Washington State Politics -- Its Past, Present, and Utterly Unpredictable Future

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 5/04/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5451
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On May 24, 2002, Walt Crowley delivered the following historical "primer" on Washington state politics to the Western States Caucus of the Democratic National Committee held in Seattle. The talk reviews the evolution of the state Democratic Party and allied progressive and populist groups from the 1850s forward. Special thanks are owed Karen Marchioro and Jeff Smith, event organizers, for extending this privilege to HistoryLink.

Welcome to the Soviet of Washington

Let me begin with the famous toast offered by U.S. Postmaster and national Democratic Party leader "Big Jim" Farley in the mid-1930s: "To the 47 States of the Union and the Soviet of Washington."

It's one of my favorite stories. Unfortunately it's probably not true. James Farley denied ever saying it, there is no contemporary press report or other documentation of its original utterance, and it makes no sense since the left wing of the state Democratic Party, then organized as the Washington Commonwealth Federation, was among the most loyal supporters of FDR and the New Deal at the time.

While Washington does in fact have a long and proud history of leftwing and progressive politics, this record is counterbalanced by, and sometimes entwined with, darker strands of racism, reaction, provincialism, and xenophobia -- all forces which challenge the Democratic Party throughout the West and the entire nation today.

Looking at Washington state politics from outer space, it might resemble the nation in miniature. The major urban centers on the eastern and western edges of the state tend to be more liberal than the rural, sparsely populated districts in between. Density has generally trumped acreage to elect Democrats and the occasional progressive Republican -- which are very rare today, if not quite extinct.

The Trail from Oregon

Similarly, looking at the broad sweep of the past 150 years, the state's political ontogeny seems to recapitulate the national phylogeny. As the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Democrats dominated the West back in 1853, when Washington gained its independence from Oregon Territory. The new territory's few hundred white settlers petitioned Congress to name their territory "Columbia" for the river which would divide it from Oregon, and strategically, they christened their first counties for newly elected President Franklin Pierce and his short-lived Vice President, William Rufus de Vane King.

At the last moment, Kentucky Congressman Richard H. Stanton persuaded his colleagues to change the territorial name to "Washington" to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia. Thus we have been the "other Washington" for nearly 150 years. This was a good introduction to the vagaries of Congressional politics and the law of unintended consequences.

Speaking of the latter, Chief Seattle and other tribal leaders signed major treaties in 1854 and 1855 which ceded most of their lands in exchange for guaranteed rights to hunt and fish in their accustomed way. These privileges were violated before the ink dried, and it took Washington's tribes 120 years to finally gain definitive legal recognition of their treaty rights with the Boldt Decison. This struggle is far from over, and our local Duwamish Tribe was just ambushed in Washington when the Bush Administration rescinded recognition granted in the final days of the Clinton presidency.

Democratic dominance in the West was shattered by the Civil War, and Republicans -- the self-proclaimed party of business and development -- ruled the roost when Washington was admitted to the Union in 1889. By this time, however, new forces were at play which would undermine Republican hegemony and begin to earn the state its national reputation for inventive, if not downright quirky, politics.

Railroading Washington

Like other Western states, Washington's early economy was founded on agriculture, timber, mining and other extractive industries, all knitted together by steel rails. Gaining a railroad connection to the East was an obsession from the start. Indeed, back in 1845, the first national proposal for a transcontinental railroad named Puget Sound -- not the Willamette Valley or San Francisco Bay -- as its logical western terminus. This manifest destiny also made the development of trade with the Far East a priority from Washington's earliest days.

Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad commenced in 1873 and immediately began to change Washington Territory's social and political landscape. The railroad and other industries imported large numbers of Chinese immigrant workers to lay tracks and to mine coal and other minerals. These workers were initially welcomed by their white neighbors, but respect quickly turned to resentment during the economic downturns of the 1880s, leading to anti-Chinese riots in Seattle and Tacoma and passage of exclusionary federal and state laws all up and down the West Coast.

Seattle would not elect a Chinese American until 1962, when Wing Luke won a seat on the City Council, at the time the highest post yet achieved by any Chinese American in the continental United States. That honor is now held by Governor Gary Locke, by the way.

African Americans were also welcomed at first. Unlike Oregon Territory, which formally banned black residency in order avoid entanglement in the pre-Civil War turmoil over slavery, Washington Territory opened its doors to freedmen and runaway slaves. African Americans planted the seeds for small but prosperous communities in Seattle and other Washington towns early on, and black workers were actively recruited after the Civil War to build railroads and mine coal -- but their exploitation to break early unions would sow later racial strife within the state's emerging labor movement.

Completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1884 and of the Great Northern Railway a decade later set in motion further changes in Washington's politics. The railroads brought prosperity, but at the price of virtual monopoly power. This was very much on the minds of delegates to Washington State's 1889 constitutional convention when they forbid their new government from subsidizing railroads or other private enterprises.

We, the People

As in other Western states, Washington's farmers, workers, and urban middle class progressives soon found a common enemy in the industrial autocrats who controlled the railroads and the Wall Street financiers who triggered a national economic panic -- what we call a depression today -- in 1893. This fueled a populist fusion which triumphed in 1896 with the election of Governor John Rogers under the banner of the People's Party. The coalition provided an unsteady platform from with to govern, however, and Rogers ran for re-election -- and won -- as a Democrat in 1900. Governor Rogers was, by the way, the author of our state's pioneering "barefoot schoolboy law" which guaranteed a public education for every child in Washington.

Women played an important role such reforms, although they could not yet vote. A motion to enfranchise white women in Washington Territory's constitution had failed by just a single vote back in 1853. It has been speculated that if the proposal had included native women -- to whom many of the white male delegates were married -- Washington might have become the first American jurisdiction in which women could vote. As it was, women in our state did not secure the ballot until 1910 -- still a decade ahead of ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Even without electoral franchise, women served as influential leaders in early labor unions, farmer granges, and a wide array of social reform movements in the late 1800s and early twentieth century. Women were especially prominent in the campaign for the prohibition of alcohol, which, frankly, did not help them to woo male voters to the cause of universal suffrage. I should note that Washington went dry just four years after women started voting.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed an explosive growth in Washington's population and work force. Seattle alone tripled in size to more than 250,000 residents, thanks in large part to the city's new prominence as the Gateway to Alaska, established by the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Seattle celebrated its good and ample fortune by hosting its first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, in 1909.

The labor movement also enjoyed good times and experienced a parallel expansion in membership and influence. At the same time, Washington's docks, factory floors, and forests provided fertile soil for socialists, anarchists, and other anti-capitalist radicals such as the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as Wobblies.

With the support of new women voters, various populists, progressives, and other visionaries scored impressive electoral victories in the early twentieth century. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt and other third-party candidates outpolled Democrats and Republicans alike. The progressive left also spearheaded major reforms including the regulation of the railroads, the creation of public port districts and electrical utilities, and state constitutional amendments to authorize legislative referenda, recall elections, and citizen initiatives -- about which I will say more in a moment.

From Red Scare to New Deal

The influence of organized labor peaked in 1919, when a long-simmering waterfront dispute boiled over into calls for a city-wide general strike. Anna Louise Strong, a vocal socialist and member of the Seattle School Board, led the charge in the pages of the Seattle Union Record, the nation's only daily newspaper published by organized labor.

The local labor council authorized the general strike while most mainstream union leaders were away attending a convention, and the city's wheels stopped turning on February 6, 1919, although special labor committees maintained vital public services. The strike began with expectations that it might evolve into a mini-Bolshevik revolution, a prospect which exhilarated local radicals and terrified the business establishment. Both the left's hopes and the right's fears proved exaggerated, and the strike fizzled after just five days.

The Seattle General Strike is often invoked with rose-colored nostalgia by today's left, but it was in fact a disastrous folly for labor and its progressive allies. The hyperbolic rhetoric of strike helped to fuel the post-World War I "Red Scare" and was exploited to justify crackdowns on labor unions and radical groups across the nation. For the next 12 years, most voters would agree with Calvin Coolidge that the business of America was business -- and best run by Republicans.

Labor and the rest of the Democratic left would not recover, ironically, until the nation plummeted into the black hole of the Great Depression. Economic hardship swelled the ranks of both unions and the unemployed, and critics of capitalism of every stripe -- from Technocrats to Communists -- found new audiences for their street corner manifestoes.

Washington went solidly for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and never looked back. Local leftists organized the Washington Commonwealth Federation to stump for the New Deal and parallel state reforms, and the Seattle-based Fraternal Order of Eagles led the national campaign for Social Security. Young Democrats such as future governor Albert Rosellini and future U.S. Senators Warren G. Magnuson, and Henry "Scoop" Jackson rode FDR's coattails to their first electoral victories as federal funds put the unemployed to work building roads and parks and tapped the Columbia River to produce electricity and turn Eastern Washington deserts into wheat fields and orchards.

Not everyone cheered Roosevelt, of course, and least of all Bill Boeing, a former timber magnate who founded a tiny airplane company in 1916 and turned it into a national aircraft and airline conglomerate by 1934. This drew the attention of anti-trust regulators and liberal legislators, who forcibly broke up the combine of Boeing and United Airlines -- and temporarily crippled America's air transport system -- in a campaign that presaged the current predicament of another local alleged monopolist, Bill Gates.

Hot and Cold Wars

The Boeing Company would recover as the clouds of impending world war darkened both the western and eastern horizons. Government orders for thousands of war planes, not to mention ships and host of other materiel bolstered Seattle economy. Boeing Field became so crowded as new B-17 bombers rolled off the assembly line that the Port of Seattle was recruited to build a new regional airport to serve Seattle and Tacoma.

Similarly, the military's appetite for everything from apples to aluminum energized Eastern Washington's economy. Meanwhile, in a secret factory on the banks of the Columbia River near Hanford, Washington, the Army began building a weapon that would transform the world.

World War II transformed the state in other fundamental ways. The internment of Japanese Americans in 1942 sent thousands of citizens far inland, and most would never return. A brave few such as Gordon Hirabayashi protested at the time, but Washington's own William O. Douglas sanctioned this gross violation of Constitutional rights from the Supreme Court bench. Douglas later regretted his action, and I should add that Washington leaders such as Mike Lowry championed the campaign for a national apology and reparations.

Seattle's Japan Town -- then the nation's second largest Japanese American community -- was turned into a ghost town virtually overnight, but it did not remain empty for long. Thousands of African Americans would soon move in and go to work in the ship yards and factories. One of these would also become Boeing's first woman production worker -- the first of thousands of women workers known collectively as Rosie the Riveter.

The effects of World War II on Washington did not end with V-J Day. The use of atomic bombs -- fueled by Hanford plutonium and carried by Boeing B-29s -- assured the state a starring role in the development of the post-war military-industrial complex. In Seattle, African Americans found themselves politely but firmly locked into segregated schools and neighborhoods, while their white coworkers sought housing in new developments east of Lake Washington. Its new floating bridge, completed in 1940, soon became the highway to suburbanization.

All but a few women abandoned their rivet guns and wartime jobs, and embraced their boyfriends and husbands as they returned from the front. Nine months later, the first peals -- or squeals -- of the Baby Boom could be heard in maternity wards across the state and the nation.

The warm dawn of a new era of peace and progress soon turned chilly. The Cold War accelerated funding for new weapons, and Senator Scoop Jackson made sure that Washington got its fair share for Boeing's B-47 and B-52 bombers and Minuteman ICBMs. At the same time, post-war paranoia prompted a new round of red-baiting and radical witch-hunting, pioneered here by an Eastern Washington state legislator, Albert Canwell, five years before Joe McCarthy lent his name to the cause of rooting out closet Communists. Against this back drop, Warren Magnuson bravely and prophetically argued that the best response to Mao Zedong's victory in China was trade, not tirade.

Despite these tensions, Washington politics generally favored the Democratic Party through the 1950s and into the 1960s, inspired by President John Kennedy and locally exemplified by Southwest Washington's Julia Butler Hansen -- only the second woman to be elected to Congress from Washington State -- and younger Representatives such as Brock Adams, Lloyd Meeds, and Tom Foley.

Towards Century 21

Progress was the word du jour in 1962 as Seattle dedicated its second world's fair to "Century 21" but the road to the future would turn out to be a bumpy one with many unexpected turns both left and right.

A few months after Seattle's latest World's Fair opened, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. paid his only visit to Seattle -- and found his auditorium reservation suddenly cancelled. The incident confirmed that racial prejudice and injustice were not confined to the South, and in 1964, supposedly liberal Seattle voters rejected an open housing referendum by two to one.

New political battle lines were soon drawn as movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War polarized Seattle and the entire state. The struggles attracted and tested a new generation of activists of all colors, but they also helped to harden old divisions between liberal and conservative, urban and rural, and the western and eastern sides of the so-called Cascade Curtain.

Through much of this period, Dan Evans occupied the governor's mansion as a progressive Republican and often partnered with liberal allies in the Democratically controlled Legislature, but this did not guarantee passage of essential legislation. Tax reform and transportation investments were blocked by conservatives in both parties, and not even court-ordered redistricting could break the legislative logjam. Liberals turned with growing frequency to the initiative or referendum to advance causes such as women's rights, campaign reform, and environmental protection. In the process they helped to lay the foundation for a de facto fourth branch of government that they could not control.

Politics as a profession fell into deeper disrepute than usual during the 1970s, thanks largely to Richard Nixon's Watergate follies. Voter reaction favored Democrats such as Congressman Norm Dicks in 1976, but it also elevated eccentric, self-styled "amateur" politicians such as Governor Dixy Lee Ray, about whom the least said is most definitely the best.

Reshuffling the Deck

By 1980, a new, restless generation of voters seemed ungrateful for the past half century of social progress and, sharper than a serpent's tooth, resentful of the governmental complex that had arisen out of the Great Depression and Second World War. In truth, they had no memory of these ancient upheavals and no knowledge of the alternatives. For them, the old New Deal was played out, and Ronald Reagan gladly offered to reshuffle the deck.

The new hand dealt Maggie his only electoral defeat in 1980, and death claimed Scoop three years later. For the first time in living memory, Republicans controlled the governor's mansion, Congressional delegation, and Legislature. We can only hope that they enjoyed it because it didn't last long.

Booth Gardner reclaimed the governorship for Democrats in 1984, and Brock Adams defeated Slade Gorton's bid for reelection to the Senate in 1986 (Gorton returned to the Senate in 1988 by narrowly defeating Mike Lowry amid the comic-opera invasion of Grenada). Adams would later self-destruct in a Washington DC sex scandal, but Patty Murray astonished her critics to take the seat in 1992. Bill Clinton and Mike Lowry became the chief executives of both Washingtons, and voters sent a new crop of Democrats such as Maria Cantwell and Mike Kreidler to Congress.

This, too, proved less than permanent as the Newt Right roared into power two years later, even toppling the venerable Tom Foley. It has been reported, I hope inaccurately, that some supporters of Foley's successor were surprised to learn that Spokane's new Representative would not automatically become Speaker of the House.

Today, state Democrats led by Governor Gary Locke and Senators Murray and Cantwell seem to be in the ascendancy once again with six of Washington's nine Congressional seats and narrow majorities in both houses of the legislature. It is small comfort in a state whose politics have been hijacked by the paid petition peddlers and riven by deep ideological divisions over the pace and price of economic gloalization.

Which brings us up to the present day. Historians should not make forecasts -- we have trouble enough seeing the past clearly, let alone the future -- but I think it is safe to say that no one should take the present political alignment as fixed.

I leave you with this thought. The fundamental dynamics of Washington state's politics -- like those in your own states -- are readily discernible and entirely predictable. Unfortunately, the voters aren't.

Thank you.


Delivered May 24, 2002, to the Western Caucus of the Democratic National Central Committee in Seattle, Washington.

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