Robert Brown, an advocate for splitting the state of Washington into two, at a rally at the Capitol in Olympia last week. Photo by Sean Harding, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Robert Brown, an advocate for splitting the state of Washington into two, at a rally at the Capitol in Olympia last week. Photo by Sean Harding, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Split Washington In Two? 51st State Movement Highlights Cultural Divide

Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane introduces bill to establish state in Eastern Washington called Liberty.

By Emma Scher, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Robert Brown is a resident of Stevens County in Eastern Washington, but he believes the policies coming out of Olympia don’t reflect what he values.

The issues he considers important are Second Amendment rights, taxation and border security. And Brown is one of the many who have rallied behind the newest movement to split his state into two.

The idea isn’t new, but has most recently been spearheaded by Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. This year, Shea proposed House Bill 1509 to the Legislature to divide Washington at the Cascade crest, establishing a 51st state in Eastern Washington called Liberty.

Public policy experts have noted that the Cascade mountains mark an observable difference between Washington’s more conservative, rural east side and its more liberal, urban west side.

Proposals to split the state date back to 1905, including proposals to simply split apart, or to combine with parts of Eastern Oregon or the panhandle of Idaho.

“I’ve never seen a state that’s so — as soon as you come over that mountain pass — so divided. I mean night-and-day difference,” Brown said.

But Western Washington has a much higher population than Eastern Washington, and thus, more representation in the Legislature.

According to the Washington Office of Financial Management’s 2018 population estimates, Eastern Washington’s most populous county is Spokane County, which has less than 25 percent of the population of Western Washington’s King County.

Because it is less populated, Eastern Washington sends only 33 legislators to Olympia, whereas Western Washington sends 114. This year, just three of the 84 Democrats in the Legislature are from Eastern Washington.

According to Cornell Clayton, a public policy professor at Washington State University, this has led to some “cultural Republicans” in Eastern Washington feeling as though their values aren’t represented in the Legislature, especially when it comes to social issues like abortion, gun control and “church-state issues.”

“These are folks who…take these cultural issues and wage culture wars, and it’s them who are aggrieved by the policies that come out of Olympia, because they feel engulfed by a Western Washington culture,” Clayton said.

King County in Western Washington and Lincoln County in Eastern Washington show both ends of the state’s political spectrum. The cultural clash was evident in the 2016 Presidential election — 72 percent of King County voters chose Hillary Clinton, while the same percentage of Lincoln County voters choose Donald Trump.

Two years later, it was seen again in Washington’s passage of Initiative 1639 in the 2018 general election. The initiative raised the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle to 21, redefined the rifles as “assault rifles,” added more stringent background checks, increased waiting periods and enacted storage requirements. Eighteen of the 20 counties in Eastern Washington rejected the initiative.

In Western Washington, King County voted to pass I-1639 by the highest margin, with 76 percent of voters in approval. In Eastern Washington, Lincoln County voted against the initiative by the highest margin, with 75 percent disapproving.

But King County’s 76 percent accounted for more than 730,000 votes, while Lincoln county’s 75 percent accounted for only around 4,000.

Divergences like this one has led some residents like Brown — whose county similarly had 73 percent of voters against Initiative 1639 and 67 percent favoring Donald Trump — to say they are treated “kind of like the red-headed stepchildren just shoved in the corner.”

And his county is almost exactly that: it shares a border with British Columbia, and is only one county away from the Idaho border.

Gun rights issues have underscored this year’s revival to splinter the state.

On Feb. 15, 51st state supporters and gun rights advocates rallied in Washington’s capitol building rotunda, hearing speeches from a domestic violence survivor, a former prosecuting attorney, and Reps. Shea and Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor.

“There’s this constant claim in Olympia that we’re all one Washington and share the same values, but the fact is that we don’t share the same values on a whole lot of things,” Rep. Shea said in an interview.

While state secession is illegal, the U.S. Constitution outlines ways for new states to be added with consent of affected state legislatures and Congress.

This year, Shea is the prime sponsor for HB 1509 to establish the state of Liberty, and House Joint Memorial 4003 to petition U.S. Congress with the same request. Neither of these bills have been scheduled for a public hearing.

According to Shea, if Puerto Rico’s statehood referendum is approved by Congress, a new state in Washington would balance the U.S. Senate by establishing 52 states in America.

Rep. Shea proposed similar bills in 2015 and 2016. None of the bills have progressed past a first reading, but that doesn’t mean the discussion will die down anytime soon.

According to Professor Clayton, what’s going on in Washington echoes a national sentiment.

“What it tells us is that in Washington, much like the rest of the country, our politics has become polarized,” he said. “We’ve sorted ourselves out as a country in geographical terms and I think that’s what’s going on in this state and across the country.”


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

Courtesy of Statesman Examiner

Courtesy of Statesman Examiner

More in News & Comment

A King County Sheriff’s Office photo of the crawlspace in which Urbano Velazquez was hiding when a K-9 unit was used. Sound Publishing file photo
King County settles $2 million dog bite lawsuit

The county agreed to pay $100,000 after being sued after a 2016 K-9 unit arrest.

Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance
Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance

Nonprofits, activists are expecting greater need as workers are laid off.

Contributed by the Society for Conservation Biology 
A map showing the locations where plants have gone extinct in the U.S. and Canada since European settlers arrived.
Study: 65 plant species have gone extinct in U.S., Canada

More than 65 species of plants have gone extinct in the U.S.… Continue reading

File photo
Snow Lake, located near Snoqualmie Pass in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
Washington releases new forest plan

It outlines ways the state will protect and maintain forest health.

Sage Viniconis is a career performing artist in King County who’s been out of work and seeking creative outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy photo/Sage Viniconis
Puget Sound artists adapt creativity, and business sense, to pandemic

Artists Sunday is an online directory that connects artists across the county, state and nation.

Chris Fagan trekking across Antarctica in 2014. Contributed by Chris Fagan
South Pole or Bust

The story of a North Bend couple who trekked across Antarctica.

King County Council has nine members who each represent a district. Courtesy of kingcounty.gov
King County Council passes $12.59 billion biennial budget

King County Council on Nov. 17 passed a $12.59 billion biennial budget… Continue reading

State Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) authored the letter to Gov. Jay Inslee. Mullet represents the 5th Legislative District. File photo
Democratic lawmakers ask Inslee to lift ban on indoor dining

They want to try to scaling back on occupancy before forcing an end to inside service.

Tim Eyman get in some last minute campaigning for I-976 in downtown Bellevue on the afternoon of Nov. 5, 2019. File photo
Eyman fights allegation he repeatedly broke campaign laws

In a lawsuit, the state accuses the prolific initiative promoter of getting kickbacks.

Kabal Gill, owner of East India Grill in Federal Way, wears gloves to hand over take-out orders at his restaurant. File photo
State halts indoor service at bars, restaurants, home guests

Amid soaring new coronavirus cases and an overburdened health care system, the state’s clamping down.

Screenshot from Gov. Jay Inslee’s news conference Nov. 12 with his wife, Trudi.
Inslee to hold news conference to announce new restrictions

Among them, reportedly, will be a ban on indoor service at restaurants and retail limitations.

Jay Inslee (D), left, and Loren Culp (R). File photo
Gov. Inslee surges to big lead as he nears rare third term

Statewide office roundup: Schools chief Reykdal in close contest; Secretary of State Wyman fends off challenge.