Washington: Greens storm the suburbs

  • Cartoon: Confused voter

    Rob Pudim
 

Northwest environmental activists have branched out from their natural urban habitat and invaded the bright shiny suburbs of the Pacific Northwest, looking to wake up the green vote that slept through the 1994 election.

Washington state has become a national battleground since 1994, when it threw out five Democratic House members - including Speaker Tom Foley - and elected a total of six new Republican congressmen. Most of them had campaigned against the Clinton administration's spotted owl protection plan for the Northwest and the Endangered Species Act, instead backing the wise-use movement and property rights groups.

Three of these freshmen hailed from largely suburban districts that had previously chosen Democrats: Rick White, who represents Seattle's northern suburbs; Randy Tate, who serves the state's newest congressional district; and Linda Smith from southwestern Washington, where the largest city, Vancouver, is a growing bedroom community for Portland.

These freshmen were true to their campaign promises: They became loyal troops in Speaker Newt Gingrich's revolution to roll back health, safety and environmental laws.

Back in Seattle, the defeated environmentalists mobilized. The day after the election, Bill Arthur, director of the Sierra Club's Northwest office, wrote a memo to his colleagues outlining a strategy to unseat the suburban freshmen. For most of last year, they rebuilt their grassroots, aired attack ads against White and Tate on issues like the so-called "Dirty Water Bill" and staged demonstrations against the timber salvage rider. At the bottom of their effort was the reasoning that the ideological extremism of the Washington freshmen Republicans didn't jibe with the moderate environmentalism of their suburban constituents. Most of the freshmen had won office by margins of only a few thousand votes.

"We're out in the suburbs and cul-de-sacs of America talking to people" and raising the awareness of environmental issues instead of trying to lobby an anti-environmental Congress, Arthur says.

The efforts of the environmentalists - and the records of the incumbents - yielded quick results. The results of the Sept. 17 Washington primary election - in which three incumbents received less than 50 percent of their party's vote - show there is a chance to elect a pro-environment slate of up to six Washington state Democrats to Congress, according to Arthur.

Tate is under the most intense attack from environmentalists. His near-zero voting record and vulnerability to defeat earned him a spot on the League of Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list. And in the primary, Tate was the only incumbent who was outpolled by his Democratic challenger, State Sen. Adam Smith.

A surprising outcome of the primaries was a lower-than-expected 52 percent showing by Rep. Linda Smith, who had been considered too popular for a concerted defeat effort. In light of her poor showing, Arthur plans to put additional resources into defeating her in southwestern Washington's 3rd Congressional District.

Her Democratic challenger, Brian Baird, a psychology professor and political newcomer who drew 48 percent of the primary vote, focused much of his campaign on restoring endangered salmon and protecting old-growth forests.

At first, it wasn't easy for activists to gain ground in suburbia. Its residents were disturbed by environmental activists' failure to acknowledge the country's positive gains in environmental protection. "They don't believe that the world is perfect, but they believe we've made progress, (that) the air and water are cleaner than they were a quarter of a century ago," Arthur said.

The greens also had trouble hammering home their message that Congress was willfully eroding environmental protection, because voters simply couldn't believe that it would. But if told their members of Congress were catering to special interests who gave them big campaign contributions, the suburbanites found it believable.

So activists re-packaged their campaign in a pro-family light. Environmental groups ran a 60-second radio ad in the Puget Sound area that focused on children worrying about the air, water and trees. In this "mouths of babes' spot, "America the Beautiful" played in the background as the narrator said, "They are trusting us to take care of America."

Tony Williams, chief of staff to Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who has been helping several of the freshmen with their re-election campaigns, said the suburban vote will be decisive in some races. Tate in particular is in trouble, Williams agreed. "That race is going to be door-to-door," and may be determined by as few as 8,000 politically independent households, he said.

But Williams said Republicans have proven they can win big in suburban areas. Vancouver, in Linda Smith's district, has grown fast and isn't deeply tied to one party. But in his 1994 re-election bid, Gorton, a conservative critic of environmental laws, captured 60 percent of the vote in Clark County, which includes Vancouver.

All six House freshmen from Washington are vulnerable and will have close contests, Arthur predicted. "Clearly there is a wind blowing out there; it's just hard to tell how hard it's blowing until November," he said.

Larry Swisher writes from Washington, D.C.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- Skunked Democrats hope to turn the tide

This article is part of a feature package - about the 1996 election - that includes these other articles:

- Greens prune their message to win the West's voters

- Colorado: Environment wielded like a hammer in tight Senate race

- Utah: A liberal wilderness lover may prevail

- Montana: A scrappy Republican tries to cut down a green Democrat

- California: A 28-year-old talks the talk to green voters

- Montana: For veteran Baucus, it seems to be in the bag

- Arizona: Harvesting a bumper crop of bombast

- Nevada: Who hates nuclear waste most?



High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...