"Waiting For the Big One" by Walt Crowley

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 11/03/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7537

A condensed edition of this essay was published in The Seattle Times Sunday Opinion Section on October 30, 2005. This version offers a fuller tour of Washington’s “tectonic” political shifts and elections.

Waiting for the Big One

It seems like we’re always waiting for “the BIG one” around here, partly in fear, partly in guilty anticipation of the delicious mayhem it will cause. We know the destruction will be terrible and expensive to repair. Yet, we also want to shake things up so we can rebuild on a stronger foundation. We even get impatient because we know it’s a matter of when, not if.

And there’s also the risk of the next major earthquake.

I’m talking about tectonic elections -- those rare 6-point-plus-Richter-Scale temblors that topple conventional wisdom, humble governing elites, unleash populist hordes, and generally rearrange the geopolitical terrain for decades to come. They rumble from deep within the electorate as the shifting plates of public opinion grind against each other or molten voter outrage explodes in pyroclastic gushes of reform or reaction.

What distinguishes these events is that they always take everybody (especially incumbents and pundits) completely by surprise, and they always turn out to have been completely predictable -- at least when viewed afterward. As noted, these titanic clashes are not common. Some require decades to build pressure and momentum for some great political eruption. Others are more subtle, like “dome-building” episodes in Mount St. Helens’ crater. A rock fall here, a burp of gas there, and the next thing you know you have a whole new political landscape.

Does the November 8 general election hold any potential for similar political shock and awe? What started out as a victory lap for most of greater Seattle’s governing elite has already witnessed a few stumbles and missteps; the Monorail has jumped its track; and the gas tax repeal could ignite an amorphous anti-big-everything protest vote. Sifting the strata of past political upheavals might help us gauge the risk level for this November.

How far back should we go? Ironically, the first “recorded” event in modern state history was the great earthquake of January 26, 1700, whose tsunami splashed Japanese scribes on the far side of the Pacific. A comparable political moment might be August 21, 1851, when a few score white settlers living north of the Columbia River assembled at Cowlitz Landing (near present-day Toledo) to petition Congress to divorce “Columbia Territory” from Oregon. They got their independence on March 2, 1853, although Congress -- in its infinite wisdom -- named the territory “Washington” to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia.

At the time, Democrats dominated both state and national politics, but all sides were united in their eagerness to exploit and develop the West, notwithstanding the views of the original residents. The Civil War and its aftermath delayed Washington’s admission to the Union by decades (Oregon joined in 1859). National Republicans did not welcome Washington until 1889, when they were finally confident of electing statewide GOP majorities.

Despite this, the state retained its populist streak -- anti-corporate, pro-labor and sometimes nativist. This movement coalesced in 1896 with the election of Governor John Rogers on a progressive “Fusionist” ticket for public education, economic regulation, and woman’s suffrage.

The latter issue runs through Washington’s political bedrock like a great subterranean river, occasionally surfacing to sweep away everything in its path. The Territory’s founding fathers had missed the historic opportunity to enfranchise women by a single vote back in 1853; their more staid successors soundly rejected woman’s suffrage in adopting the state’s 1889 Constitution. Delayed but not to be denied, women and their allies amended the state constitution once and for all in 1910 (a decade ahead of the nation) and women used their franchise to advance an ambitious social and political agenda, including Prohibition (adopted by Washington early in 1915 and repealed early in 1932).

Meanwhile, the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 triggered a period of unprecedented prosperity and development in Seattle and the whole state as the twentieth century dawned. It also afforded the leisure for political and economic innovation and debate, much of it focused on the “obvious” flaws of the capitalist system, corrupt local governments, and timid urban planning. Social and civil engineers like R. H. Thomson, John Olmsted, and J. D. Ross bestrode the landscape, flattening hills, planting parks, damming rivers, and creating a legacy of public works that lifted Washington through the Great Depression and helped win a World War.

Republicans surged back into office after V-J Day, then Democrats rebounded under Governor Al Rosellini (1910-2011) in 1956, and local and state elections were notable chiefly for their lack of excitement. Things didn’t get interesting until 1964, when a young Republican engineer named Dan Evans bucked that year’s Lyndon Johnson landslide to topple Rosellini. At the same time, the U.S. Senate team of Warren G. Magnuson and Henry Jackson quietly accumulated seniority and allies to create one of the most powerful delegations in the other Washington.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were marked by a great expansion of government programs, greater inclusion of citizen input, environmental regulation, and expansion of women’s and civil rights. Liberals made ample and mostly successful use of initiatives and referenda to advance their reforms, but there were also great disappointments, notably in voter rejection of light rail plans in 1968 and 1970. Tax reform stalled, and fiscal conservatives scored their own victories in capping public levies and spending.

In the wake of Watergate, disgusted voters turned to “outsiders” such as President Jimmy Carter, Governor Dixy Lee Ray, and Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, while electing a new Congressional generation led by Norm Dicks. Then the Reagan Revolution swept both Washingtons, and Slade Gorton and Dan Evans claimed the Senate seats of Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson, John Spellman defeated Jim McDermott for governor, and conservative Republicans took over the Legislature.

Special-interest “boutique” ballot issues proliferated in the 1990s thanks to the use of paid signature gatherers. Conservatives elbowed into an old liberal franchise to launch a rolling insurrection by initiative and referendum -- capping state spending, repealing affirmative action, rolling back car tabs, and attacking transportation plans.

Recent partisan stalemates in the Legislature (a sign of a divided and dubious electorate) have also advanced the right’s causes or at least thwarted the left, yet conservatives have not been able to secure a “permanent” victory, not even after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. Anti-government populists may dominate the talk shows and command legions of paid signature-gatherers, but traditional liberals like Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, and Christine Gregoire hold the levers of power.

Which brings us to the present day. The most talked about local race, oddly, is the one with the least suspense: Mayor Greg Nickels’ guaranteed reelection. Despite liberal flak for his aggressive administrative style and for pro-development strategies, Nickels won a ringing 57 percent endorsement in the primary, the best margin for an incumbent mayor in 20 years).

Mayors and other chief executives cozy up to developers for the same reason Willie Sutton used to rob banks -- because that’s where the money is. Greg Nickels is acting out an honorable tradition of bending private fortunes and ambitions to promote the commonweal. I think most voters understand this.

Indeed, I sense the coalescence of a new pragmatism this fall, a post- Katrina sobriety, a hangover cure brewed up by the incompetence of Bourbon Street responders and the faith-based follies of Baghdad. A raw egg and bromo chaser accompanied by a promise-to-God never to do that again.

Such a backlash can cut both ways, re-electing most higher-level incumbents in city and county government. At the same time, where clear choices have been articulated, this same pragmatism could shake up the old guard on the Port of Seattle Commission and the Seattle School Board.

Like all popular uprisings, the new movement will demand a sacrifice: in this case, the monorail. Disappointed voters – particularly former supporters like myself -- will pack up the train set in its burst bubble wrap of betrayed idealism and move on to the more sobering challenges of replacing the viaduct, fixing the 520 bridge, and finishing Sound Transit.

The Monorail’s demise may deflate some of the rhetoric fueling the Initiative 912 gas tax repeal. After this summer’s national hosing at the gas pumps and New Orleans’ vivid illustration of the costs of deferred infrastructure investments, voters might figure out that the state’s paltry 9.5 cent gas tax increase is a mosquito bite compared to all the world-class profit-guzzling going on around them.

Who knows? Maybe voters will finally get mad at the real bad guys, instead of the poor state and local politicians and engineers who try to keep the state’s economic engine running on fumes.

Now that would truly be an earth-shaking election.


Walt Crowley is director of HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. His latest book, coauthored with Kit Oldham, is Moving Washington Timeline: The First Century of the Washington State Department of Transportation, 1905-2005. The views in this essay are solely Mr. Crowley’s.

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