The Republican and Democratic sides of the committee splitting Spokane County into five commissioner districts nearly shook hands on a final map Thursday evening after both groups made meaningful concessions.
But a stalemate over whether the district that incumbent commissioner Al French lives in should come with a two-year or four-year initial term threatens to make the months of meetings and difficult compromises all for nothing.
Spokane County has three commissioners who run in district-specific primary elections but countywide general elections.
Having countywide general elections has allowed Republicans to hold onto all three commissioner seats for over a decade, because even if voters within a district vote for a Democratic candidate in the primary, the county’s overall Republican lean ensures GOP candidates triumph in the general.
But in 2022, the county will elect five commissioners, each of whom will represent just one district when they take office in 2023. That change is almost certainly going to allow at least one Democrat to win a commissioner seat.
It’s the redistricting committee’s job to split the county into five pieces, and it’s a high-stakes one because how the lines are drawn will likely determine the Republican-Democrat commissioner ratio.
Republicans have argued that, given county voters are about 55% Republicans and 45% Democrats, there should be three red commissioner districts and two blue districts. Republicans should control a majority of the commission, they’ve said.
Democrats have argued the 55%-45% voter history means a fair map would create two blue districts, two red districts and a swing district.
Now, after months of meetings and difficult compromises, the two Republicans and two Democrats on the redistricting committee are on the cusp of an agreement.
The tentative final redistricting map splits the bulk of Spokane into two long, thin districts – one covering the eastern part of the city and one covering most of the western portion. Based on past election results, those districts would likely elect Democratic commissioners.
One district would cover most of the county’s northern half – that one would be expected to elect a Republican. Another covers the county’s southeastern third – that district would also likely vote for a Republican.
The fifth district is a swing district.
It covers the southwestern part of the county and all of the West Plains communities. It also includes a sizable amount of Spokane’s western edge and a good chunk of southern Spokane. According to davesredistricting.org, the free website the committee is now using to draw the map, Republicans would have a 5-point advantage in this district.
After the committee tentatively agreed on the two red, two blue, swing proposal, they had to figure out how to stagger the commissioner terms. That’s when they reached an impasse.
Because voters will elect all five commissioners at once in 2022, the committee has to figure out which commissioners will initially serve two-year terms and which ones will serve four-year terms from the start. The staggers matter for the initial election next year because eventually all five commissioners will serve four-year terms.
Jim McDevitt, one of the two Republican committee members, said the southwest district – the swing district that leans Republican and pairs the West Plains cities with parts of Spokane – has to be one of the districts that starts with a four-year term.
“I just think that’s fair,” McDevitt said. “We’ve given a lot.”
McDevitt said that he and Robin Ball, the other Republican committee member, have made significant concessions in order to arrive at a final redistricting map.
Agreeing to a 5-point swing district is actually an unfair advantage to Democrats, given about 55% of county voters are Republicans, McDevitt said. He argued that, given Republicans are willing to accept that swing district, the swing district should come with a four-year initial term.
Natasha Hill, one of the two Democrats on the committee, said there isn’t any good argument for why the swing district has to be a four-year term.
“That looks like incumbent protection,” Hill said.
Although no committee member mentioned him by name, Spokane County Commissioner Al French lives within the swing district.
McDevitt said he disagrees with Hill’s assertion that granting a four-year term to the swing district would be incumbent protection.
“I’m not doing this for any particular commissioner,” McDevitt said. “I’m just doing this out of a principle of what’s fair is fair. We’ve given all the way down to a five-point spread, which is not fair to the county, so in return for that I want a four-year term out there.”
Hill said she’d agreed to a four-year term for the swing district if, in exchange, McDevitt and Ball are willing to reduce the Republican advantage in the district to fewer than 5 points.
The committee is reconvening Friday in an effort to hammer out a final compromise. But they’re running out of time.
A majority of the four voting committee members have to agree on a final map, and staggered term lengths, by Oct. 23 so the Spokane County Auditor can formalize the map.
If they can’t come to an agreement, the redistricting decision will move on to a state-level committee, which is also bipartisan. All four committee members have stressed their desire to reach an agreement at the local level.
Brian McClatchey, the other committee Democrat, said he’d truly hate to see the committee get so close to coming to an agreement only to fall short. He used a football analogy to describe the situation: The committee is at the 1 yard line and simply needs to get the football into the endzone.
“I’m at a loss,” McClatchey said. “We spent all this time and did all this great work and we’re just going to let it slip out of our fingers? We’re now going to let someone else make this decision for us? That feels like where this is going, and it’s really disappointing. I don’t know what else to say.”
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