OLYMPIA – A special panel redrawing the state’s political boundaries fired the first four shots last week in the coming political battle over legislative districts.
Four commissioners offered their best suggestions for remaking Washington’s 49 districts to hold as close as possible to the target of 137,236 people.
Not surprisingly, they came up with four maps with a few similarities and some very big differences.
The panel also is drawing lines for 10 congressional districts, but that’s more of an embarrassment of riches. With one new seat and one seat empty because the incumbent congressman is running for governor, commissioners could come up with boundaries in which no incumbent need feel threatened.
Not so with the state’s 49 legislative districts. With nearly five times the districts and a wide variation in population changes over the last decade, all proposed maps would move some communities into new districts and would result in some incumbents running against each other to stay in office.
“It’s just the first step in a long journey,” State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said. “It’s like a car negotiation: just a place to start.”
Schoesler was talking about two Democratic proposals that move his district, the 9th, out of Adams and the other southeast Washington counties where it has been for at least 50 years. In one proposal, Schoesler, who is the Republican floor leader, would be in the same district as Minority Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla. In the other, he’d be in the same district as Republican Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry of Moses Lake.
“It’s really just a partisan bargaining position,” Schoesler said.
Also possibly “districted out” under some plans would be State Sen. Mike Baumgartner of Spokane’s 6th District. But only for a short time, the freshman legislator said last week. He and his wife currently rent a home and will relocate as soon as they know where the boundaries are.
“These are not going to be the maps we’re going to see in the end,” Baumgartner said. “I’d like them to be done with the process so we can be homebuyers.”
While it’s important for legislators to know where the new lines are, it’s even more important for voters, who may be losing representatives they’ve known and worked with for years, he added: “It’s important that people within the district feel represented by their elected officials.”
Under two of the plans, Spokane County would lose one of the legislative districts that reach into its suburbs from the Whitman County line. The other two plans have the same number of districts – three that are just Spokane County precincts and two that add rural or suburban Spokane precincts to districts that include surrounding counties.
Former State Rep. Tom Huff, appointed by House Republicans, proposed the fewest changes to the current Spokane County districts as he shrunk two districts that have too many people and expanded three that have too few.
The most noticeable thing about plans for Spokane County by Democratic appointees Dean Foster and Tim Ceis are the boundaries for the city of Spokane’s 3rd District: They’re virtually the same.
That wasn’t a coincidence, Ceis said last week. He and Foster coordinated their efforts in some parts of the state, so the 3rd is almost the same and some of the Seattle-area districts are pretty close.
“There are some areas where we consulted with each other. We were pretty united on what we thought made sense,” said Ceis, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane.
Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, appointed by Senate Republican Leader Hewitt, made the most proposed changes, dividing the city of Spokane among four districts with no district wholly contained within the city boundaries. It would move the 3rd District, now a solidly Democratic district in the city’s urban core and northeast neighborhoods, to western neighborhoods, the West Plains and through the rural southern quarter of the county. It would also expand the 6th District, long centered on the city’s South Hill, to the east through Valley suburbs, Mead and Mount Spokane State Park.
Gorton said last week this was an attempt to make all Spokane County districts “competitive” rather than settling for some predictably Republican and some predictably Democratic. But it could have the effect of diluting the urban Democratic vote by splitting the district’s light-voting areas among precincts that have been strongly Republican in recent elections.
“It looks like they pied up the city in an interesting way,” said State Rep. Timm Ormsby, a five-term Democratic incumbent in the 3rd. He’s not sure that dividing the city so many different ways meets one of the criteria for establishing districts by keeping “communities of interest” together.
But like Schoesler, he’s not overly concerned – yet. “I think it’s way premature. … These are maybe the messages being sent by the four caucuses.”