25 Grassroots Democrats Swung a Fateful Local Election - and Changed Washington
Cross-posted in a different version at Daily Kos.
The two State Representatives for Washington's 47th Legislative District, Geoff Simpson and Pat Sullivan, spoke at the Democratic caucus yesterday, detailing the many victories of the past legislative session and covering some of the recent history of this district.
In 2000, the 47th was represented on the state level by three Republicans. We had the ultra-conservative, friend of developers Senator Steve Johnson, who's still in office. We had Phil Fortunato, a scrappy partisan Republican known for flying off the handle. And we had drunk driving, cockfighting Representative Cairnes, who's my model of a really bad legislator. Cairnes once invited high school students to present a class project to him in Olympia and then responded to them with a rebuke: "You guys are a bunch of wackos". He was a big supporter of the 2004 gambling initiative, clearly rejected by both liberal and conservative voters of the 47th. All three of these Republicans were what I think of as ideologically extreme (although I genuinely appreciate Fortunato's support of midwifery).
These characterizations are my own, by the way. Representatives Simpson and Sullivan didn't mention the Republican legislators. See below for cites on the Cairnes incidents.
The Democratic organization in the 47th was small in 2000. George Bush brought people like me out in 2004, but at that time, monthly meetings sometimes gathered around a member's dining room table. 2004, the year Simpson and Sullivan were both elected, was the first since the 1980s in which the 47th had more than one Democrat in state office.
Anyway, back to 2000. That year Geoff Simpson won by less than 150 votes, a thin margin indeed in a district with tens of thousands of voters. The election was decided by a court decision almost five weeks after the election night results came in. That was also the year that Pat Sullivan lost by 90 votes. (25 or so Democrats were powerful, but could have used just a few more cohorts). In such a tight election, any factor, including the actions of the Democrats who spent weeks phone-calling and doorbelling and registering voters and donating and holding up signs on street corners, can be credited as a deciding factor.
Simpson's presence in the House changed Washington's political landscape in a big way. When he entered, the Democrat-Republican balance shifted to a 49-49 tie. This made for a dramatic year. The budget negotiations, for example, which went overtime in a year where legislators had to struggle with the shortfalls created by Eyman's I-695, would have resulted in a very different outcome if Republicans had had unrestrained control.
The year 2001, righ after the 47th finally got a Democrat in office, was also the year when Washington State was redistricted. I went to the several people at the caucus who'd contributed to that fateful 2000 election to shake their hands and thank them. Tyler Page, one of the key activists told me that, because our district was represented in Olympia by a Democrat and two Republicans -- instead of three Republicans -- Democrats had the ability to advocate for a more balanced 47th District. And in fact, he said, the boundaries of the 47th were just about the last to be decided in negotiations that went overtime. The convoluted, some would say tortured, outline of the 47th is a testament to the complexity of these negotiations and the high stakes they represented. The redistricting made the 47th a more Republican district (we're estimated to have lost about 350 Democratic voters) -- a disadvantage that was partially overcome by 2002 when Simpson won by a slim 1,001 votes but Pat Sullivan still didn't quite make it. However, without Democratic representation in the district during the 2000 redistricting, the disadvantage would likely have been even deeper.
In 2004-2006, Washington State's abusive Republican culture of lies, campaign smears, and contrary opposition to every tax, environmental, ethics, and human rights measure continued to flourish, causing one Republican, Rodney Tom, to switch over to the Democrats citing the extremism of his colleagues, another to leave one of the Republican caucuses for the same reason, and several to decry their party's actions in the sex smear case. Because of a Democratic majority, legislators, including moderate Republicans, guided through landmark legislation in transportation, education, environmental, energy, and civil rights improvements. Arguably, the efforts of the 25 or so Democrats in the 47th Legislative District in 2000, including that of Geoff Simpson, who offered his service as a legislator, made this possible. Likewise, our opportunity in 2006 to turn the 47th all blue, turns on this valiant effort back in 2000.
The significance of citizen action goes beyond the results of individual elections, no matter how fateful. Each person who takes the time to work in politics - and I mean Republicans too - does something profoundly supportive of democracy. Essentially, grassroots political action is a way to distribute political power. An individual who takes action assumes a tiny fraction of the power that is available to all citizens.
In the 47th in 2000, this action was determinative of today's political landscape. The same goes for the citizen actions in 2004, statewide. Each of us who registered Democratic voters, for example, had a hand in the fateful outcome of the legislative and gubernatorial elections. But always, citizen action is a foundation for democracy, no matter what the outcome. In the United States, the concentration of political power, control over the flow of information, and economic power is leading us into deadly political, economic, social, and environmental outcomes. It is only the distributed efforts of individuals who can pull us off this brink.
When I doorbell or register voters, people often tell me that what they do makes no difference anyway. All politicians are crooked. All elections are rigged. I hear this a lot from African Americans, who have special reason to feel disenfranchised. The recent history of the 47th is a kind of 'proof of concept' that individuals have power. Each of us has the ability to help awake the "clean power" of citizen vigilance by helping others recognize the power they hold. It's what's going to return Geoff Simpson and Pat Sullivan to office and help Darcy Burner overturn DC Dave in the 8th CD.
(References: Cockfighting, a controversial, economic boost, 4/5/05, API; Voters forgive DUI arrests, will panel, Postman, Seattle Times, 3/4/03; and Thomas, Lesson in Political Lawmaking Inflicts Sting, Seattle Times, 1/04)