Pike Place, Seattle — There’s a skiffle band, string bass, washboard guitar, playing outside the old market near the harbour this morning. Being Seattle, the singer’s in half burlesque, fishnets and scarlet red dress, as she sings old hobo songs. Saturday morning crowd of Seattle metro, a city that’s had the hipster ethic so long it’s simply urban style now — topiary beard, ’50s Dame Edna glasses, skateboards for seniors. The city sprawls, hundreds of suburbs of wooden bungalows, old labour town, timber and mill workers, shipping, across a half-dozen big islands and coasts round Puget Sound, ever-present low skies and rolling fogs. Home of Boeing, then Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, then grunge-become-hipster, coffee and alt culture, Seattle made itself the template for the future — a tired industry town, plugging culture and intellect back into the heart of the economy. The state has its conservative areas, but it’s reliably blue overall, and Seattle is, well, Prussian, the centre going for Obama by around 80%.
In these midterms, the era that Washingtonians thought they were ushering in is under threat — the Senate hangs on a knife-edge, and the House of Representatives is so deep in a Republican majority that it will take at least four elections for the Democrats to get back into competition. Washington state, with four out of 10 House seats held by the Republicans, could help out with that, you would think. But you’d be wrong. There won’t be a Congressional election in Washington state of any consequence this time round. In Coffee Works, opposite Starbucks — the first Starbucks, a tatty hippy coffee place in the early ’70s, now schmicked up to standard livery, essentially a Starbucks replaced by a Starbucks — Seattle’s last political blogger is explaining to me why that is.
“We don’t do ‘corruption’ in Washington,” said David “Goldy” Goldstein of “HorsesAss”, a left-progressive blog. Sometimes with iconic alt-weekly The Stranger (Seattle pretty much invented the contemporary alt-weekly, too), Goldstein is one of the thousands who came west in the early ’90s for a new life. “That wouldnt be ‘us’. But somehow there isn’t a competitive district in the state.”
There are few competitive districts in the nation, largely because state legislatures draw the boundaries, usually ludicrously, gerrymandering at will. Washington doesn’t — and the fact that it too has ended up with nine locked-in seats and one pseudo-contest is a measure of the institutional crisis of American politics.
“We have a ‘bipartisan’ commission, not independent — note, bipartisan. Two Dems, two GOP,” explained Goldstein.
They carve it up nicely. This time round — in 2011-12, after the 2010 census — they went to town. The state got a new district, which was shaped exactly for the political base of statehouse Democratic majority leader, Denny Heck, around the state capitol of Olympia, to Seattle’s south. “We call it the Heck district.” Heck had run for the third district in ’10 and lost. The new 10th was simply parts of the third he won, plus some other bits. As quid pro quo for the GOP, the commission hived some urban bits off the eighth, a once-rural district east of Seattle being changed to — gasp — competitiveness by sprawl. A once compact district, it now looks like a butterfly, reaching eastward to grab some rural counties and ensure that ex-sheriff Dave Reichert remains safe.
The first district, centred on Seattle metro, had become less safe than hitherto, so it became the second, gained a slice of the north shore, near the Microsoft and tech campuses, and landed back in safe Dem category. “The first, the new first — that was designed to be a genuinely competitive seat,” Goldstein said with ironic pride. Sadly, the GOP decided it was a fix, with local Dem Suzan DelBene, ex-Microsoft (the district runs from Redmond, the north Seattle home of Microsoft to conservative areas on the Canadian border) and thus rich from options, bankrolling her own campaign (thus, no spending limits). The GOP selected, surprise, another ex-Microsoft employee, who is, well there’s no easy way to say this, a dour Mexican with a thick accent. A dour Mexican with a thick accent named Pedro. Vote for Pedro. Yes, the GOP went full postmodern and punked their own preselection with a Napoleon Dynamite reference.
Respect for that, but it means that the district is only listed as competitive to save embarrassment, for, from northern California to Canada, across to Minnesota, and down to Utah, there is not a single district likely to change hands. In Washington state, that would mean someone could run a grassroots independent campaign and ace them both, right? Goldstein smiled. “Yeah, there’s a primary system.” Washington’s blanket primary system is all-in — it means that everyone, Dem, GOP, independent, votes earlier in the year from among dozen or more candidates of all parties to see which two will go onto the ballot for the election. And only those two. This produces some amazing results.
“There’s a competitive election in the fourth,” DelBene’s press man had said when I rang to see if he would divulge that deepest of secrets in a US election — where a local candidate will actually be turning up to (tell the local press an hour before, take your own photos, issue a release — no stunts, no awkward questions, no doorstopping). “Really, I thought that was pretty conservative?” “Well they’re both Republicans.” Yes, the most competitive race in a blue state is between the GOP establishment and a Tea Party candidate. The potential Democrats in the area — a god-bothering slice in the south-east — are unrepresented on the ballot. “There’s a lot of Hispanics there, the Dems could make that competitive, but …” said Goldstein. “But” meaning that this system, in a state of honest and politically attentive people, positively rewards running dead.
Here, Seattle elected the first socialist city councillor for decades, Kshama Sawant, and she led a $15 minimum wage campaign that has rolled across the nation — yet there is no way, on the ground, to push back against it. So what do people do? “Well, there’s a lot of energy going into I-594”, a ballot initiative (i.e. referendum) to enforce background checks on private handgun sales (i.e. at gunshows, where most homicidal crazies load up on merchandise). Some states have done this by legislation, and the Supreme Court hasn’t vetoed it. Washington state would be the first to do it by acclaim — and thus the first to defeat the National Rifle Association with a ground game. I recalled then that I’d seen a few “yes to I-594” placards at the market, near the pot pies stall and the vintage toys section, and thought it was boosters pushing a new freeway. So politics goes on, but it flows to where something can be done. Sawant’s election showed that grassroots action is possible, but everything else shows the other side.
DelBene is self-bankrolling, yes to I-594 has the backing of tech money, the Paul Allens, Bill Gateses etc, which is one reason the NRA has largely quit the field. Goldstein himself works for a billionaire’s proto-think tank project for new economics. Politics has passed into a new phase where money plus some grassroots has to be got together, before you slug it out in the great post-mass America, the TV markets and YouTube ads, the social networks and patch sites.
Which is a new thing. Any fool system can be corrupt and be run by money and a political fix. It takes a real smart process to bring it all together in a place where people want to be political. That is the root of much of the paralysis affecting the US at the moment, in everything from education to Ebola, why the town has one pol blogger remaining and why, in Pike’s Place, the agora of the modern, politics seems far over the horizon, behind the rolling mists.