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‘Fair’ and ‘historic’: Committee approves map splitting Spokane County into five new commissioner districts

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 22, 2021

The Spokane County redistricting committee tasked with splitting Spokane County into five commissioner districts (a change from the current three) are, at head of table, Elaine Couture, the non-voting chair, Republican-appointed committee member Robin Ball, Democrat-appointed committee member Natasha Hill and Republican-appointed committee member Jim McDevitt.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokane County redistricting committee tasked with splitting Spokane County into five commissioner districts (a change from the current three) are, at head of table, Elaine Couture, the non-voting chair, Republican-appointed committee member Robin Ball, Democrat-appointed committee member Natasha Hill and Republican-appointed committee member Jim McDevitt. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

After months of bartering and compromise, the bipartisan committee splitting Spokane County into five commissioner districts unanimously approved a final map Thursday.

“We ended up with a map that really is fair,” said Brian McClatchey, one of the two Democrat-appointed committee members. “I feel really good about that.”

Jim McDevitt, one of the two Republican-appointed committee members, said he’s “pretty happy” with the final map. He called it “fair” and “historic.”

“The bottom line was fairness and a recognition of realities,” McDevitt said.

Spokane County currently has three commissioners who run in district-specific primary elections and countywide general elections. Because about 55% of county voters are Republicans, the GOP has been able to win all three commissioner seats for over a decade, even when a specific district might prefer a Democratic candidate.

But the county’s election process, and number of commissioners, is changing thanks to a law the state Legislature passed in 2018. In 2022, voters will elect five commissioners, each of whom will take office in 2023 and represent only one district.

The redistricting process was important because the new district boundaries will largely determine the balance of political power on the five-member commission.

It was the redistricting committee’s job to redraw the lines. The committee included two members appointed by local Republican state legislators, two appointed by local Democratic state legislators and a nonvoting chair appointed by the county commissioners.

Per state law, the committee had to draw new districts that don’t favor or disfavor any political party or racial group. The districts had to be equal in population, which means each district has about 108,000 residents. And the committee had to try to keep communities of shared interest together.

All four voting committee members said they think the final map is fair. Based on recent election results, it appears to create two solidly red districts, two solidly blue districts and a swing district that Republican candidates have typically won by about 5 percentage points.

The final map creating the new Spokane County Commission districts.  (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
The final map creating the new Spokane County Commission districts. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

The districts

The new map creates a northern district that’s mostly rural, but also includes the northern half of Spokane Valley. Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns lives in the northern district.

Kerns said he plans to run for re-election. If he has any difficulty retaining his seat it’ll likely come from a Republican challenger, because the northern district is solidly red. The winner in the northern district will start off with a two-year term, meaning it will be up for reelection in 2024 and then begin a four-year cycle.

The southeastern district is mostly rural too, and includes the southern half of Spokane Valley. Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney lives in this district.

Kuney did not respond to requests for comment and it isn’t yet clear if she’ll run for re-election. If she does, her situation will likely be similar to Kerns’ — her new district is solidly red. The southeastern district will start off with a four-year term.

The new map puts most of Spokane into two long, thin districts, mostly divided along U.S. Highway 2. These districts are solidly blue and are expected to elect Democrats. The eastern Spokane district will start with a four-year term and the west-central district will start with a two-year term.

The southwestern district is the only competitive one. It combines significant chunks of northwestern and southern Spokane with the West Plains cities.

In recent elections, Republican candidates outperformed Democrats by about 5 percentage points in the southwestern swing district.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French lives in the swing district. He didn’t respond to requests for comment and it isn’t clear if he’ll seek re-election. Whoever wins the swing district will start off with a two-year term.

‘A success’

In August, each of the four committee members presented a draft redistricting map.

At first, three of the four committee members were unwilling to say which map they’d drawn, but it was fairly easy to tell which belonged to the Republicans and which belonged to the Democrats.

The four draft maps weren’t especially close to each other. One appeared to give Republicans a strong chance at winning four commissioner seats, while another may have given Democrats a chance to win three.

During the following weeks, Republicans and Democrats repeatedly made their cases for what they thought a fair map would look like.

McDevitt argued that, because the county is about 55% Republican and 45% Democrat, Republicans deserved three commissioner seats and Democrats deserved two.

McClatchey argued that, because 55% isn’t quite 60%, there should be two red districts, two blue districts and a swing district where the two parties would have to battle in order to win a majority of the commissioners.

Despite their differences, and despite the high stakes of the redistricting process, the committee members never raised their voices at each other.

“It was never personal,” McClatchey said. “We knew we had a job to do and a timeline to do it.”

Robin Ball, one of the committee’s two Republicans, said she wasn’t surprised that the two sides were able to remain civil.

“I knew we were going to be on different planets in the beginning,” Ball said. “I’m pretty happy with where we landed. I think it’s a decent finished product and it does show that we worked together and worked with the community.”

McClatchey said this redistricting process was a perfect example of what bipartisan efforts should look like.

“That’s the way government ought to work,” he said.

McDevitt said he’s glad the redistricting committee was able to avoid the polarization that has become so common in American politics. Democrats and Republicans have to be able to talk to and listen to each other, he said.

“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that I’m a Republican,” he said. “But I don’t wear that on my sleeve. I don’t pick my friends by that or pick arguments. I think that’s part of the problem nowadays is people don’t talk to each other and stuff gets personal. I have no use for that whatsoever.”

McDevitt said the final map is good for Spokane County.

“As long as everybody walks away either equally happy or equally mad,” he said, “it’s a success.”

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