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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: 51st state movement rooted in history and differences, not fantasy

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

Spokane Interstate fairgoers visiting the Liberty state booth would be surprised to hear themselves described as paranoid extremists seeking a fantasyland. Top topics according to booth volunteers have been the $5 billion in tax increases passed by Democrats in the Washington Legislature, new income tax proposals, more property rights restrictions and anti-gun legislation.

Pretty mainstream Eastern Washington concerns.

“The booth has been tremendously successful. We got good feedback, good questions and collected another 600-700 signatures last Saturday and Sunday,” said John Christina, team captain for the Spokane County chapter of the Liberty state movement. The signatures go on petitions to county commissioners requesting an advisory vote. “We’re in Phase 2 of at least 20 phases to get this done and we know it’s going to take a long time,” said Christina.

Folks visiting the Liberty state booth would be right at home at the convention of delegates from northern Oregon seeking to split Oregon Territory at the Columbia River. In 1852, they wrote regarding right-sizing the population:

“… in States having a moderate-sized territory, the wants of the people are more easily made known to their representatives, there is less danger of conflict between sectional interests, and more prompt and adequate legislation can always be obtained.”

It was another 37 years to statehood, and Liberty state proponents say they are also in it for the long haul. A committee is working on a draft constitution but it will need public input, editing and approval “just like all the many, many transition details to be worked out,” said Christina.

It’s already been more than 100 years since the idea of dividing the state to better represent sectional interests first surfaced in the Washington Legislature. The movement started in 1907 and peaked in 1915 with legislation proposed by Sen. R.A. Hutchinson, of Spokane. Hutchinson brought it back in 1921 but it sputtered and died again a few years later.

In 1935, a proposal came from a King County legislator who apparently “decided the best way to be rid of his East Side colleagues would be to give them a state of their own.” A Clark County legislator returned the favor in 1937 with a proposal to create a State of King and turn it loose.

It was 1985 before the two-state solution returned to the Legislature as a pet project of former Sens. Bob Morton and Bob McCaslin. Legislation was also was introduced in 1991, 2001, 2005, 2015 and 2017.

In 2019, Rep. Matt Shea co-sponsored legislation with Rep. David Taylor and Rep. Bob McCaslin, following in his late father’s footsteps.

Liberty state is one of a dozen or so movements proposing to split mostly rural and conservative voters from mostly urban and progressive dominance. Agricultural upstate New York would gladly drop the Big Apple. Downstate Illinois has a beef with Chicago. And Eastern Oregon and the Idaho Panhandle have been wooed as part of an Inland Northwest state since they were territories.

Whether you think they’re fantasies or not, split-the-state movements highlight significant cultural differences. When Rep. Matt Shea at a rally last spring said, “We’re not going to live in a state that takes away our firearms,” he was called an alarmist. Progressive presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke announced at a national debate this week, “Hell yes, we’re coming to take your AR-15.” It’s not paranoia when they admit they’re out to get you.

Today, 17 of the 20 counties east of the Cascade crest have active chapters of the Liberty state movement. Or as Liberty state volunteer Paul Yelk put it at the fair booth this Wednesday: “Matt lit the match but he’s not even on the committee.”

The movement is still building a statewide coalition. “Nothing is set in concrete,” said Christina, including the name and the boundaries. Citizens in Skamania and Clark counties have expressed interest. “The crest of the Cascades is an easy line to draw, but if others want to join it would be fine.”

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, was glad to hear it. “There are many of us on the wet side of the state who love liberty, too. We shudder at the prospect of being abandoned to the totalitarian mercies of Bainbridge Island and Queen Anne Hill. Please don’t leave us!” When he heard Walsh’s quip, Christina laughed and said, “We hear that a lot.”

But nobody’s going anywhere soon. Proponents of the new State of Washington presumptively wrote a constitution in 1878 to try and speed things up. It still took another decade to statehood.

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