Region's suburbs may see benefit from one-party rule in Olympia
Seattle Times staff reporter
While this month's election is generally considered a disaster for state GOP lawmakers, the worst damage was in the central Puget Sound suburbs. Republicans lost nearly everything from Everett to Kent.
Before the election there were six Republican state senators from the region. Now there's only one: Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, in Pierce County, and he was not up for re-election. The party also retains three Senate seats in nearby districts that are largely more rural.
The consequences could be far-reaching. The change in the suburbs gives Democrats near-supermajorities in the Legislature and largely relegates the GOP to being a party of rural and Eastern Washington. At least for a few years.
Democratic leaders say they won't play favorites and will work for all of Washington. Yet some lawmakers expect the geographic power shift to affect everything from the kinds of laws brought up in Olympia to progress on dealing with ever-worsening traffic jams in King County.
"The way I look at it, the largest section of the Democratic caucus is now suburban members," said Sen.-elect Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who left his seat in the House to run for the Senate.
He expects legislative action on education, transportation, the environment and social issues such as providing certain rights for gay and lesbian couples. "Anything to do with quality-of-life issues — things that make suburban neighborhoods ... better places to live — will be the sorts of things that move to the front," he predicted.
In particular, political observers expect more aggressive action on chronic transportation problems, such as replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge. Partisan battles between Democrats and suburban Republicans in the past often created gridlock over how to fix the region's traffic mess.
"As much as it pains me to say so, it may actually be beneficial that all of the responsibility for either solving the public's problem ... or being solely responsible for doing nothing about it falls right at the feet of only one party," said Bob Wallace, a Bellevue developer and longtime Republican.
"There shouldn't be as much arguing about what we're going to do and how we're going to pay for it," he said.
Democrats have the strongest legislative majorities they've held in decades. Ballots are still being counted, but the party expects at least a 32-17 seat majority in the Senate (the largest since 1965) and a 61-37 split in the House. Gov. Christine Gregoire also is a Democrat.
Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, agreed transportation fixes could come easier but cautioned that large Democratic majorities carry their own problems.
"It's not always easy to be in total control," she said. "Let me tell you, some of the ugliest fights are family fights."
Rural Washington may be the biggest loser in this year's election, in terms of political influence in Olympia, said Chris Vance, a former Republican Party chairman and now a political consultant.
Although the Republican Party has long been dominant in rural and Eastern Washington, for many years it also had managed to keep enough suburban seats to either control the Senate or limit Democrats to a narrow majority. Democrats were forced to deal with Republicans whether they wanted to or not.
When the GOP lost its seats in the Puget Sound region this election, the party also lost relevance to the majority party. Democrats could include Republicans in their decisions, but they don't have to.
"Republicans have less leverage in Olympia than anytime in my living memory," Vance said. "Now those Republicans from rural areas have no leverage at all. The Democrats don't have to talk to them, and probably won't."
Rep. Fred Jarrett of Mercer Island, one of the few King County Republicans to survive the election, said he expects a shift. "I think we'll spend a lot more time talking about the Puget Sound than Eastern Washington water," he said. "And when we do talk about Eastern Washington water, it's going to be much more from the Seattle perspective than the Othello perspective."
Democratic leaders disagree. They've long talked about working for "one Washington" and point to legislation passed earlier this year as proof.
Last spring, for instance, Democrats worked with Republicans to pass landmark legislation that's expected to resolve water disputes in Eastern Washington. The two parties also joined to end a long fight between business and labor over unemployment insurance.
House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, stressed her party won't focus on Puget Sound problems to the exclusion of rural Washington.
"It's not going to get out of balance because I'm rural and I have a big say in the Democratic caucus," she said. "Even though they [rural voters] don't elect Democrats, they are a part of our state and our economy and we value them."
An added incentive for Democrats to deal with Republicans is Gregoire's re-election bid in 2008. It's possible she'll have a rematch against Republican Dino Rossi. She narrowly beat Rossi in 2004 after two recounts and a court fight.
Rossi did best in rural and Eastern Washington. Gregoire will want to pick up votes there.
All that said, people in both parties see a chance for progress on taking care of the Puget Sound region's transportation problems.
"Many of the Republicans in the Legislature had campaigned on various no-tax-increase themes over the years and had made commitments to not raise taxes ... even though their constituents were strangling in traffic and even though some taxation was the only way to pay for solving those problems," said Wallace, the Bellevue developer. "The Democrats generally aren't in that bind."
Jarrett agreed, saying, "I think it will be easier to move the transportation debate forward because people who are just anti-government are much less important in the discussion. Getting rid of that roadblock of no new taxes, for example, I think makes progress easier."
Also, the Democrats who took over Republican seats promised to work on fixing the region's transportation problems. The Democratic Party will be under pressure to deliver as a way to help protect those lawmakers in future elections.
Specifics on what the Legislature can do vary widely. But some people involved in the debate say, for example, that it should be easier to get lawmakers to help craft ballot measures expected to go before voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties next year.
The three counties are putting together a multi-billion-dollar tax package to improve local roads and highways. And Sound Transit wants to ask voters for money to extend light rail to additional communities.
State lawmakers last session required both the highway and Sound Transit measures to pass together, or they both fail. Supporters of the two packages want permission from the Legislature to combine them into one ballot measure, arguing in part that the move would avoid voter confusion and increase the odds of approval next year.
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said that if voters end up rejecting the three-county proposal, the Legislature is more likely to take action on its own, given the larger Democratic majorities.
"I don't think we can delay these projects any longer," said Morris, one of several Democrats vying to become chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "In the end, what people on the East Side have been saying to our caucus over the years is stop talking and start pouring concrete."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
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