Washington voters support domestic partnerships, reject tax limits, and fill local offices on November 3, 2009.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/26/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9283

On November 3, 2009, Washington voters become the first in the nation to ratify a legislative measure recognizing  "domestic partnerships" for same-sex couples and older unmarried heterosexual couples, and for the first time defeat an anti-tax initiative sponsored by professional initiative promoter Tim Eyman. County Councilmember Dow Constantine (b. 1961) easily defeats former television news anchor Susan Hutchison in the race for King County Executive. In Seattle, where incumbent Greg Nickels (b. 1955)  lost in the August primary, attorney and activist Mike McGinn (b. 1959) edges out T-Mobile executive Joe Mallahan to win the mayor's office. Seattle's City Attorney is also ousted, but all incumbents running for the City and County councils cruise to victory. Voters in the Pasco-Walla Walla area defeat the only Democratic legislator representing a rural district in Eastern Washington and Republicans also win the two other legislative races on the off-year ballot, also in eastern districts.

"Everything but Marriage"

Referendum 71 asked state voters to approve or reject the "everything but marriage" bill passed by the Legislature earlier in the year, which expanded domestic partnership benefits for same-sex and older unmarried heterosexual couples. The Legislature created domestic partnerships in 2007, giving gay and lesbian partners, as well as unmarried heterosexual couples 62 or older, some rights enjoyed by married couples. The 2007 law covered inheritance rights, hospital visitation, and authority over autopsies and organ donations. In 2008, the Legislature allowed domestic partners to utilize probate, community property, and guardianship laws.

The earlier domestic partner legislation did not spark a referendum battle. However, in 2009, when legislators again expanded domestic partner benefits to include sick leave to care for a partner and rights under adoption and child custody and support laws, gay marriage opponents, who saw the law as a step toward gay marriage in Washington, collected enough signatures to subject the "everything but marriage" bill to a public vote. Domestic partnership supporters appeared to face an uphill battle to get the law approved. No state had ever recognized such relationships in a public vote: the few states with domestic partner benefits adopted them legislatively, as Washington had, and gay marriage was legalized (in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, and New Hampshire) by courts or legislators, not by voters.

The campaign to approve R-71, headed by former Seattle deputy mayor (and current Seattle Storm co-owner) Anne Levinson and supported by leading elected officials including Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947), argued that the issue on the ballot was not marriage but legal rights and protections for same-sex couples. Voters evidently agreed. They approved R-71 by a vote of 951,822 (53.15 percent) to 838,842 (46.85 percent), and the new domestic partnership provisions took effect on December 3, 2009.


Besides bucking the national trend on gay rights votes, Washington voters reversed their own longstanding trend of supporting tax-cutting measures promoted by Tim Eyman, who had introduced a steady stream of them dating to the 1990s. Although Eyman had failed with other types of measures, including 2008's attempt to open up carpool lanes, he had succeeded in passing every tax-cutting measure he placed on the ballot before 2009. Initiative 1033 appeared to follow this successful formula. It would have limited budget increases for city, county, and state government to increases for inflation and population growth, requiring any additional income to go to lowering property taxes, and mandated votes on any tax increase.

I-1033 was initially widely expected to pass and early polls showed it well ahead. But as the recession deepened in the fall of 2009, forcing significant cutbacks in government services, local officials successfully convinced many voters, even in normally conservative, anti-tax areas of Eastern Washington, that I-1033 would devastate their communities. Opponents, including leading businesses and labor unions, spent more than $3 million against the initiative, while supporters spent virtually nothing. The initiative was defeated by a wide margin -- 1,003,943 votes (57.9 percent) to 729,918 votes (42.1 percent) -- with 24 of Washington's 39 counties, including Spokane, Whitman, Walla Walla, Yakima, and many others east of the mountains voting no.

Dow Constantine

The large numbers of King County voters who turned out to support gay rights and reject tax cuts (R-71 won and I-1033 lost in the county by huge margins) were credited with helping Dow Constantine cruise to a surprisingly easy victory over Susan Hutchison in the race for County Executive. Hutchison, known and liked by county residents due to her two decades as a popular news anchor for KIRO-TV, finished first in a crowded eight-person primary and was ahead of Constantine in the polls as late as October. Although she had ties to the Repubican party, voters had amended the county charter in 2008 to make county offices nonpartisan and Hutchison disclaimed any party affiliation in the race, which observers suggested could help her win in the heavily Democratic county.

Although Hutchison maintained that she was nonpartisan, Constantine, who had been elected to the County Council three times as a Democrat, made sure that voters knew that he had strong backing from unions, environmentalists, and other Democratic party constituents. Constantine's campaign, which raised more money than Hutchison's, portrayed the political newcomer as conservative and out of touch with King County values. Hutchison endorsed R-71 and opposed I-1033 (as did Constantine), but failed to win over many who shared those positions.

Constantine was elected with 325,777 votes (59.0 percent) to Hutchison's 224,467 votes (40.7 percent). Ron Sims (b. 1948), the previous elected County Executive, had stepped down in May to serve in the administration of President Barack Obama (b. 1961), so Constantine was sworn in on November 24, 2009, as soon as the vote was certified, to complete the remainder of Sims' term before beginning his full term in January 2010. (Kurt Triplett, formerly Sims's chief of staff, had served by appointment as county executive until the election.)

Down the Ballot

Sims was not the only King County official to leave office before his term expired, although longtime County Assessor Scott Noble's reason for resigning was very different: He pleaded guilty to vehicular assault for a drunk-driving injury accident and the felony conviction disqualified him from holding office. Noble refused to resign until after the filing date for the primary, so the five candidates to fill the remaining two years of his term faced off in the general election without any runoff. Port of Seattle Commissioner Lloyd Hara, who previously served as County Auditor and Seattle City Treasurer, won the position with 144,307 votes (31.99 precent). In the races for King County Council, four incumbents -- Bob Ferguson, Kathy Lambert, Julia Patterson, and Pete von Reichbauer -- were unopposed, and Reagan Dunn easily defeated Beverly Harison Tonda to win re-election as well.

The most dramatic election result in Seattle came in the August primary, where political novices Mike McGinn and Joe Mallahan finished ahead of Greg Nickels, who had dominated Seattle politics and built an international reputation during his two terms in office. After Nickels's defeat, most leading politicians, business groups, and labor unions lined up behind Mallahan. However McGinn, whose campaign relied on a large number of volunteers and touted his environmental activism, prevailed by 105,492 votes (51.1 percent) to 98,302 votes (47.7 percent).

Nickels was not the only two-term incumbent ousted by Seattle voters. Challenger Pete Holmes, a bankruptcy lawyer who had chaired the police review board, trounced City Attorney Tom Carr by 113,081 votes (63.9 percent) to 63,615 votes (35.9 percent) in the November balloting. Holmes promised to oppose construction of a new city jail and stop prosecuting marijuana possession cases and criticized Carr's opposition to public-disclosure laws and crackdown on music clubs. The two Seattle City Council incumbents seeking re-election fared better. Nick Licata and Richard Conlin both won easily. Former King County deputy prosecutor Sally Bagshaw and attorney and environmental activist Mike O'Brien, an ally of Mike McGinn, won open seats on the council.

The mayoral race in the small Snohomish County town of Granite Falls in the foothills of the Cascades, population about 3,300, made national headlines. Haroon Saleem (b. 1954), a Muslim native of Pakistan who had moved to the town less than a decade earlier to run the Timberline Café, defeated incumbent mayor Lyle Romack in a landslide victory -- "a result," NBC News reported, "that residents say would have been inconceivable not long ago" ("Blue-collar Town Elects ...").

State officials and legislators are normally elected in even-numbered years, but in 2009 there were three special elections to fill state House of Representatives seats that had been vacated partway through the term of office. All three were in Eastern Washington and all three were won by Republicans, including the 16th District encompassing Walla Walla and Columbia counties and portions of Benton and Franklin counties that was the only rural Eastern Washington district then represented by a Democrat. Following the death of Democratic Representative Bill Grant, who had served for more than 20 years, his daughter and fellow Democrat Laura Grant was appointed to the seat, but had to run to keep it and lost by a wide margin to Terry Nealey. In the 9th District, the top-two primary system resulted in two Republicans vying to replace Republican Steve Hailey, who also had died in office, and Susan Fagan defeated Hailey's widow Pat Hailey to claim the seat. David Taylor easily won the 15th District seat vacated when fellow Republican Dan Newhouse became Governor Gregoire's agriculture secretary.


"November 3, 2009 General," Washington Secretary of State website accessed January 15, 2010 (http://vote.wa.gov/Elections/WEI/?ElectionID=32); "Election Results," King County Elections website accessed January 15, 2010 (www.kingcounty.gov/elections/results.aspx); Keith Ervin and Emily Heffter, "Candidates Throw Hats in Ring as Filing Deadline Passes," The Seattle Times, June 6, 2009 (http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/web/); Keith Ervin, "Hutchison, Constantine to Face Off for King County Executive in November," Ibid., August 18, 2009; Sanjay Bhatt, "Lloyd Hara Ahead in Tight King County Assessor Contest," Ibid., November 3, 2009; Curt Woodward, "Gop Beats Only Statehouse Dem in Rural E. Wash.," Ibid., November 3, 2009; Bob Young, "Constantine Defeats Hutchison for King County Exec," Ibid., November 3, 2009; Nick Perry, "Pete Holmes Easily Defeats Incumbent Tom Carr in Seattle City-Attorney Race," Ibid., November 3, 2009; Steve Miletich, "Seattle City Council: Conlin, Licata, Bagshaw, O'Brien Have Commanding Leads," Ibid., November 3, 2009; Curt Woodward, "Revenue Cap Initiative Loses Badly in Wash. State," Ibid., November 4, 2009; Woodward, Analysis: Wash. Tax Activists Lose, but Roll On," Ibid., November 4, 2009; Rachel La Corte, "Gay Partnership Measure Approved by Voters," Ibid., November 5, 2009; Manuel Valdes, "Mallahan Concedes Seattle Mayor Race; Mcginn Wins," Ibid., November 9, 2009; Eli Sanders and Dominic Holden, "Election 2009: Winners and Losers," The Stranger website accessed January 15, 2010 (www.thestranger.com/seattle/election-2009-winners-and-losers/Content?oid=2708202); "Blue-collar Town Elects a Muslim Mayor," NBC News website accessed November 10, 2017 (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/33995024/ns/us_news-life/t/blue-collar-town-elects-muslim-mayor/#.WgYMvLjAHDc).
This essay was corrected on May 11, 2010, and expanded slightly on November 10, 2017.

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