Swingtown, WA

The Eastside suburb of Issaquah has proven to be a bellwether for presidential, gubernatorial, and senatorial races. And this year, Democrats seem to have the advantage.

While everybody wants to know who is going to be Washington's choice for president, U.S. senator, and governor in November's election, Issaquah already knows. While most of us live in places filled with like-minded people, Issaquah is filled with Democrats, Republicans, and independents. This little city of 15,110, 17 miles east of Seattle on Interstate 90, is the swingingest place imaginable when it comes to state politics.

The normal political calculus in Washington is fairly simple: Democrats win the cities and Republicans win the rural areas. To see just how polarized our state's politics have become, consider a recent poll by Moore Information: In Seattle, Democrat John Kerry enjoyed 77 percent support while President Bush could only boast 9 percent. The odds are equally dismal for Kerry in Washington's rural areas.

The real fight this fall will be over Seattle's suburbs. What makes Issaquah stand out amidst the Cascade foothills sprawl? It picks winners. In major elections going back to 1992, Issaquah has voted for winning candidates for president, for U.S. Senate, for governor, and for the 8th District congressional seat. Sometimes Issaquah has voted for Democrats, sometimes Republicans.

What do Al Gore, Slade Gorton, Patty Murray, and Jennifer Dunn have in common? Not much, but Issaquah voted for all of them. And when Issaquah voted for them, they won among Washington state voters.

Issaquah is fickle. For years, the city voted for Republican Rod Chandler in his races for the U.S. House of Representatives, and he won the overall voting in the 8th District, which stretches from Bellevue down through the Kent Valley, all the way into rural Pierce County. When Chandler tried to move up to the U.S. Senate in 1992, however, Issaquah chose Patty Murray, the mom in tennis shoes. Of course, she won the state.

Issaquah really liked Democrats in 1992, supporting Bill Clinton for president, Murray for the Senate, and Mike Lowry for governor. Two years later, Issaquah decided to stand by conservative Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, even though he was opposed by King County's own Ron Sims. Six years later, however, Issaquah had had enough of Slade and chose high-tech exec and New Democrat Maria Cantwell for the Senate. While Issaquah has, since 1992, chosen Democrats like Clinton and Gore for president and Lowry and Gary Locke for governor, it has consistently favored Republican Jennifer Dunn for Congress in that same period.

What is it with this place? The city votes for big government liberals like Lowry and Murray and corporate conservatives like Gorton and Dunn. Can't Issaquah make up its mind? Is it something in the water?

And how is Issaquah going to vote this fall in an election that is one of the most fiercely contested in American history—an election that has pollsters across the country noting the stark polarization of American voters into practically equal, warring, hostile camps?

Suburban Melting Pot

A congested Front Street in Issaquah.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Issaquah started out as the city of Gilman in 1892. Seven years later, the name was changed, although local historians aren't clear as to why. City scholars agree that the name Issaquah is the settlers' adaptation of a Native American word, but no one knows what it means. In the early years, Issaquah was home to sawmills, dairy farms, and productive coal mines, which attracted a railroad depot. In 1968, I-90 arrived, splitting the town in two and destroying the historic Pickering Farm—home of Washington's fifth territorial governor, William Pickering. But I-90 also made possible Issaquah's development as a suburban commercial and retail powerhouse.

Today, Issaquah is a place that combines old and new in a way that seems effortless to its inhabitants and weird to outsiders. Unlike other suburbs east of Lake Washington, Issaquah has a strong sense of place. Preservationists have done a wonderful job with the old train depot that anchors downtown's lovely central piazza, which also includes a pocket park and playground and an attractive new $12.8 million brick city hall. Just up the street, there's an airy, busy, new King County library and the state's most visited salmon hatchery. On the other side of I-90, the city has preserved the central dairy barn of the old Pickering Farm. The red building, with its old, gorgeous beams, surrounded by cottonwoods and willows, reminds visitors of just how beautiful this place must have been at one time. Throughout Issaquah, the history of the region is palpable.

Costco President and lifelong Democrat Jim Sinegal.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Issaquah is not, however, frozen in time. On either side of I-90, acres of horribly ugly strip malls and sprawling office complexes have sprung up. Big-box retail abounds. The largest employer in Issaquah is Costco. The company's world headquarters, with 2,500 employees, is on what used to be the Pickering Farm property. Right next door is Costco's flagship warehouse, at 150,000 square feet a mammoth structure bigger than the normal 130,000-square-foot store. While Costco's average warehouse does $100 million a year in sales, the Issaquah store does $200 million. Costco President Jim Sinegal is a lifelong Democrat and one of the top political givers in the state. He and his wife have given at least $203,000 to Democratic federal candidates and causes in this election cycle. Sinegal says his company wasn't sure Issaquah was going to be big enough to support the flagship warehouse when it opened in 1994. The company has been quite pleased with the results.

The center of town might be quaint, but the traffic is a nightmare. The town's main drag, Front Street, is bumper-to-bumper anytime, day or night, that I have been there. The town's central crosswalk has big signs and little orange flags available for pedestrians to use as they cross the street. The combination of all the excess and convenience of suburban mega­consumption with historic preservation is undoubtedly what makes Issaquah attractive to its many varieties of voter.

And the city's demographics are getting more variegated as it develops. Two new large planned communities—Issaquah Highlands and Talus—both feature the density of a city in a suburban setting and will likely draw a different population than the standard suburban subdivision. Issaquah is 85 percent white, but ethnic diversity is developing with an increase in the Latino population. Once you get to know Issaquah, it begins to make sense that voting patterns are heterogeneous. The city itself is a suburban melting pot.

Nail Your Mailbox Shut!

Political professionals are well aware of the opportunity in the swinging nature of Eastside politics generally and Issaquah in particular. "The most volatile parts of the electorate are east of Lake Washington," says Democratic political consultant Christian Sinderman. "Every campaign in the state is focusing on these areas."

The key races are the Bush-Kerry match for president; the Senate race between popular incumbent Democrat Murray and Spokane's Republican U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt; the governor's race between state Attorney General Christine Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims, both Democrats, and presumptive Republican nominee and former state Sen. Dino Rossi; and the 8th Congressional District seat being vacated by Dunn, whose departure has drawn a number of strong Democratic and Republican candidates. Issaquah is not only in the thick of the 8th District, it's in a pivotal area for statewide contests. Sinderman says, "If you are an unaligned voter in Issaquah, you are going to nail your mailbox closed because you are going to get so much mail this year."

Washington State Republican Party Chair Chris Vance describes the kind of voter who will be up for grabs this fall: "Married, 41 years old, college educated, white, suburban woman, who may or may not work outside the home, fiscally conservative, but they are worried about the war. They would not get an abortion, but they're not sure the government should stop someone from having one. They loved Jennifer Dunn but didn't like Pat Buchanan. They are ticket splitters. They voted for Gary Locke twice. There is a decisive chunk of the electorate that swings back and forth. I don't get it, but they are very conflicted. These voters are smart. They want to elect people who are smart. Issaquah is that kind of community."

More evidence of Issaquah's political importance came during this summer's two presidential visits. First, when President Bush got off the plane at Boeing Field, Issaquah's Nadine Gulit was the first person to greet him. Gulit is the organizer of Operation Support Our Troops, a group dedicated to backing soldiers and keeping war protesters away from military bases. A few weeks later, former President Bill Clinton's first book signing in the state was in Issaquah at the Costco flagship warehouse. Over 1,500 people, including some who waited more than 12 hours, mobbed the store, according to The Seattle Times.

Of course, while partisans agree on the fact that Issaquah and neighboring areas are a political linchpin, they disagree on how Eastsiders will vote this fall. Moxie Media's John Wyble, a Democratic consultant, thinks the entire area is trending his way. "It's the combination of professionals and working women that have moved to the Democrats," claims Wyble. He believes the political realignment of these groups, combined with current events, is helping his party. "The national stuff will create a wave, and right now it's moving Democratic." The buzz is growing among Democratic politicians, party operatives, and the liberal chattering classes: This is going to be a big Democratic year because the war in Iraq has damaged an already unpopular president. Says Washington State Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt: "Bush seems like a wounded president. There are so many Democrats whose blood is boiling that I am employing a full-court press. We want to stem the erosion of the rural areas. If we attack their base, they won't be able to make trouble for us in the suburbs."

Even some Republicans confess they're worried. Says former 8th District U.S. Rep. Chandler: "Right now, you have to have a hunch this is going to be a good year for Democrats."

While most Republicans are not conceding much, none of them is talking about a big breakout year for the GOP. State GOP Chair Vance says, "My friends and neighbors are really struggling. They are affected by events on the ground in Iraq." He quickly adds, "The economy and Iraq—those two issues dwarf everything else." While he is nervous about the war's effect on the voters in the presidential race, he is more confident that the Republicans' gubernatorial standard-bearer, Rossi, can use the lousy economy to his advantage. "Dino is going to run against 20 years of liberal policies that have made Washington one of the most unfriendly places to do business."

Republican consultant Bret Bader, who is helping state Sen. Luke Esser's bid for the 8th District congressional seat, says confidently, "I am the suburbs!" Bader claims, "The suburbs will remain the battleground they've been, and that battleground will be ground zero for Dino Rossi, George Nethercutt, and now Jennifer Dunn's seat." Like Vance, Bader allows, "Bush is in a little bit of trouble." But he doesn't see the unpopularity of the war in Iraq as decisive. "Very few people are voting on that as their only issue." He sees jobs as the No. 1 issue and thinks Republicans can exploit that.

Confident, Worried, Cranky

Still, in Issaquah the dynamics don't look good for Republicans. Whether in the old town center or the new planned communities, among the party faithful or the rural denizens, everywhere Democrats are confident, Republicans are worried, and independents are cranky.

In the first week of June, two political kickoffs in Issaquah presented the opportunity to take the pulse of partisans. Repub­lican state Rep. Glenn Anderson represents the 5th Legislative District that includes most, but not all, of the precincts in Issaquah. His challenger, Democrat Barb deMichele, just finished two terms as a member of the Issaquah School Board.

On June 2, deMichele held her kickoff at the old Pickering Barn. Her consultant, Wyble, was buoyed by the 60-person turnout. "If you tried to do this event four years ago, you would have had 10 people," says Wyble. "People didn't want to admit they were Democrats. Now it looks like Capitol Hill!" He's referring, of course, to the liberal Seattle neighborhood, not the seat of government in D.C., and he was exaggerating some. Maybe it looked like a cocktail party on north Capitol Hill, where homes and incomes are big. The crowd was mostly well dressed, middle-aged, professional; there were a couple of men with beards and ponytails, but no visible tattoos or piercings.

But Wyble's argument of Democratic growth in the area is undeniably true. Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger is a longtime observer of the city's political life, and although the office she holds is nonpartisan, she's a Democrat. Frisinger says she was wowed by the turnout at this year's Democratic caucuses, "the largest I've ever seen. They were motivated by the war in Iraq."

Democratic state Rep. Judy Clibborn echoes Frisinger. Representing part of Issaquah in her 41st Legislative District, Clibborn has been doorbelling. "There's a lot of focus on the national races," she says. "People are not real happy with the way things are going."

The city's big annual event is the Issaquah Salmon Days Festival that draws 150,000 people in October. Republicans have had a booth at the event for as long as GOP campaigner and Issaquah native Dan Brady can remember. "The Democrats didn't use to have a booth. They have one now," he says glumly.

Two nights after deMichele's campaign kickoff, GOP incumbent Anderson held his event at the old train depot. Although Anderson co-hosted the kickoff with the 5th District's other GOP state representative, Jay Rodne, there were only about half as many people in attendance compared with Democract deMichele's event. Anderson and Rodne had two other campaign kickoffs in different parts of the district, but for two GOP incumbents to draw half as many people as a single Democratic challenger does not portend a great Republican year.

There were a couple of guys in fancy suits and a few country-club types, and there were no men sporting beards or ponytails, but most of the people at Anderson and Rodne's event were indistinguishable from deMichele's crowd. Nearly everyone seemed to be a precinct committee officer, however—in other words, hard-core party activists—while at deMichele's event there were more regular folks. People were passionately in favor of the war in Iraq and the Bush presidency, but they were quite aware that not everyone felt that way. Ferrin Lauve is the Republican precinct committee officer in the retirement community of Providence Point. "We have 500 Republicans, 300 Democrats, and 600 independents," he says. "If events go well in Iraq, the president will probably be re-elected. If not, he's toast." Heidi Kinsella, another Republican precinct committee officer, grew up in a Democratic family and works at a travel agency. "I wish I could say I see it swinging for President Bush," she laments, but the war in Iraq has her independent friends and neighbors doubting the chief executive. "They say they could go either way," she says.

Republican activist and developer George "Skip" Rowley Jr.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Across town, one of Issaquah's most prominent Republicans, George "Skip" Rowley Jr., is, as usual, in the thick of this year's races. Rowley sums up his community: "Issaquah's citizens are very socially liberal, yet the majority are fiscally conservative." Rowley has played a key role in the growth of Issaquah, specializing in commercial and residential development as well as supporting politicians who, like Rossi and Dunn, might have conservative voting records but have personalities that don't alienate soccer moms. While Rowley supports Bush, he notes, "As Iraq has lingered on and on, his popularity is going down, down, down. A lot of people are just plain pissed." He adds, "I believe my grand­children have a better opportunity for a good life with George Bush as president, but an awful lot of people disagree with me."

As Rowley surveys Issaquah's political landscape, he foresees many newcomers moving into the planned communities on the hillsides who will bolster the Republicans.

New Urbanism

But last month, when residents of Issaquah Highlands organized the first presidential rally of the year, it was for John Kerry. Says Port Blakely Communities President Judd Kirk, who oversees the development of the Highlands: "My guess is we are more Democratic than is typical for the city." Kirk's explanation is that a New Urbanist philosophy has guided Highlands development, encouraging a lifestyle atypical of suburbia. There is a relatively large amount of shared open space and less private yard space than in most suburban development. The Highlands housing caters to a wide range of incomes, from "affordable-housing" condos ($180,000) to rental apartments, town houses, and luxury homes (up to $1.5 million). Kirk readily admits it isn't for everybody. There are around 3,000 people living in the Highlands and another 4,000 are expected, growing Issaquah's population considerably—and probably inadvertently helping Democrats in the process.

Democratic Chair Berendt has a theory as to why places like the Highlands produce more Democrats than Republicans. "As density grows, the Democratic base grows," he claims. "Higher density cities are more aware of urban services—the role government plays in their lives. They're less libertarian." Berendt says it's not just Issaquah that is trending Democratic but suburban cities throughout the 8th Congressional District. "Look at the suburbs. Who is living there? It's more our demographics than the Republicans'. They are in big trouble."

Eric Erickson at the Issaquah Sportsmen's Club.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Of course, not all of Issaquah lives in hotbeds of New Urbanism. Take the Issaquah Sportsmen's Club. As past president Eric Erickson slyly notes, you have to drive past an elementary school and a high school to wind your way up to the Sportsmen's Club shooting range. It's not that the club sought proximity to the schools. The school district has just kept building closer and closer to the place where hundreds of hunters, muzzle loaders, Boy Scouts, and Cascade mountain men come to shoot at targets.

The first surprise for visitors comes when they meet the range master. Lori Laughren is a young woman who seems more likely to be pulling espresso on Capitol Hill than authoritatively barking commands to old guys in hunter's caps. Her long, jet-black hair, pale skin, and all-black clothing, including black Converse sneakers, seem as out of place as her affection for Ralph Nader in a place where National Rifle Association stickers adorn every surface. She cautions against stereotyping the views of the gun range's customers. "I thought I was probably a little more liberal about the Iraq thing," she says. "It surprised me, a lot of the people who are against it."

Just down the road from the shooting range is the Sportsmen's Club clubhouse, a 1937 cabin built by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Project Admini­stration. It is on the National Historic Registry due, in part, to its unusual vertical log construction. Inside the small cabin, stuffed animal heads abound—four deer and an elk—and there are antlers adorning the walls along with plaques for achievements such as shooting the largest elk or deer, or catching the biggest king salmon or steelhead trout. Past president Erickson, who grew up in Issaquah and is a local historian, says electoral talk among the members is pretty polarized. "One side says Kerry is no good. One side says Bush is no good. I'm not sure there are too many fence riders." The club's treasurer, Gene Kirchner, paints a bleaker picture for the GOP: "The only thing I hear them talking about is they would like to see us get out of Iraq. I feel the same way myself."

No Coattails

The problems the GOP faces in Issaquah, with its president and his war at the top of the ticket, don't foretell a Democratic landslide. But Bush's travails mean there aren't likely to be any coattails.

U.S. Senate candidate Nethercutt could use some coattails. He enters the Seattle suburbs facing a tremendous challenge in not being well known, and Democratic incumbent Murray is well liked. The last time a senator from the Evergreen State called Eastern Washington home was 1934—and Clarence C. Dill was a Democrat. Add the fact that Murray has a $9.8 million campaign war chest, while Nethercutt needs to spend his $4.7 million just to introduce himself to voters, and the odds look mighty steep. Republicans and Democrats agree that Issaquah hasn't tuned in to the Senate race yet—and that's more bad news for a challenger trying to unseat an incumbent. Says Democratic Mayor Frisinger: "To the extent I've heard anything, it's in favor of Patty Murray. I haven't seen any groundswells of enthusiasm for George Nethercutt. It's hard for him to get a foothold here."

The governor's race, while still pretty quiet as well, is more of a wild card, in part because it lacks an incumbent. Perhaps even more important, Republican gubernatorial front-runner Rossi represented Issaquah for seven years as a state senator. Issaquah knows him much better than he is known statewide.

Rossi was recruited for the governor's race precisely because he appeals to suburban voters. Not only is he charming and good-looking, he also is fluent in cul-de-sac. While very conservative politically, his style is smooth and moderate, especially compared to the angry, aggressive Newt Gingrich Republicanism that defined the party in the 1990s. Frisinger says, "Dino is very likable. What I've heard from Democrats is that he worked quite well with them. He was very helpful on salmon hatchery issues." Connie Marsh, a small business owner, political independent, and self-described "fiscally responsible tree hugger," says Rossi has Issaquah's attention. "One of the big issues in Issaquah is leadership. There's a lack of leadership—even left-wing people are dissatisfied with Democrats. So they are asking, 'What do you think of Rossi? At least he's focused. He might get something done.' I hear that all the time."

Left-leaning shooting-range master Lori Laughren.

(Kevin P. Casey)

Among the Democratic candidates, King County Executive Ron Sims seems to have attracted the most attention. Unfortunately for him, it's negative. Marsh says, "Ron Sims tends to be very arrogant and ignore the will of the people. Sometimes I agree with what he wants to do but not with the way he's doing it." Former King County Council member Brian Derdowski, who has lived in Issaquah and represented it as a Republican but who now is a Democrat, frequently clashed with Sims in county government. "Ron Sims has not been popular in that area in quite a while," he claims. Even independent Ken Konigsmark, who has endorsed Sims and believes he is a principled, important leader, says the county exec is not a local favorite. "On Ron Sims, I hear a lot of misperception out here. People have the idea that he is a tax-and-spend liberal." Sims, despite his moderate record, isn't doing himself any favors in this regard by campaigning for a state income tax.

When Democratic front-runner Gregoire's name comes up, it is in connection with her office missing the deadline to appeal a $17.8 million verdict against the state. Independent Marsh says, "Christine has issues." Konigsmark says he'll vote for Rossi over Gregoire if Sims is defeated in the Democratic primary. Up at the gun range, treasurer Kirchner says of Gregoire, "She did a good job on a lot of stuff, but she screwed up a few times and she's responsible, so I'll have to find out about Rossi." He adds, "I don't know much about Rossi."

Issaquah voters don't seem to know much about the candidates who are running to replace the 8th Congressional District's longtime representative, Dunn. No one from Issaquah I interviewed mentioned a single candidate in that race. It seems likely, however, that independent-minded Issaquah will like both party front-runners, who also happen to be celebrities. Republican King County Sheriff Dave Reichert is a hero cop with telegenic good looks and a very independent, though conservative, outlook. Democratic KIRO-AM talk-show host Dave Ross is a moderate whose philosophy of personal responsibility, social tolerance, and suspicion of deficit spending should attract a lot of support in Issaquah.

Issaquah's overwhelming political focus at the moment is on the presidential race. That's no surprise. After all, most Washingtonians don't start seriously considering politics until after Labor Day. Partisans and political professionals agree that what develops in Iraq, on the terrorism front, and in the economic sphere between now and November will be decisive factors for those independent voters who have not yet made up their minds.

Time, and Issaquah, will tell.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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