Splitting state in two? An invitation to talk

Maybe we should talk -- and start to look at the less obvious differences among other parts of the state that are emerging with little notice.
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Snoqualmie Pass, with I-90 snaking through the valley. Are the two sides of the Cascades different states?

Maybe we should talk -- and start to look at the less obvious differences among other parts of the state that are emerging with little notice.

“The Western part of the Territory appears to the people of this valley like some foreign land, and it is about as little talked of or thought of by them as is the Chinese empire,” an Eastern Washington editor opined, perhaps in reaction to the idea advanced last week by five Republicans from east of the Cascades to study breaking up the state.

But wait, it wasn’t just the other day; actually the editor wrote in 1854, back in the day when Walla Walla County consisted of all the land from the Cascades to the Rockies. The Walla Wallans were ticked off because the Territorial Legislature was already paying more attention to Puget Sound.

The writer wanted a whole new territory or a new state of Idaho, including W-W. Good thing for us it didn’t happen; Idahoans would get all that good wine.

Last week, Eastern Washington newspapers paid attention when five of the region's state representatives filed HB 1818, with Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, as prime sponsor. The bill’s title is: “Creating a task force to determine the impacts of adjusting the boundary lines of Washington to create two new states with one state east and one state west of the Cascade mountain range.”

Secession efforts have always tickled my historian side. Although they have never had a realistic chance of success, they still say something about us Washingtonians.

 “We are trying to say, 'let’s have a dialogue about it,’ " Rep. Larry Haler of Richland told the Tri-City Herald. "This is one way to get their attention and say, ‘We want to talk.’ ”

It could be that the first conversation should be with their own constituents. Judging by the handful of comments on their Web sites, readers of the newspapers are not impressed by HB 1818; nor are readers of Tacoma and Bellingham papers where the story also ran.

The timing of HB 1818 is unusual; Republicans have control of the state Senate, and Eastern Washington members have good committee positions. Combined with members from non-King County districts, they can pretty much stop the radical legislation they worry about. Normally these efforts to split the state along the so-called Cascade Curtain come in times of some distress, such as Democratic domination of all the state power buttons.

The 1854 effort didn’t go anywhere, nor did an 1876 effort to annex Walla Walla and Columbia counties to Oregon. They key in the 19th century was transportation, and the Columbia River was the link for this vast area. Once railroads leveled the Cascades, other factors figured into secession talk. In 1909 and 1915, Spokane legislators were on the beat; historian Don Brazier noted, “As had become his custom, the aging maverick Senator Dick Hutchinson from Spokane introduced a memorial to create a new state of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho and as usual it went no place.”

From statehood through 1931, Republicans held 82.5 percent of Washington’s legislative seats, compared to 11 percent for Democrats and 6.5 percent for other parties. Representation was not even based on a strict one-person, one-vote basis (that wouldn't come until the 1960s) and a sweetheart deal between rural Republicans and party bosses in Seattle kept the Legislature a GOP bastion for a long time. There was no call for secession.

Washington, however, changed from Republican to Democratic domination during the New Deal era, which furthered the decline of Eastern Washington’s legislative caucus. Still, the secession idea slept until the end of the century, when it was taken up by the late Sen. Bob McCaslin of Spokane County (his son state Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, is a cosponsor of the new measure). Sen. McCaslin's efforts found sympathy among Republicans angered by Democrat Maria Cantwell’s slim win in 2000 over then-U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, as well as Chris Gregoire’s even narrower victory over Dino Rossi in the 2004 race for governor. The Democrats got their margins in King County, which has about 30 percent of the state’s voters.

Increasingly, however, proposals by McCaslin and others lost steam and were regarded primarily as playing to the GOP base. Newspaper editors universally slammed the idea, pointing out that Eastern Washington is a net recipient of state money and would be hard-pressed to provide basic services without the largess of Puget Sound consumer and businesses. State and federal funds are critical in much of the region; ironically, a great deal of the secession fever has always been distrust of government, even in areas like the Tri-Cities with its huge Hanford operations.

My wandering through the secession sagebrush leaves me thinking that the curtain is no longer the Cascades but a series of regional differences that divides the state into three regions: the central Puget Sound, dominated by King County; most of Eastern Washington; and rural or small-town Western counties such as Lewis, Skagit, Cowlitz and Clallam.  There are outliers: Clark County and San Juan County are unique, and counties with large universities —  Whitman County and Whatcom County —  have their own unique characteristics.

Perhaps King County could be divided into a half-dozen counties, then it wouldn’t dominate the state — whoa, wait a minute, wouldn’t the same people be voting? At least King wouldn’t be the only target of the ire.

County lines don’t have the importance they did historically, when county seats were so important economically. Urban-rural divisions are more critical; people in Spokane have more in common with Seattle or Everett than with Okanogan or Adams counties. City folk need more services than farmers, who are pretty self-sufficient; as a result, urban areas are more willing to tax themselves to provide those services.

As more and more farm kids move to the cities, their voting patterns change. Some of these services wind up taking money from rural areas who don’t need the services — just as urban areas pay disproportionately for long stretches of Eastern Washington roads.

There are still a lot of things that both sides of the curtain — regardless of how it’s defined — can agree on, beginning with the importance of education and health care for all citizens. It’s not bad to have a debate on HB 1818 or the concept. It would be a time to find areas of agreement while we’re at it, because this state ain’t gonna split. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.