A State Divided: As Washington Becomes More Liberal, Republicans Push Back

New liberal laws and a new senate coalition illustrate the stark east-west divide in Washington state

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Tony Overman / The Olympian / Getty Images

Same-sex couple celebrates receiving their marriage license in Olympia, Wash., on Dec. 6, 2012.

When Washington Republican state senator Bob Morton went to Olympia in 1991, he had one goal: divide the state in two. The first time he sponsored a bill to that effect, he says the committee chair thought it was a joke. The chair scheduled a hearing, thinking the bill would be laughed off. “After two paragraphs of testimony, you could hear a pin drop,” Morton said. “It doesn’t take much more than a paragraph to realize we have a problem here.” 

The problem Morton refers to is the stark divide between conservative east Washington and the liberal west. Morton, a Methodist minister, hails from the former, where Seattle is a dirty word. The district he represented for more than 20 years, before retiring in January, is tucked in the northeastern corner of the state—any further and it’d be in Idaho.

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It’s not just geography that separates the two sides—it’s everything. Roughly two-thirds of Washington state residents live on the wealthier, urban west side of the state, which is home to Microsoft, Amazon and the state’s largest public research university. With the exception of Spokane, the 10 largest cities in the state are all located in western Washington. The east side is rural, and its major industries are  farming and lumber. “We talk about a boat in eastern Washington, we’re talking about a row boat with a set of oars on it that we take fishing on the little lakes,” Morton said. “If you talk about a boat in western Washington, you’re talking about a yacht.”

To outsiders, Washington might seem to be among the most liberal states in the union. In last November’s election, the state legalized marijuana for recreational use and approved same sex marriage. Its residents have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since 1988. (In November, Barack Obama won 56.2% of the vote.) Washington elected a Democratic governor in November—as it has for most of the last 30 years. And only one Republican was elected to statewide office: Secretary of State-elect, Kim Wyman. “This is a time to be happy and free, and to be overwhelmed with a sense of our own accomplishment,” wrote Paul Constant, in a post-election column headlined “WE WON!!!” in Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger.

But while Seattleites were overjoyed at the results, the election delivered a blow to Republicans living in eastern Washington. They never expected the state to swing in favor of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but they put quite a lot of stock in the Republican candidate for governor, former attorney general Rob McKenna. “We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped,” said U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican. “We really thought we had an opportunity with Rob McKenna, but he came up short.”

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The faith Republicans had in McKenna’s chances wasn’t unrealistic. In 2004, Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, won by only 133 votes out of the 2.8 million cast. Newly elected Gov. Jay Inslee, a former Democratic congressman, carried only eight of 39 counties. All of those counties just so happen to be located within 100 miles of Seattle. “I’ve heard people say, you can stand on top of the Space Needle and see all the votes you need to get to win an election in the state,” said Scott Roberts, citizen action network director at the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based conservative think tank.

Roberts recently visited eastern Washington as part of the group’s post-election “Free WA Tour.” He often jokingly asked in his speech whether anyone was on suicide watch. “People did seem defeated,” he said. “They feel like they are beholden to the desires of Seattle.” While support for marijuana legalization was scattered throughout the state, just one county east of the Cascade Mountains supported same-sex marriage. In the first 24-hours after same-sex marriage took effect on Dec. 6, more than 450 couples applied for licenses in King County, where Seattle is located; by contrast, in Stevens County, a county in Bob Morton’s legislative district, nobody asked for a license on the first day. “That’s a good illustration of the difference in our philosophy and our basic beliefs,” Morton said.

McMorris Rodgers said the constituents in her district, which is essentially the eastern third of the state, differ from those who live on the west side of the state not just in terms of social issues, but in terms of water and land-use policy, transportation policy, health care policy and more. “The people I represent are more independent—they want to feel empowered to make decisions that they think are best for themselves and for their families,” she said. “They don’t like the federal government or the state government interfering with their ability to make those decisions and so they get offended sometimes when thepeople who live in the greater Seattle area enforce their values on those of us who live in eastern Washington.”

(MORE: America’s Coming-Out Election: How Gay Issues Became Mainstream)

Morton never succeeded in creating two Washingtons, but his party has managed to split power in the state house. In an effort to give people outside of Seattle a larger voice, two Democrats joined Republicans in December to form a 25-24 majority coalition in the state senate. Sen. Mark Schoesler, the state’s Republican leader, who represents a district that includes a series of small cities to the south and west of Spokane, says the coalition will focus on the budget, jobs and education. “We want to bring the state back to the basic priorities,” he said. “I think we should be looking at our business climate before we look at banning plastic bags.”

Sen. Rodney Tom, who represents parts of eastern King County and is one of the two Democrats to join the GOP coalition, says he hopes to restore balance. “If you look at what had transpired when the Senate Democrats were running the show, 60-70% of the committee chairs were out of Seattle,” he says. “How representative is that?”

The Senate coalition will still have to contend with the state’s House of Representatives, which is controlled by Democrats 55 to 43. But Washington’s new Senate coalition can live with that. “We can’t do anything crazy and neither can they,” says Tom, who became majority leader on Jan. 14. “It protects us from Democrats from Seattle getting in a room, drinking the same Kool-Aid and driving us off a cliff.”

PHOTOS: Snowstorm Hits Washington State

41 comments
Trillian
Trillian

I think that if the government is supposed to be run by the people, then t should be a purely percentage based decision, and if it leans left, it's left, if it leans right, it's right. The biggest issues with politicians in the country as a whole are their representation of an idea unpopular among the actual people in the country. However, in Washington, the majority of the people (not the land) do lean left and are liberal, and that's how the country should be run; by what the majority of the people think. The people upset in Eastern Washington have to understand that they live in a state where the majority of the population is liberal, so that's how the state's politics will follow.

JonathanJamesRychart
JonathanJamesRychart

Personally, I think the biggest problem is the way legislative districts are drawn up in this state. King county is solidly blue, absolutely. But Pierce, and many other west-of-the-mountains counties are actually more purple, or even red in some cases. It doesn't much matter though if the standards are changed on you at any time to keep you powerless. There's corruption in this state, and once we deal with that, it will help out A LOT.

tehphar
tehphar

to whom it may concern.. as a washington stater i would like to point out that washington isnt infact becoming more "liberal".. the word your looking for is social-libertarian.. we see the enormous value in individual rights and want the government to keep the f-out.. but at the same time realize the power of  coming together to solve a common problem.. again.. without the government restricting our freedoms.. 


"liberals" and "conservatives" are just political strawmen... 


hacks like the author of this article need to stop pushing for the kind of drama that divide us..

JoshuaEgan
JoshuaEgan

due to the east washington republicans being a bunch of children trying to get the west's attention, the largest and most important infrastructure project in southwest washington that was 15 years in the making, with almost 150 million dollars already spent, just didnt happen!! they didnt even let a vote on the thing happen because they were too tired from hating the democrats!!! now my city is going to stagnate for the next 20 years while we draw up a new iteration of the project and finally get building! the state just needs to send some hippie bombs to a couple of east wash. counties so we can keep moving foreword!

JeffW
JeffW

Growing up between both parts of the state, I know that everything in this article is absolutely true. 

When living on the west side, you can see plain as day that the majority of the state's tax dollars are funneled into the Puget Sound area. Most of the infrastructure is brand new, there are lots of "experimental" transportation schemes (Seatac monorail comes to mind), lots of public art and beautification, well-maintained parks, etc. Puget Sound and the west side of the state overall receives preferential treatment both in spending and in direct attention from state representatives, the governor, etc.

When living on the east side, the majority of roads are brittle, dry, and cracked; some seemingly poured and left to survive on their own since the Eisenhower era. Police presence was sorely lacking in many places. In some parts of rural eastern Washington, the state feels and looks like some of the poorest regions of the southwest.

Far too many people on either side have nothing in common with those of the other.

I live on the west for employment reasons, but I hope to one day live back on the east side again. To be honest, given the politiciains that Washington continually elects, I much prefer their level of involvement with that side of the state.

Oregon (east) and California (north) have basically the same thing going on.

wasucks
wasucks

Washington sucks. Anyone heard of CHINS?????

Your child can petition the state to go live with someone else for almost the most PIDDLY little things. Like hair color for example and over cereal and chicken nuggets.

My friend is about to loose her daughter for 9 months because of CHINS.   She is a single mom working her butt off and her little brat wants to live with her older sister who just wants the child support. 

Eastern Washington needs to secede from the state and become part of NorthWest Idaho.   We welcome you.  We share the same values as you.  We don't have chins.  The state wont take your kid away for hair color or nuggets.


SusanFermanAustin
SusanFermanAustin

Uh, wait...McMorris Rogers says that people on the east side of the state are are more independent—they want to feel empowered to make decisions that they think are best for themselves and for their families,” yet she stands firm *against* same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana? 

She also "represents" Pullman and the rest of Whitman County who voted in favor of both marriage equality and legalizing marijuana...except that she consistently totally ignores what Pullman voters want, in favor of toeing the Republican party line.  Which may please her ultra-conservative rural voters, but is in no way, shape or form representing--or even caring about--her constituents in Pullman.


DougMartin
DougMartin

Population and area?  Does anyone remember a little document called the Bill of Rights or another one called the Constitution?  The mistake I am repeatedly seeing in this column is the impression (I won't dignify it with the word "thought") that a "majority" should be able to take away your personal liberties via a vote.  These two documents were crafted specifically to protect our individual freedoms.  Unfortunately, over the last two decades, it appears that what we consider "personal freedoms" has undergone a significant change... at least as they are defined by the Liberal Courts (e.g. 9th circuit)... such as the Right to Freely Participate in an Election;  Own property;  the fruits of your own labor;  who you choose to do business with; the right to family and the list is growing.  And what is sad is that we are buying into these changes in many instances based on opinion amplified by emotion masquerading as "research."  

Let's STAY FREE!



LokHupBaFa
LokHupBaFa

Same thing in Oregon -- the East side hates Eugene/Portland.  But they have another problem -- the Eastern Farming counties are aging much faster than the rest of the state, and losing population.  Except in Bend which briefly became a retirement area for old Californian's who wanted to retire to a  more "white" state.

Because they are losing population, they can't pay for their own schools, we subsidize them.. they can't pay for enough public safety, and meth heads have moved in, and in the forest - gangs growing pot.... The rural areas have alot of crime/drugs and teenagers who can't wait to move far, far away..

YesterdaysWine
YesterdaysWine

Isn't it funny how the radical right wingers are the ones accusing others of "drinking the Kool-Aide"? They love America and democracy as long as it goes their way, then they rant about secession and personal empowerment. Have no problem forcing their fake so-called Christian values on others, though. Bigots, hypocrites and anti-Americans who can now add cry-babies and sore losers to their raft of awards.

alVin
alVin

I'm sorry, but blah blah blah.

It's all about democracy. He who has the most votes wins. One person, one vote. It's as simple as that. Most of this country, GEOGRAPHICALLY, could right now say pretty much the same thing as those conservatives living east of the cascades in WA. But it isn't about how much land is controlled, or where, it's about HOW MANY OF YOU THERE ARE.

"What kind of representation is THIS?" Well, what about those liberals who live in the eastern half of the state? How well are THEY being represented? I'll tell you: They are "represented" perfectly...because being represented doesn't mean you're going to win even a small part of the time. All it means is you're able to cast a vote for the candidates of your choice. It doesn't mean he or she is going to win, and it doesn't mean you're ever going to get your way.

It simply can't be legitimately argued that folks living in eastern WA are somehow not getting a fair shake. They just happen to be on the wrong "side", that's all.

PeterPrinciple
PeterPrinciple

If the rednecks in eastern Washington think we're going to give them a new red state - and two more reactionary US Senators -- they can fuggetaboutit. I might be willing to let them join Idaho, though.

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

I live in eastern Washington and stay here because I have one of the very few good jobs.  Washington is most definitely divided - an educated, enlightened population on the west side and rural rubes on the east side where stupidity abounds.  As soon as I'm able to retire, I'm outta here.

SuzanneMorss
SuzanneMorss

Sorry, but representation by population is how it works.  Just because you're a whining conservative doesn't mean you get more sway than anyone else.

TheDisclosure
TheDisclosure

Do away with the gangs, take democrat and republican off of the ballot. Vote Jesse Ventura 2016!

DLDick
DLDick

Senator Tom is from Mercer Island, the weathiest enclave in the state, which is in eastern King County on the west side of the state and adjoining Seattle. He is definitely not from eastern Washington nor in any stretch of the imagination could be considered representing the conservative wheat farmers or ranchers there.

The Republicans in the State Senate have chosen Tom, a turncoat Democrat, to lead them. The Democrats rightly no longer trust or respect him. Republican or Democrat, whose values and interests do you think Tom really represents, other than his own?

retrogrouch
retrogrouch

And much like in the country at large, the blue half of the state heavily subsidizes the red eastern part. But this is not widely known while the Eastern part rants about taxes going to the cities, welfare, etc. they are actually heavily subsidized by the higher income concentrated western portion. Similarly the anti-government sentiment in the east ignores that its wheat and apple farming are all made possible by the federal Gran Coulee damn and the irrigation and power it delivers. And then there's the aluminum industry that set up there because of the cheap power provided by damns thru the Bonneville Power Administration.And of those that don't grow irrigated crops (or live off those who do), or the aluminum industry,  a large percentage work on the Hanford Nuclear projects and its cleanup.The eastern state can't own up to the fact they are heavilyu subsidized and dependent on federal dollars and dollars from the western portion. If they actually understood the real basis of their economy and life style, they wouldn't dream of killing the goose by seeking secession.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

"In the first 24-hours after same-sex marriage took effect on Dec. 6, more than 450 couples applied for licenses in King County, where Seattle is located; by contrast, in Stevens County, a county in Bob Morton’s legislative district, nobody asked for a license on the first day. “That’s a good illustration of the difference in our philosophy and our basic beliefs,” Morton said."

"The people I represent are more independent—they want to feel empowered to make decisions that they think are best for themselves and for their families,” she said. “They don’t like the federal government or the state government interfering with their ability to make those decisions and so they get offended sometimes when the people who live in the greater Seattle area enforce their values on those of us who live in eastern Washington.”"

These two quotes sum up the whole problem with our neighbors on the east side of the Cascades. You can't be "independent" and "empowered to make decisions" for yourself if you deny rights to people who think differently than you. Of course nobody in Stevens County signed up for gay marriage the first day. They'd likely be run out of town or ostracized from their families and friends. And you can't tell me there's not at least two gay people in Stevens County who don't want to get married. That's just denial.

JonathanJamesRychart
JonathanJamesRychart

@tehphar  It's both. Washington as a whole is becoming more libertarian, but I still don't think I'd count Seattle as part of that. If a Seattleite ever supports real elimination of corporate welfare, etc. maybe I'll change my mind. They're died in the wool democrats, not libertarians, or even liberals, in the classical sense. Libertarian marijuana legalization, for example, wouldn't be state controlled, but totally free. Libertarians likely wouldn't be supporting constant hikes in sales tax either, and wouldn't be pushing for an income tax at all like some of these seattle fools want. I want to agree with you, but I just can't see it, not yet at least.

Trillian
Trillian

@wasucks  So your entire argument for Washington being terrible is CHINS? I think you may need to read a bit more. 

JonathanJamesRychart
JonathanJamesRychart

@wasucks  Or become its own state. Too many differences from both western washington and idaho. I doubt eastern washingtonians would want your income tax, for example.

JonathanJamesRychart
JonathanJamesRychart

@SusanFermanAustin  It's politics. Pretending either "side" isn't playing it is dishonest. The east votes for whatever republicans support and the west for whatever democrats support. Neither one is being independent-minded.

Kayley
Kayley

@DougMartin We are a Democracy. Democracy = majority rules. I think what you're thinking of is anarchy. Which is a totally legitimate political system, but it's not what we have in this country. If you want an anarchical society, I suggest you find an uninhabited island and create your own country with no laws and no government. Complete and utter freedom. You could even let the free market negotiate everything, if you'd like, from plasma screen televisions to healthcare and education. Sure, you may have a huge divide between the rich and the poor, and sure your poor people will live awful, miserable lives, but at least you will be free. I don't want anarchy here, though. I believe that it is our duty to help educate and heal our fellow human beings, however poor they may be. 

JonathanJamesRychart
JonathanJamesRychart

@LokHupBaFa  Eastern oregon also has hardly anybody living in it. While eastern washington is much less dense than the west, it's not even close to being like it is in oregon. There is nothing close to being like spokane, or even yakima, in eastern oregon that I know of.

theone22
theone22

Maybe you should read the whole article again...The person that made the comment about "drinking the kool-aid" was Sen. Tom a DEMOCRAT from King County. READ before commenting or you look like the fool you must be.

alVin
alVin

@PeterPrinciple I could definitely support a larger Idaho. I don't know why the easties would want that, I mean they wouldn't gain much from it...but maybe it would make them feel better.

GlenWatson
GlenWatson

Actually no, the founding fathers of our country saw no wisdom in this.  That is why they created the the two housed of congress one based on population and one on equal representation(Senate).  That is why we have Electorial college, so there is more representational of an area instead of a population center.

PeterPrinciple
PeterPrinciple

@DLDick LOL. Calling Mercer Island "Eastern King County" is like calling Malibu "Western LA County"

Dachman
Dachman

What rights were denied? "They would likely be run out of town"...how do you know this?

HenryMajor
HenryMajor

@mtngoatjoe Or they had already all moved to Seattle years ago. People who stay in regions such as eastern Washington state are either afraid of living in a city or have a job out there. 

JonathanJamesRychart
JonathanJamesRychart

@Kayley @DougMartin  We don't live in a deomocracy; we live in a democratic republic. That's intentional. Republics are governments of LAW. Purist democracies are much closer to anarchy, whatever everybody wants is what happens, regardless of rights or procedure or anything else. Democracy is a tool to influence written law in this country, it is not itself law. I suggest you do some learning...

DougMartin
DougMartin

@Kayley @DougMartin  Kayley:

 Do you also believe "might makes right?"  Yes, we live in a democracy, but what keeps us free as a people, what protects our democracy from being reduced to the level of "might makes right" is our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.  If a majority of the people decided by a vote that we should all become Muslim... or Christian... or atheist... the majority would not prevail because of your individual right to worship - or not to worship.  The same applies to property.  If a majority of the citizens vote to surrender their property, or their guns or their children or even their rights... again, yours are protected.  Without the Bill of Rights... your democracy is reduced to being a simple bully.  Before you espouse something as naive as "democracy = majority rules" spend a little time reading U.S. History.  Maybe take a class or two in political science.  Spend a little time reading something other than Socialist Propaganda. 

JoshuaEgan
JoshuaEgan

@theone22 just because he has a D in front of his name does not make him liberal. there are conservative democrats in washington. 

SuzanneMorss
SuzanneMorss

@GlenWatson I knew someone would call me on this...there are 49 districts in WA state, with 2 house representatives each, and 1 senator.  So, unlike the federal house, there are many (49) state senators who represent their districts.  At the end of the day, It's all about how the districts are drawn.  http://app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder/  They are still getting fair representation, but it does not work exactly like the federal level.  You can see from the map that Eastern WA has much less representation than Western WA.  http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rosters/Members.aspx?Chamber=S

DLDick
DLDick

@PeterPrinciple @DLDick You are correct. Mercer Island, Medina, the east side of Lake Washington are all on the western end of King County. Does anyone even live in the east end of the county in the national forest? Point is Tom is from the west side and hardly represents the conservative east side of the state. Republicans, even the moneyed conservatives on the east side of Lake Washington must be pretty desperate to put so much trust in this bedfellow. 

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@DachmanAdmittedly, my comment is a bit of an exaggeration. But we all know it's tougher for gays to live in small, rural towns than in big cities. I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule, but as the vote for Same Sex Marriage in Washington shows, our rural cousins are not as supportive of non-mainstream lifestyles. My "guess" is that there are more than a few gay people in Stevens County, but I doubt they don't feel real safe showing up on at the courthouse on day 1 to get a marriage license.

SuzanneMorss
SuzanneMorss

@alVin @SuzanneMorss @GlenWatson Representation happens two ways - by populace, and by land area.  There is less representation by populace in Eastern WA, but equal representation by land area.  I'm not disputing the logic of it, just explaining the facts.

alVin
alVin

@SuzanneMorss @GlenWatson They don't have "less representation". They have fewer people period. They are represented exactly as well as anyone living on the west side.

SuzanneMorss
SuzanneMorss

@GlenWatson * I'll also add that district boundaries change from time to time, state boundaries are static.  You cannot really compare the two systems to each other.