Redistricting gets underway with some hardball maps
Four partisan proposals kick off negotiations for a final map
The Washington Redistricting Commission dropped its first set of proposed maps on Tuesday, and for those of us who enjoy a good hardball gerrymandering story, there was all manner of fun to be had.
Unlike many other states, where redistricting is a partisan process dictated by whichever party controls the Legislature, Washington has a technically nonpartisan commission in which each of the four caucuses appoints a member. Three of them have to agree on a final map that rebalances the population of the state’s 49 legislative districts and 10 congressional districts. So it’s only kinda-sorta nonpartisan, with the members angling for much more subtle gains than the brute power plays you see elsewhere.
But all that making nice, deal-cutting, and compromising happen later. The four initial draft maps are a kind of a here’s-how-I-would-screw-you exercise to draw the battle lines. As one veteran of the redistricting process told us: “There are some hostages being taken.”
Here’s why you should care about this. While it’s unlikely that these aggressive suggestions make it onto the final map, the initial proposals are the start of a traditionally opaque process that the Observer hopes to shed some light on in the coming weeks.
Since your correspondent is a Vashon Islander, let’s start there. The map proposed by former state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, who represents the Senate Democrats, moves the overwhelmingly Democratic island from the 34th District (mostly West Seattle) to the 26th District (Kitsap County, from Gig Harbor north to part of Bremerton).1 Walkinshaw also moves the 26th north to grab all of Bremerton.
This would have the effect of protecting first-term Democratic Sen. Emily Randall, an unabashed progressive who narrowly won the 26th, currently a swing district, in 2018. It would also strand her erstwhile opponent, conservative Republican Rep. Jesse Young, in a redrawn 27th District that includes his home turf in Gig Harbor but also the northern part of solidly Democratic Tacoma currently represented by House Speaker Laurie Jinkins and House Transportation Chair Jake Fey. (Sen. Jeannie Darnielle just resigned to take a job at the Department of Corrections.)
Partisan politics aside, there’s also a wholesome, good-government argument for doing this: to unify the city of Bremerton in a single district, which is generally considered a good practice, and something that many folks from Bremerton are clamoring for. But make no mistake, this is an opening gambit in a complex chess game aimed at maintaining — or perhaps strengthening — the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.
The competing map drawn by former state Sen. Joe Fain, who represents the Senate Republicans, unifies Bremerton in a completely different way. Fain would push the 26th south and west, away from Bremerton, leaving Randall’s home outside the district and making it more Republican and a riper target for Young next year. He then gives all of Bremerton to the 23rd District, which currently covers the northern part of Kitsap County, including Bainbridge Island.
To make room for Bremerton, Fain gives Bainbridge Island to the 36th District, which is currently entirely within the city of Seattle, covering downtown and most of the northwest quadrant of the city. That would put Senate Ways and Means Chair Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island in the same district as Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, chair of the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee. Wouldn’t that be a fun primary?
Former state Rep. Paul Graves, representing the House Republican caucus, does something similar with the 26th and 23rd Districts, but he gives Bainbridge to an almost entirely new 43rd District (currently Capitol Hill, the University District, and adjacent parts of central Seattle) that would include downtown and the northern part of West Seattle.2 Graves’ proposal, which is focused on creating as many competitive districts as possible, is the most aggressive when it comes to displacing incumbents, ousting 22 sitting lawmakers, mostly Democrats.3
Another battleground in the process is shaping up in the northwest corner of the state, where Democrats in recent years have seized both house seats in the formerly Republican 42nd District, largely due to the increasingly Democratic slice of Bellingham in the district, which covers most of the rural parts of Whatcom County. Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen narrowly survived a tough challenge in 2018 and is considered highly vulnerable.
Both Republican maps would carve Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, out of the district and make it more favorable for Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and more hostile for first-term Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine. The district’s politics have for many years been dominated by the presence of its massive oil refineries, something we wrote about earlier this year.
The Democrats’ maps for that part of the state, meanwhile, look like an even more aggressive play. They dramatically shrink the land area of the 42nd and push it deeper into Bellingham proper to make Shewmake and Rule safe. Then they completely redraw the 40th (part of Bellingham, Anacortes, Mount Vernon, and the San Juan Islands, currently solidly Democratic) and the 10th (Whidbey and Camano Islands plus a conservative swath of rural Skagit County, currently a Republican-leaning swing district) to create three Democratic districts where previously only one existed.
In Eastern Washington, both Democratic maps seek to create a new majority-Hispanic district based on the city of Yakima, which is currently divided between the 14th and 15th Districts, both represented entirely by Republicans. In the version drafted by April Sims, the secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council who represents House Democrats, the 15th would have about 114,000 Hispanic and Native American residents, and around 55,000 white residents. On the map, it looks like a kind of donut hole, almost entirely surrounded by the 14th, with more than 112,000 white residents and less than 40,000 Hispanics.
Sims’ proposal creates nine districts with majorities of people of color and draws 14 incumbents out of their districts.
Historically, Washington’s redistricting process has served to protect incumbents rather than displace them, especially in districts where one party holds all three seats. So don’t look for too many of the more aggressive attempts to redraw the map to make it into the final version.
The commission plans to unveil proposed maps for the state’s 10 congressional districts on Sept. 28.
Our canine correspondent, patiently waiting for the ferry
Vashonites would no doubt be divided over this prospect. The island is part of King County, like the rest of the 34th District, and many residents commute to Seattle by ferry. But much of the island’s workforce and commerce comes from Kitsap and Pierce Counties, and many islanders look askance at Seattle’s politics.
Districts are supposed to represent “communities of interest” as much as possible. The proposals from both Fain and Graves observe at least the letter of this idea by including both ends of the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry, which carries thousands of island commuters into downtown each day.
Democrats enjoy a significant structural advantage statewide, as evidenced by the lopsided results in last year’s presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. That incentivizes Republicans to scramble the map in search of tactically advantageous districts.