstream tilt to the politics: People worried less about party than they did about quality schools, taxes, transportation, growth and what's good for business. The appeal of ideological grandstanding, not so much.
So, there's a way I look at the 45th District state Senate race with a kind of envy. The district is comprised of parts of Kirkland and Redmond, Totem Lake, Kingsgate, Novelty Hill, and it stretches out to the Woodinville wine country, rural Duvall, and down to country club plateau developments like Sahalee.
This year, the 45th Senate race is a key to power in Olympia. Which party controls the state Senate could be at stake. Seattlepi.com columnist Joel Connelly put is best, writing that in 2014, "The 45th District ... has emerged as the Little Round Top in the battle for control of the Washington state Senate."
The 45th is pretty Democratic if you look at its recent voting patterns. In general, the Eastside precincts west of Lake Sammamish have trended blue. But the district also takes in eastern exurban areas and red enclaves like the north end of the Sammamish Plateau. As a result, you get interesting splits. President Barack Obama won big over Mitt Romney (58-39 percent) in 2012, but Republican Rob McKenna edged Democrat Jay Inslee, 50-49 percent, in the governor’s race. The 45th, home to McKennacrats.
A moderate Republican incumbent, Andy Hill, a former Microsofter with a Harvard MBA is being challenged by Democrat Matt Isenhower, an Annapolis grad with a Harvard MBA who's a former manager at Amazon. The candidates are highly educated and rooted in tech and business, as are many of their constituents. Hill holds the political high ground — a popular incumbent — but Isenhower is in position to make a serious assault on Democratic-friendly turf, especially if he can muster enough troops to turn out.
The largely blue district is socially progressive — it voted strongly for same-sex marriage — but it has shades of fiscal conservatism. Political consultant and Crosscut analyst Benjamin Anderstone points out that Tim Eyman's initiatives to limit tax increases to a two-thirds vote were supported in landslide proportions in the 45th. He notes that the high-earners income tax proposal in 2010 failed in the 45th in all but a single Kirkland precinct, where it passed by a single vote. This is a very affluent district that wants to hang onto to its money. It's a gay and Obama-loving area where the desire for fiscal restraint often prevails.
This seems to play Hill's advantage, because the recent Majority Coalition Caucus and GOP management of the Senate — where Hill is chair of the Ways & Means Committee — has been fiscally cautious and anti-tax. If many business executives and entrepreneurs live in the 45th, and they do, they tend to want to see a level of fiscal management that government often struggles to provide.
On the other hand, the sense that party doesn't matter is a fiction. It bears little resemblance to reality in Olympia. Rodney Tom — the state senator in the neighboring 48th District who switched his party allegiance from Republican to Democrat, then spearheaded a small coup that turned control of the Senate over to a GOP-dominated coalition — found that out the hard way. His coalition failed to produce a solution to state funding for education; the result is a contempt citation from the state Supreme Curt. It also failed to produce a state transportation plan, and the coalition's Republicans scotched votes on many other issues. Tom's attempt to move politics to the middle ran afoul of strong conservative ideologues and partisan rules that generally prevented bipartisan solutions.
The point is, Republicans who are "moderate" might not have any real power in overcoming the more strongly conservatives strains in their party, and indeed must vote on procedural matters with their party even if it is to the detriment of an actual solution. This frustrates centrists of both parties. Bellevue GOP consultant Tony Williams told me a couple of years ago that his fantasy was a state divided into thirds: a red Dryside, a purple Eastside, and a blue Seattle. The Eastside and suburbs would provide a strong solutions-oriented middle. It's an interesting notion, but hard to truly realize within the party limitations. That post-partisan impulse is within many 45th district voters, but current reality seems to make very difficult to achieve.
No one in Olympia gets to be truly non-partisan — the R or D next to your name matters. Your legislator will be pushed or pulled by his or her party. The question is, Will incumbent Hill be part of a solution if the GOP has Senate control? Will he be able to broker solutions and bust the log jam? Or will a Democratic Senate with Isenhower, working with a Democratic House and governor, be more likely to achieve solutions? With issues like the expensive court-ordered McCleary mandate to fund education and the stalled transportation plan in the balance — critical to projects like 520 — voters of the 45th will have a real voice in what happens. I envy the influence they'll have this election.