Though Seattle’s suburbs have often trended Republican in local races, and Democratic in nationwide races, Federal Way — a town of under 100,000 located just north of Tacoma — has historically been a mixed bag. And this election season, the results of the district’s two House races, could have an outsize effect on the balance of power in Washington, providing an indication of where Puget Sound politics are headed as the region's population and demographics change.
Control of the state’s House of Representatives will come down to less than 10 races this November, two of which are in Federal Way's 30th Legislative District, which also includes Auburn, Des Moines, Algona, Pacific, and Milton. In the district, incumbent Republicans Rep. Linda Kochmar and Rep. Teri Hickel both gained fewer votes in the primary than their respective Democratic challengers, Mike Pellicciotti and Kristen Reeves. The Olympian called the 30th Legislative District a “key battleground” for control of the Legislature.
While Republicans currently control the district’s seats, the district has traditionally been split, and consistently goes toward Democrats in presidential elections.
It’s safe to say that the only pattern in Federal Way is that there is no pattern. Republican Hickel, for example, was elected by a nearly 10 percent margin last year, but in 2014 the seat she stepped into had gone to Roger Freeman, a Democrat. In that same year, Kochmar, a Republican, demolished her challenger by a 13 percent margin. And, in yet another twist, State Senator Mark Miloscia ran as a Republican and won by a landslide in 2014 after serving the district for over a decade as a Democrat in the House.
Roughly 59 percent of Federal Way voters picked Obama over Romney in 2012, above the state average. That year, Republicans Kochmar and Hickel won or defended their seats.
However, given the strong primary showing this year of the district's Democratic challengers, the question is whether Seattle’s affordability crisis is starting to impact Federal Way’s political demographics, as people who would otherwise live in the city are pushed outward. It’s a difficult question to answer, given current data, though both parties treat it as a given.
“We’re victims of Seattle’s urban growth,” Kochmar said, “because all the jobs are there but people can’t afford to live there so they move here. Then they can’t get there.”
Reeves, who is not running against Kochmar, acknowledged the phenomenon more circumspectly.
“I think that we have done well in the primary and will do well on election night because my neighbors, new and old, know that we are changing,” Reeves said. Our population demographics are changing, our small business demographics are changing, our transportation needs are changing.”
But there’s nothing in the most recent demographic data that would suggest an influx of urban refugees, the type of young, liberal folk who would normally prefer Capitol Hill flocking to Federal Way because they can’t pay $2154 for an apartment (the current average rent in Seattle) . The population between 20 to 34 years old in Federal Way remained steady at about 22 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey. According to the same data, the percentage of adults 18 to 24 years old with a bachelor’s degree or more actually went down a percentage point in that time period. The rate for those 25 and older in this category stayed pretty much constant.
While the population of commuters has increased over time — "The percent of days the Federal Way to Seattle commute operated in severely congested (36 mph or below) condition significantly worsened between 2012 and 2014,"t he most recent Washington State Department of Transportation Corridor Capacity report noted — that is difficult to attribute directly to any urban exodus.
Indeed, Federal Way’s largest employer, Weyerhaeuser, announced in 2014 that they would be relocating to Seattle. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that many of Federal Way’s residents, not wanting to give up good jobs at Weyerhaeuser, started making the trip north. And if commuting became especially difficult, they might have simply moved to the city.
But beyond demographics, issues take precedence over party affiliation in Federal Way, according to the candidates with which we spoke. As Pellicciotti put it, “Our district is more focused on the candidate than party.”
So what are the big issues this year? According to Reeves, high property taxes, education, and transportation are key. She attributed Democratic gains in the district to the current representatives’ stance on such issues as expanding light rail, increasing the statewide minimum wage, and boosting funding for education.
“I believe that our current leaders would rather ignore the change and work to keep things ‘the way they've always been,’ rather than embracing the change and building communities and economies that work for everyone in South King County,” said Reeves.
However, while the district is said to be focused on issues over party, candidates divide pretty neatly along party lines. A quick glance at each candidate’s endorsements tells the story pretty well. Hickel is endorsed by Congressman Dave Reichert and other Republican politicians, as well as some business associations and the Federal Way Police Guild. Reeves, on the end of the spectrum, is endorsed by President Barack Obama, Senator Patty Murray, Governor Jay Inslee, NARAL Pro-Choice, Planned Parenthood, and a whole host of local unions.
But if Democrats take the district’s two seats, it’ll be an indicator of more than a temporary shift in party preference under Donald Trump. More likely, it would indicate that if the suburbs are indeed “victims of Seattle's urban growth,” and are starting to face the same issues of affordability and economic inequality that Seattle does. As they do, the election in Federal Way may indicate whether suburban voters are starting to accept or reject the big city's traditionally liberal approach as the solution.