As new congressional maps drop, a look at how we got the current map
Needy incumbents, new district drove 2011 compromise
With the Washington Redistricting Commission due to unveil its first set of proposals to redraw the state’s congressional districts today, we’re looking back at how we got the current map. It’s a story of needy incumbents, a new district tailored for a veteran pol, and a gamble that ultimately paid off for Democrats.
Here’s why you should care about an arcane, largely opaque process that played out a decade ago: That same process is underway right now, and understanding what happened then illuminates what’s going on now.
When the 2011 commission sat down to draw new districts based on the results of the 2010 census, the map looked like this:
Proceeding from east to west, the 5th and 4th Districts in Eastern Washington were much as they are today, solidly Republican since then-House Speaker Tom Foley and some guy named Jay Inslee lost them in the Republican Revolution of 1994. Cathy McMorris, then as now, held the Spokane-centered 5th, while Doc Hastings, who beat Inslee in 1994, was entrenched in the 4th.
The 8th District, then precariously held by Republican Dave Reichert, stretched through East King County from Lake Washington to the crest of the Cascades.
The D-leaning swing 3rd District, wrested from the Democrats in the 2010 midterms by Republican Jaime Herrera-Beutler, reached from Olympia to Vancouver and out to the Southwest Washington coast.
The 2nd District in the northwest corner of the state was Democratic, but not enough for Rep. Rick Larsen to safely ignore the legit challengers he faced every two years.
In central Puget Sound, Inslee, who had sensibly moved to Bainbridge Island after his defeat in 1994, occupied the safe 1st District, which draped like a cozy fleece scarf made from recycled soda bottles across the affluent suburbs north of Seattle and over the Sound to Bainbridge Island.
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The 7th, which was mostly Seattle proper, was much as it is today, encompassing the city itself and Vashon Island.
Further south, the 9th, represented since 1996 by moderate Democrat Adam Smith reached from just north of Olympia to Renton, encompassing Joint Base Lewis McChord and the surrounding communities in Pierce and Thurston counties.
Longtime Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, the godfather of the delegation, maintained his stronghold in the 6th, sprawling from Tacoma to the Olympic Peninsula and Grays Harbor, then still solidly Democratic in a conservative, blue-collar kind of way.
But Washington was coming off a decade of explosive growth, and it was due a 10th seat. The questions confronting Washington’s four redistricting commissioners were where to put it and how to redraw the other nine districts accordingly?
Those commissioners, Democrats Dean Foster and Tim Ceis and Republicans Slade Gorton, a former U.S. Senator, and Tom Huff, both of whom have since died, faced a variety of vocal stakeholders. The incumbent House members, especially Larsen, wanted safer districts where they couldn’t be swept out by a wave election. Democratic activists wanted a majority-minority district in the increasingly diverse communities just south of Seattle.
And Denny Heck, the former majority leader of the Washington House, longtime Olympia power broker, and a close friend of Foster wanted the new 10th tailored for him. Heck, now the lieutenant governor, was still stinging from his 2010 loss to Herrera-Beutler in a district that Democrat Brian Baird held for a dozen years.
Unlike most other states, where redistricting is a partisan exercise controlled by the party with the majority in the Legislature, Washington’s process is nominally bipartisan in that three of four commissioners have to vote for the final map. So they had to cut a deal to balance all their demands. Happily, the Observer knows some folks who know some things about how that deal went down, so we can shed a little retroactive light.
Here’s what that deal looked like:
Because Inslee was running for governor, the existing 1st District could be sacrificed, which allowed Larsen’s 2nd District to move further south into the suburbs and west of Interstate 5, making it thoroughly safe. He hasn’t faced a legitimate challenge since.
Reichert’s 8th District gave up the increasingly Democratic east shore of Lake Washington and pushed east across the Cascades to take in Chelan and Kittitas counties. That made him safe until his retirement in 2018. The shifting demographics of the district finally caught up with the GOP that year when a wave of loathing for Donald Trump helped Kim Schrier become the first Democrat to win the district in its history.
Herrera-Beutler’s 3rd District lost liberal Olympia and moved east to take in rural Klickitat County. That helped her fend off Democratic challengers even in the blue wave year of 2018.
Heck got his tailored 10th in Thurston and Pierce counties, which he won easily the next year and held until he gave it up last year to run for lieutenant governor. His retirement, in which he cited weariness with the partisan rancor of the other Washington, has to be counted as a minor loss for Democrats because he didn’t stay long enough to become the kind of ruthlessly powerful player that everyone should want in their congressperson.
Democrats got their majority-minority district in the form of the new 9th which moved north to capture some of the old 8th. Smith, despite being perhaps the whitest dude imaginable, wound up keeping it, thanks to some interesting dynamics in Seattle’s 7th. Longtime Rep. Jim McDermott, among the most liberal members of the U.S. House, elected to retire rather than face a 2016 primary challenge from Brady Walkinshaw, now a member of the current redistricting commission. Then Pramila Jayapal got into the primary against Walkinshaw rather than challenge Smith in the new 9th (where she then lived). Smith endorsed Jayapal with breathtaking speed and she went on to beat Walkinshaw handily.
Dicks also elected not to run again in a redrawn but still friendly 6th District, which Democrat Derek Kilmer won in 2012 and still holds today.
In the end, the big gamble for both sides was the new 1st District, which stretches from Microsoft-land in northeast King County all the way to the Canadian border on the east side of the freeway, including less populated and more conservative swaths of Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom Counties. It was drawn as a Republican-leaning swing district, which caused all manner of consternation in Democratic political circles at the time.
Democratic activists and operatives groused that the Democratic commissioners had been snookered by the famously strategic Gorton, gullibly agreeing to pack most of their voters into four safe districts — the 2nd, 7th, 9th, and 10th — while ceding two districts — the 3rd and 8th — to the Republicans and creating a new 1st winnable by the GOP.
But the political dice didn’t fall the Republicans way. The 2012 cycle turned out to feature a series of sexist gaffes by GOP candidates around the country, and the party’s candidate in the 1st, Snohomish County Councilmember John Koster, was among them.
Koster had a hard-line conservative stance on abortion, opposing it even in cases of rape or incest. In the waning days of the campaign, an off-the-cuff reference from Koster referring to “the rape thing” went viral.
The national Republican money dried up for him, while Democrat Suzan DelBene had boatloads of national Democratic and pro-abortion-rights cash behind her. DelBene won easily with nearly 54 percent of the vote. She has held the seat with relative ease since then, cushioned by growth in the affluent but increasingly progressive suburban end of the district.
Among the harshest critics of Koster’s campaign afterward was Slade Gorton, who was no doubt bitterly disappointed to see his gambit foiled by poor execution. Today the delegation stands at 7-3 for the Democrats. Before the 2011 redistricting, it was 5-4.
More irksome errata
In yesterday’s item about the wake for the press houses, we made a couple of mistakes:
Associated Press Correspondent Rachel La Corte is the only current occupant of the houses who has made the move to the new space in the Legislative Building; the others are still working there for the time being. So they’re not quite empty yet.
Also, La Corte took over the Olympia bureau in January of 2005, not in 2004, which your correspondent should have remembered since he was her editor at the time. She came from the Miami AP bureau, which was unwilling to let her go ahead of the 2004 election.
And to clarify, she arrived to supervise the same comparatively robust staff — two year-round experienced reporters and a — usually — promising temporary staffer when the Legislature was in session. Since then, her staff has dwindled away as the AP largely gutted its domestic reporting corps.
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