By Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
If a Washington State voter wants to send a letter to the people in charge of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, the letter will arrive at an address in downtown Seattle where the Pike/Pine corridor runs into Puget Sound. If that voter would rather contact Republican candidate Rob McKenna’s supporters, the letter will land in Bellevue. It’s tempting to reduce this geographic point to a microcosm of the region’s political landscape, but the numbers may not be so simple. On key topics like transportation development and same-sex marriage, the people on the east and west shores of Lake Washington seem to be in agreement. Going into the thick of an election year, the question coming to the polls is whether the region’s representatives reflect this unity.
According to 43rd District Democrats chair Scott Forbes, the city of Seattle has yet to see as much political unity as it did on January 8. When asked for an example of bipartisanship, he cited a gathering of Washington State legislators and executives who held a vigil for former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. A year prior, Giffords was shot when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on a community outreach event she organized in Tucson, Ariz. The vigil at Westlake Center, like many similar events throughout the country, was a demonstration of the rejection of political violence on both sides of the aisle.
Since the vigil for Representative Giffords, Seattle’s liberal credentials have been called into question in service to the race for the mansion in Olympia. Governor Chris Gregoire’s decision to not seek re-election opened up her seat to a heated contest between Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna and long-time Congressman Jay Inslee. Today, this gubernatorial race has taken a number of disparate issues facing the state and elevated them to ammunition for the contenders’ platforms.
“Democrats have done a better job of representing people in urban areas,” said Forbes when asked about the recent arrival of Jay Inslee in Seattle after vacating his congressional post. “[Jay Inslee] stepped down to spend more time in this Washington after spending so much time in the other Washington.”
Though the governor’s office is in Olympia and the contest is for the highest seat in the state, Seattle is the clear battleground thanks to its population dominance. The city alone accounts for approximately 10 percent of the total population of Washington, with the numbers of the Greater Seattle Area tipping the scales even further. This is why the issues being debated ahead of the race are especially Seattle-centric. The topics of rail extension and urban development are either minor or non-existent for life east of the Cascades, but they’re significant points of division between Democratic and Republican representatives in Washington.
The extension of the Sound Transit light rail is an especially hot point of debate among the many disagreements between the two leading parties in the state. Rob McKenna has been a vocal opponent of the light rail since his days as a Bellevue city councilman, often proposing freeway extensions and questioning the language of legislation meant to fund new transit projects.
“I am a deep, deep skeptic of the light rail across I-90. I’m not even sure how it’s going to work,” McKenna said to the Eastside Transportation Association in Bellevue on March 21.
Jay Inslee stands out as a strong supporter of the light rail, in keeping with his rhetorical and voting record in favor of alternative energy and transportion.
A growing percentage of Seattle’s population agrees with him. According to the American Public Transportation Association, Sound Transit light rail usage grew by over 12 percent in the past year, which is six times the national average growth of light rail usage. In addition, both polls and city council votes in Bellevue have come out in favor of the contentious eastern light rail extension across Lake Washington. The transit debate remains lively but is far from a 50/50 split west of the mountains.
The argument over same-sex marriage is also a sticking point between Inslee and McKenna that isn’t nearly as contentious on the popular or legislative levels. As the state Attorney General, McKenna has been intimately involved with the process of drafting Referendum 74, the ballot measure that could repeal the marriage equality bill Governor Chris Gregoire signed earlier this year. Recently, some of McKenna’s language was thrown out in court, specifically the statement that the new law “redefines” marriage. McKenna stands with Ref. 74’s proponents while Inslee supports marriage equality, as do all Bellevue district representatives and the majority of polled citizens in King County on either side of the lake. The four Republican state senators who crossed the aisle to support marriage equality hail from a number of East Side districts as well.
Since mid-March, Inslee and McKenna have been hopping across Lake Washington, courting voters and introducing themselves to local businesses. Despite whatever rhetoric suggesting a geographically divided Seattle enters the debate, both Inslee and McKenna are depending upon a politically unified city to win the race. McKenna can’t win without a significant Seattle contingent to bolster his conservative allies in eastern Washington, and Inslee can’t win without a unity of vision between voters on both sides of the city.