Diverse new 1st District a political battleground

Monroe voters like their members of Congress to be Republican. But for a dozen years, they’ve gone without.

That streak could end this fall.

As a result of redistricting, Monroe finds itself in a physically reshaped and politically reoriented 1st Congressional District with an open seat up for grabs in the November election.

Those responsible for the once-a-decade redrawing of boundaries converted the 1st District from an urban safe haven for a liberal Democrat to a mix of farmland and suburbia from the Canadian border to Medina, where partisans are equally divided — and where Republicans can win.

“It may easily be the most evenly divided congressional district in the United States of America,” Republican commissioner Slade Gorton at the unveiling of the borders in December. “Certainly it’s that in the state of Washington.”

This political balance coupled with a vacant seat — incumbent U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., is giving it up to run for governor — has brought a surge of candidates. At one point 11 candidates had announced, though now it’s down to eight: one Republican, six Democrats and an independent.

For Monroe, the shifting political sands improve the chances of electing a Republican for the first time since Jack Metcalf served the city in the ’90s.

They also will allow residents to speak with one voice.

The city is being reunited under one congressional banner after a decade of being divided between Inslee’s 1st District and the 2nd District represented by Democratic Congressman Rick Larsen.

Even split, voters often favored the Republican opponent to the Democrat incumbents. In 2010, Inslee trounced Republican James Watkins enroute to re-election, but Watkins won 55 percent in the Monroe precincts. Similarly, Larsen was re-elected, but Republican John Koster claimed more votes in the portion of Monroe in that district.

“It will make Monroe much more significant because we’ll all be in one district,” said state Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe.

At sunrise, on a clear day, a more magnificent vista than the one from outside Medina City Hall may not exist.

To the south, the snowcapped peak of Mount Rainier pokes above a patch of clouds. Westward across the water is Seattle and looking north one sees the waters of Lake Washington.

City Hall, an unassuming wood structure with a to-die-for waterfront address, is where political cartographers settled on as the southwest tip of Washington’s new 1st Congressional District.

From here, their pens steered north through the King County communities of Kirkland and Redmond and east to Carnation and Fall City.

Heading into Snohomish County, the district takes in Bothell, Mill Creek, Snohomish and Lake Stevens; Monroe, Sultan and Granite Falls.

From there it travels through Sedro-Woolley and Mount Vernon in Skagit County into Whatcom County and its rural communities of Lynden, Deming, Everson, Blaine and Ferndale.

Finally, the district extends west along the international border to include Point Roberts, whose residents must drive through Canada in order to reach Whatcom County and the rest of the country.

In many ways, this district is a microcosm of Washington.

Demographically, it has the ultra rich in their mansions in Medina, the middle class in their subdivisions in Bothell and the working poor in Section 8 housing in nearly every city. Economically, there’s the software superpower Microsoft in Redmond, the epicenter of raspberry farming in Lynden and the suppliers of aerospace components in Sedro-Woolley.

Kirkland is the birthplace of Costco and Ferndale is where oil refineries produce a chunk of the gasoline fueling cars in Washington. This new district is home to one of the only Shinto shrines in the nation and largest state prisons in the state.

And this district can lay claim to one of the state’s most dangerous highways, U.S. 2, and one of the most congested, I-405. There’s the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, a branch campus of the research university, plus a slew of community and technical colleges.

Washington’s 1st Congressional District has a population of 672,444 people. Just under half of them live in the current congressional district and won’t be changing jurisdictions.

Of the newcomers, most are arriving from Larsen’s district. A sliver, including those in Medina, Clyde Hill and the Points communities, is coming from the 8th Congressional District served by Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert.

Politically, it is defined as a swing district, meaning the congressional seat is not considered a guaranteed win for either major party. Redistricting commissioners Gorton and Democrat Tim Ceis said they wanted to craft it that way. They did so by reviewing how Republican and Democratic candidates performed in the new boundaries in recent elections.

In 2010, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray beat Republican Dino Rossi statewide. But within the new boundaries, Rossi outpolled Murray by the margin of 50.99 percent to 49.01 percent, according to data compiled by staff of the state Redistricting Commission.

They looked at 2008 as well.

Democrat Barack Obama collected 57.3 percent in the district to Republican challenger Sen. John McCain’s 42.7 percent. However, in the race for governor, Rossi edged incumbent Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.

Digging deeper into the numbers, it’s clear more Democrat voters are in the south and more Republican voters in the north. Obama picked up 63.3 percent of the votes cast in the King County portion of the new district; McCain snagged 53.7 percent in Whatcom County.

Political analysts can look at the same data and come to other conclusions.

Kyle Kondik, who monitors House of Representative races for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, gives Democrats a slight edge in holding the seat based solely on Obama’s performance.

“It leans Democrat with President Obama atop the ticket,” he said. “He has coattails for federal candidates.”

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, said Democrat candidates won’t grab a majority in the north, with all the conservative Republicans living there. Some of the Democratic candidates may prove too liberal for the centrist Democrats in the southern half as well.

“It’s the perfect district for a different kind of Republican,” he said.

By the time a map of the new district was unveiled in late December, a crowd of candidates had already declared.

Once 11, today, eight men and women say they’re running; the two who get the most votes in the August primary will advance.

There’s one Republican, Snohomish County Councilman John Koster of Arlington, and one independent, Larry Ishmael of Redmond.

Six are Democrats: state Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, state Rep. Roger Goodman of Kirkland, former state Rep. Laura Ruderman of Kirkland, Darcy Burner of Carnation, Suzan DelBene of Medina and Darshan Rauniyar of Bothell.

“It will be a race to watch in 2012. There is no doubt about that,” Ceis said.

Who’s in the 1st District race

New boundaries and a vacancy are why so many people are campaigning to become the next United States representative from the 1st Congressional District. At one point, 11 people had entered the race. Today, the number is eight. Candidates will formally file in May for the August primary. The two with the most votes will face off in the November general election. Here’s a snapshot of those competing today.

John Koster

Party: Republican

Age: 60

Occupation: Snohomish County councilman

Political: Elected 2001, 2005 and 2009; lost to U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen in 2000, 2010

Steve Hobbs

Party: Democrat

Age: 42

Hometown: Lake Stevens

Occupation: State senator, National Guard member

Political: Elected in 2006, re-elected in 2010

Darcy Burner

Party: Democrat

Age: 41

Hometown: Carnation

Occupation: Former executive director of ProgressiveCongress.org, former Microsoft manager

Political: Lost to U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in 2006, 2008

Suzan DelBene

Party: Democrat

Age: 50

Hometown: Medina

Occupation: Former director of state Department of Revenue, former Microsoft vice president

Political: Lost to U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert in 2010

Roger Goodman

Party: Democrat

Age: 51

Hometown: Kirkland

Occupation: State representative

Political: Elected 2006, re-elected 2008 and 2010

Darshan Rauniyar

Party: Democrat

Age: 42

Hometown: Bothell

Occupation: Retired businessman, co-founded Flash Ventures

Political: First run for office

Laura Ruderman

Party: Democrat

Age: 41

Hometown: Kirkland

Occupation: Fundraising consultant

Political: Served three terms as state representative (1998-204), lost to Secretary of State Sam Reed in 2004

Larry Ishmael

Party: Independent

Age: 59

Hometown: Kirkland

Occupation: Associate professor of economics, Northwest University in Kirkland

Political: Lost to U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee in 2006, 2008

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