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Monday, September 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Supporters of dividing Washington into two states make their pitch at Spokane Interstate Fair

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 6, 2019, 7:59 p.m.

Proponents of dividing Washington state into two different states share their message with passersby Friday at the Spokane Interstate Fair. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Proponents of dividing Washington state into two different states share their message with passersby Friday at the Spokane Interstate Fair. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Supporters of an improbable and controversial bid to split Washington into two states along the Cascades met with Spokane Interstate Fair attendees on opening day Friday, hoping to get their cause on the ballot.

A pair of volunteers working on the Liberty state initiative passed out fliers, sold merchandise and entered interested people into a raffle to win a silver-cast commemorative coin with an image of a divided Washington on the front and a Biblical verse on the reverse side.

The volunteers directed questions to Rene’ Holaday, a spokeswoman for the movement who previously served as a legislative aide to Republican state Rep. Matt Shea, who has proposed the division in the Washington Legislature several times over the past decade.

“It’s going really well,” said Holaday, who was helping staff a similar booth at the Columbia County Fair in southeastern Washington. “We just had Rep. Bill Jenkin (R-Prosser) stop by.”

Workers at the Liberty state booth here said a majority of those stopping by the booth Friday afternoon were reacting favorably to the idea. But even before fair officials approved the booth – which sits amid other temporary tents hocking hot tubs, selling T-shirts supporting President Donald Trump, and highlighting the roles of the Spokane Police Department and Washington State Patrol in the community – citizens were lobbying to keep supporters from appearing at the weeklong event.

As of Friday, an online petition had more than 1,000 signatures opposing the booth’s inclusion at the event, citing Shea’s involvement in the movement and the recent revelations by a former ally that the Spokane Valley lawmaker backed a group training young men for religious warfare and directed surveillance of political opponents.

Petition organizers say the ideas fueling those actions by Shea, particularly his belief in a Christian state, were also tied to the Liberty state movement, an argument that organizers have sought to distance themselves from in recent days by insisting the new state would be founded on the idea of religious freedom.

Jessa Lewis, the petition’s author and a 2018 Democratic candidate for state Senate, said Friday her focus was not on an organized protest of the tent, but on why all of Washington is a great place to live.

“I love our whole state and seeking to divide it isn’t going to solve our problems,” Lewis said.

Fliers that volunteers were handing out at the tent focused on the feasibility of splitting the state and highlighting the ideological differences between Western and Eastern Washington, citing election results and agricultural and industrial statistics comparing a proposed Liberty state with Idaho.

“We are proud to be Washingtonians, but we fear the Olympian government cannot sufficiently represent or defend our way of life from significant cultural shifts in the culture of the West,” read one of the fliers, in response to the question, “Why do you want to divide the state?”

Volunteers also stressed that the process is legal and has occurred before, in the creation of the states of Maine, Kentucky and West Virginia. Those votes were all taken prior to the end of the Civil War, and no new state has been created from within the borders of another since 1863.

Shea’s proposals in the Legislature have failed to receive the hearings necessary to get the issue to a vote of his peers, a necessary step in a process that would also require Congressional approval.

Liberty state supporters are collecting petition signatures in an attempt to get the commissioners of the 20 counties east of the Cascades to put on the ballot what is known as an advisory vote. The outcome would not be binding, as the process requires action by both the state Legislature and Congress, but would illustrate to lawmakers the public attitudes toward the idea, Holaday said.

Such a vote was held last November in the city of Spokane, when voters decisively shot down the idea of building a new outdoor sports stadium downtown to replace Joe Albi Stadium in northwest Spokane. Citing the outcome of that vote, the Spokane school board officially axed the plan a month later.

Many visitors to the Liberty state booth Friday afternoon declined to give their names, but offered contrasting opinions on the proposal, calling it “stupid,” as well as a way for conservatives in Eastern Washington to elect politicians more in line with their values.

Michelle Valdes stopped by the Liberty state booth briefly Friday afternoon, chatting with volunteers about their proposal for splitting the state into eastern and western regions based on different political ideologies. Valdes said she’d only heard a bit about the Liberty state idea and wanted to learn more.

“I think we really want freedom,” she said. “We want to go back to the basic foundations that this country was founded upon.”

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