How did the political pendulum swing so far to the right in the former'Soviet of Washington'? And is it swinging back?

Up front, a personal note: I am a migrant, a native of the agrarian South come to what we have thought of as an earthly paradise, God’s country—the Pacific Northwest. I came in pursuit of happiness, adventure, education, and the opportunity for a mite of fortune. A better life, if not paradise. As such, I’m like an overwhelming majority of those about to read this article.

Our recent numbers are staggering. In the years from 1990 to 1996, 1,198,400 migrants and immigrants moved into Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Sobering these numbers may be, but also somewhat misleading. They do not truly reflect the extra pressure on streets, roads, and landscape. For example, while the population of our Puget Sound region increased by 20 percent from 1981 to l991, the number of automobile miles traveled, same period, jumped by 80 percent. In other words, traffic increased four times for every new resident. There is reason to suspect a similar ratio applies to land use as we slurb up to the Cascade foothills and beyond.

And, alas, they tell nothing about the radical change in our politics, especially in Washington, but also in Oregon. From the 1930s to the 1990s, the political field force on our extremes has moved from secular socialism to fundamental religion; from Karl Marx to St. Paul. At the political edges, the 1990s are the 1930s turned upside down.

When I arrived in Seattle in 1950 the state had a population of 2.3 million. Fishing, farming, Boeing, and forestry were major sources of its wealth. A few years later, I interviewed Jo Grimmond, then the elegant leader of a resurgent Liberal Party in Great Britain. He rhapsodized about Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia as “the last hope of Western civilization.” Grimmond noted the region’s excellent public schools, its open political system, and its enormously competent politicians, all the product of a populist/progressive, egalitarian, public philosophy.

Forty years later, Jo Grimmond is gone, along with most of his party. The fish and their bold harvesters are depleted, and great swaths of forest denuded.

In a generation or less we’ve gone from lumberjacks to computer nerds. Electronics manufacturing has overtaken forest products as a source of wealth here. What’s left of the forest industry is mainly in the hands of those industrial giants who own their own timber, like Weyerhaeuser.

The more destructive change, however, is in our 1990s public philosophy. In the face of need for concerted government action to control the new wave’s sprawl through planning and new modes of transportation, Oregon and Washington have come up with a political climate that makes Orange County seem liberal. Jim Farley, the Democratic Party national chairman of the 1930s who gave Washington its signature clich麠”the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington,” wouldn’t recognize our new ways. Washington and Oregon of the ’90s run with legislatures increasingly hostile to common schools, government regulations and, above all, taxes. Farley’s “Soviet” now tends more to the theocratic than socialist.

Is it cause and effect or happenstance that this radical turn occurs alongside the ’90s migration wave? Evidence is anecdotal. Thus far only one Northwest opinion pollster, Jim Hebert of Hebert Research Inc., Bellevue, Washington, has explored the connection between length of Northwest residence and public attitudes. The poll comes with warning flags: tentative and limited, a sample of King County attitudes only.

Hebert’s poll results show that those who have moved here in the past 10 years are more conservative in their political attitudes. Those who’ve been around longer are more liberal. Newcomers are hostile towards the state’s measures to manage growth, an abrogation of their property rights. Ten-year-plus citizens are overwhelmingly accepting of growth management.

What’s reasonably certain is that our new citizens have not come with much knowledge of fabled Washington Democratic Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, Oregon Sen. Charles McNary, and the mainstream of public philosophy in this region from 1896, the election of Washington’s Populist (that’s capital “P” as in Populist Party) governor and legislature, until 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of Maggie. That mainstream came down from the region’s populists and progressives. Populists were democratic, egalitarian (unlike their racist Southern counterparts), and wary of power concentrated either on Wall Street or with government socialists. The constitution they inspired made common schools the paramount duty of the state. It also created seven separately elected state offices to diffuse power in Olympia. To thwart Wall Street ownership of electric utilities, Washington created public utility districts to provide “cheap power without profits.”

Oregon created the primary election, referendum, and initiative processes—popular election reforms that were quickly adopted here, then elsewhere around the nation.

With a couple of historic exceptions, this public philosophy has been steadfast and unbounded by party lines. Mark Reed, the powerful Washington Republican House Speaker in the late 1920s, pushed for workmen’s compensation and public power. McNary worked with Magnuson to build the hydroelectric dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers that have so generously powered Northwest homes and factories. Dan Evans, Washington’s exceptionally gifted Republican governor of the 1960s and 1970s, twice pushed income tax bills through the state Legislature. Evans also moved state comprehensive planning laws through the Republican-controlled House, only to lose them in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

By the 1930s, there were even more radical ideas flowing through Olympia. With unemployment running 35 percent and without the cushions of Social Security or unemployment compensation, a left-wing faction in Washington’s 1933 and 1935 Legislatures pressed for the creation of state-owned farms, state-owned factories, state-owned insurance companies, state-owned banks, state-provided health care, and, of course, state-owned utilities. These anti-capitalist radicals numbered about 35. They included Communist Party members and socialists. Failing passage of their socialist program in the Legislature, they placed it on the 1936 ballot as Initiative 119. It failed by more than a 2-1 majority, but Farley had his lasting “Soviet” put-down line.

By radical, I mean a significant deviation from Northwest populism; in the 1930s it was a leftward deviation. What has happened in the l990s, accompanied (if not caused) by the population burst, is a hard swing to the right in Olympia, and a gentler deviation in the same direction in Salem.

Don Whiting, Washington’s veteran elections supervisor, is skeptical of a direct connection between the population surge and the hard right turn. He attributes the ideological switch, following elections of 1994 and 1996, to “new legislators who came into Olympia thinking they could do anything they want with government—they had no appreciation of the legal structure of government.”

But county officials in Eastern Washington talk with certainty of a cause and effect. “What else can it be?” asks Ann Swenson, auditor of Pend Oreille County, a rural paradise in the lower reaches of Eastern Washington’s Selkirk mountain range, the state’s third-fastest-growing county. “The newcomers are much more conservative.” The same is said by Peggy Robbins, the Okanogan County auditor.

Consider the 25th District of Pierce County. This longtime bastion of labor-backed, progressive Democrats began a political makeover with the spread of housing tracts, asphalt parking lots, shopping malls, and oversized “monster” homes. Along with Democrats, out went the blackberries and alder thickets from Puyallup to Graham. In came the newcomers, many of them commuting 25 to 40 miles, each way, each day.

They found opportunity either in aircraft or computer factories or as marginal entrepreneurs selling door to door or running small shops. Many also found religious fundamentalism and from this a connection between their church group and state politics. In 1994, they elected Grant Pelesky, a college-educated public school teacher, to the House of Representatives seat once held by Frank (Buster) Broulliet, a Democrat and a prime legislative mover in creation of the state Community College System proposed by Dan Evans.

Republican Pelesky went from Puyallup, at least metaphorically, Bible in hand, to advocate private property rights, patriotism, and home schooling, and to fight against “government schools,” and sexual and moral degeneracy, especially in the form of homosexuality. He is a nice man, in his late forties, married with children. In a lengthy interview, Pelesky said his election was part of a “reawakening by citizens” on their need for legislators “to reflect absolute right and wrong . . . people were saying enough is enough. Society has degenerated to the point where we’ve got to do something.” They are concerned about morality—especially sexual morality.

When he went to Olympia, Pelesky figured he’d be the Savior’s Lone Ranger, “the only right-wing extremist [he says with a smile] in the House of Representatives.” Instead, he found at least 20 other members of a like religious mind. As a result, “We just coalesced in the effort to restore the state to its former values and away from the prevalent idea that if it feels good—do it.” Like Ellen Craswell, the 1996 GOP candidate for governor, Pelesky believes “most certainly there is no separation between church and state.” Nor can he find any contradictions in the Good Book between Genesis and Revelation.

There’s a story around the Capitol that Pelesky, or some other biblical scholar, informed a legislative committee discussing languages to be taught in common schools that “if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for the schoolchildren of Washington.” Pelesky denies, sort of, the attribution and, indeed, the tale could be apocryphal. But it is an accurate reflection of Olympia’s religious right; that’s to say ill-informed and close-minded. What’s apparent is that in 60 years Washington’s Legislature went from an absolutist faction on the left to another on the right.

“They are not conservatives,” says Evans of this hard right faction. “They are religious radicals with very little knowledge of how our political system works and it has been suggested to me by other religious persons that what they want is a theocracy. They are intense and they tend to cluster, thus they are a force.”

Thus far, the most damaging achievements of the Northwest’s far right politics have less to do with homosexuality and parental rights than with state government spending limits. Washington’s Initiative 601 is not as crippling as Oregon’s Measure 47, but unless amended—not likely very soon—it severely restricts state spending to match population increase. College enrollments are expected to increase 13 percent by year 2000. I-601 limits the state to an 8.1 percent increase that year. With Measure 47 drastically cutting the state’s taxing authority, Gratten Kerans, chief lobbyist for Oregon’s colleges, says, “We’re on our way to becoming the West Virginia of the West.”

When those with a few years of institutional memory gather over beers in Salem and Olympia at least three questions arise on the sources and outcome of this right turn in Northwest politics: Is it an aberration? How did it happen? What are its consequences beyond I-601 and Measure 47?

An aberration, says Sam Reed, the Thurston County auditor and the leader of Washington’s Mainstream Republicans, and other party regulars, one bound to vanish with good sense, new elections, or when they tire of slamming their ideologically inspired legislation against executive vetoes.

An aberration, says Mike Lowry, Democratic governor from 1993 to 1997, the apparent peak of right-wing ascendancy and its deviation from the historic mainstream.

“The religious right is an anomaly,” he says. “The state will return to its political senses.” His reason is purely economic. Business, as we have known it the past three decades, is no longer monolithic in its public interests. Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Portland General Electric, and MacMillan Bloedel, industries built on the region’s natural resources, logs, water power, and hourly workers, have a rival in the new high-tech companies whose chief raw material is educated brains.

Indeed, the 1998 elections tended to bolster his prediction. Five of the Washington House of Representatives’ religious zealots and three other Republicans lost their seats. Grant Pelesky lost his seat trying to jump to the state Senate. Labor came alive with an effective grassroots—as opposed to television—campaign and so did independent voters fed up with the Ken Starr Inquisition. The upshot in Olympia was Republican loss of the state Senate and a dead-even split with Democrats in the House, which is run by two Speakers, one from each party.

What’s the difference this year, I asked a lobbyist for campaign finance reform?

“Last year, I’d try to lobby a Republican. He’d reply, ‘I don’t see anything in the Gospels about Jesus favoring campaign reform.’ This year, so far, they listen.”

Despite this turn towards practical politics, a feeling persists that the Northwest’s heavy-breathing far right isn’t dead, but resigned to lie low pending the next election.

“As long as Dale Foreman is state Republican chairman, the religious right is alive and a factor in state politics,” says one shrewd Republican insider. Capitol speculation has Foreman running for the GOP nomination for governor in 2000.

Forty years after Jo Grimmond’s vision of Cascadia, I asked another European native about chances of keeping paradise relatively intact. Anne Moudon, a Swiss native, is a professor of urban planning at the University of Washington who has worked on the growth plan for Vancouver, British Columbia. The task south of Blaine looms more formidable. There are too many separate and sometimes competing taxing districts, a lackadaisical waste of space, and the recent “loss of confidence in politics—the only way out of our mess.”

Even if our population remained static, our problems remain huge: traffic jams studded with drive-by murders, the pap of TV’s nightly news, a declining infrastructure, and proliferating homeless. We have strayed too far from concern about the commonweal, and new migrants share only part of the blame. Of late, natives and new migrants have been educated by television, softened by prosperity, and intellectually starved on a diet of journalistic entertainment. The upshot is an attitude that government is, at worst, the enemy, at best, another soap opera. Either we cancel those myths, or settle for accelerating deterioration of our Northwest paradise.

Shelby Scates is former chief political correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and author of Warren G. Magnuson & the Shaping of 20th Century America. His book of journalist’s memoirs is forthcoming from University of Washington Press.