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Friday, December 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Once-mighty GOP on the Eastside takes another hit

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA — State Republicans, who've seen their grip on the Eastside suburbs weaken over the past decade, have now been vanquished to the hills.

Thursday's defection by Republican Rep. Fred Jarrett to the Democratic Party leaves only the Eastside's most rural legislative district with any GOP state lawmakers.

The loss of GOP power in the affluent suburbs has been one of the state's major post-millennial political trends.

Jarrett, of Mercer Island, was recruited by Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and next year will run for the 41st District Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. Brian Weinstein. Weinstein announced Thursday he won't run for re-election.

Jarrett's move one year before the election increases the House Democrats' already massive majority by another vote in the upcoming legislative session.

Known as a moderate Republican, Jarrett said he's increasingly found himself at odds with his GOP colleagues.

Brown said she'd been talking with Jarrett for a while about making the switch. Brown told him Weinstein was not going to run and that if Jarrett ran as a Democrat, her caucus would back him.

"I feel pretty confident that he can win in that district as a Democrat," she said. "He has served there for a long time. I think he definitely gets that district, and he fits the district and represents the district well, too."

Jarrett's party switch is the second coup for Brown's caucus. She recruited state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, from the GOP in 2006. Tom was a Republican House member before running for the Senate as a Democrat.

Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said he had thought Jarrett would run for the Senate next year as a Republican.

"We thought we had a closed deal out here," Hewitt said. "We've been talking with him for months and he assured us he was going to run as a Republican, so I'm obviously back to the drawing board."

Jarrett has been a moderate Republican who came of age as a campaign worker for the icon of that stripe of the GOP, former Gov. Dan Evans.

"I felt there was a strong tradition in the Republican Party that really couldn't be lost," Jarrett said. "So what I've been doing as long as I've been in the Legislature is trying to articulate that moderate Republican, progressive Republican viewpoint. And what I found is I may have a lot of ego, but I don't think I have enough ego to think anymore that I can do it."

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Democrats couldn't get elected in the east part of the county. Former state lawmaker Bill Finkbeiner won a House seat there as a Democrat in 1992, but he switched to the Republican Party and ran a successful race for the Senate.

The Evans wing of the Republican Party has had strong roots on the Eastside. It was a place where many Republicans — evidenced best by the late Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn and Finkbeiner — avoided divisive social issues that dominated the party in the state. These pragmatic Republicans ruled the area as it grew into an affluent community with Microsoft millionaires.

Eastside voters are practiced ticket-splitters. They've voted for Democrats at the top of the ticket but re-elected their Republican state lawmakers. In recent years, though, Democrats courted voters by talking about school funding and transportation, while Republicans could not, as former GOP state Chairman Chris Vance used to say, "learn to speak cul-de-sac."

Jarrett's House seatmate is a Democrat, Rep. Judy Clibborn, who in 2002 broke the GOP hold on Mercer Island by winning a vacant seat.

The Senate seat Jarrett will run for is another example of political change on the Eastside. Weinstein won the seat by defeating longtime Republican lawmaker and GOP moderate Jim Horn in 2004.

With Jarrett's defection, the only Eastside district represented by the GOP is the 5th, which stretches from Issaquah to Snoqualmie Pass.

Jarrett is in his third term in the House. He has served on the Mercer Island School Board and City Council and as the island's mayor. He's an Air Force veteran and works at Boeing as a project manager in the commercial-airplane division.

Jarrett said a few recent events helped push him out of the Republican Party.

In the recent special session on property taxes, Jarrett said he supported a Democratic bill that created a new property-tax deferral program for middle-income homeowners.

Republicans opposed it, saying it would put those homeowners further into debt by requiring the property tax to be paid, with interest, when a home was sold or the owner died. Jarrett said he was bothered "to hear the vehemence of the opposition in our caucus without even thinking through anything other than who proposed it."

He also disagreed with the Republican argument during the session that the 1 percent property-tax cap proposed by Gov. Christine Gregoire wasn't enough, even though that's what voters had passed in a Tim Eyman initiative, I-747.

Jarrett said the tipping point may have come when a Republican senator told him that if he ran for the Senate and was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, "it'd be a problem in the caucus."

"My district is 70 percent pro-choice," he said. "How could I represent my district and tone down a record that I've had that has always been pro-choice?"

Hewitt said a NARAL endorsement would not have precluded Jarrett from running for the Senate as a Republican. "Fred has been a moderate for a long time, and I think people understand his politics," Hewitt said.

While Jarrett was conflicted about his party affiliation, those closest to him were not surprised when he confided he was going to become a Democrat. He says his family's response was something along the lines of, "Well, duh."

And when he told his campaign treasurer, the treasurer's wife said, "It's about time."

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattetimes.com

A Dec. 14 map showed legislative districts on the Eastside that had become Democratic as of December 2007. In the 2007 map, districts 25, 28 and 30 are supposed to be shown as split between Republican and Democratic legislators. They were incorrectly shown as Republican because of an error updating an earlier version of the map. The map was removed on Dec. 23.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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