Eastside GOP state Senator Bill Finkbeiner's resignation, announced last week ("It's time to try a different path") has Democrats salivating over the prospect of taking control of 10—if not all 12—state legislative seats that represent the supposed Republican strongholds of Kirkland, Bellevue, Kent, and Mercer Island. Finkbeiner, the now-former senate minority leader who, to the chagrin of his caucus, cast the deciding yea vote on the gay rights bill—made his retirement announcement just a month and a half after GOP Eastside house member Rodney Tom (R-48) announced he was switching parties to run as a Democrat against Republican Senator Luke Esser (R-48).
"I don't think Bellevue's going to be a Republican community anymore," state Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz says, predicting that the much-hyped "Democratic Revolution"—the Dems' version of 1994's Gingrich Revolution—will take place for certain, at the local level.
Less than 10 years ago, the suburban turf—the 45th, 48th, 41st, and 47th Districts, north to south respectively from Woodinville to Kent—didn't have a single Democrat in Olympia. Then, in 1998, a young Democrat named Laura Ruderman established a beachhead, getting elected to a house seat in the 45th—Finkbeiner's northern district. By 2004, that Democratic beachhead expanded south to include 6 out of 12 seats.
When I asked Democratic pollster Don McDonough to produce data that would confirm Pelz's opinion about the district's apparent swing to the left, McDonough said: "Well, the best poll is an election." Roll the tape: In the 48th District, John Kerry won by 56.7 percent. I-912, last year's transportation tax repeal, lost by 66.7 percent. Representative Ross Hunter, another pioneering Democrat who won in the 48th in 2002 by 53 percent, increased his advantage in 2004 to 57 percent.
Thanks to the political musical chairs triggered by Finkbeiner's resignation (and Tom's switch), a series of Eastside races will now test Pelz's theory that the times they are a changin'. Pelz says voters are aghast at the GOP's incompetence, and he believes local Republicans "may be the next victims of Hurricane Katrina."
Implacable fundraiser Ruderman, who gave up her seat to run for secretary of state in 2004 (she was replaced by a Democrat), is rumored to be running for Finkbeiner's open seat. The Democrats also have a shot at an open house seat because Toby Nixon—a Republican state rep from Finkbeiner's district—is abandoning his house seat to go for Finkbeiner's seat. A GOP senate seat is also open in south King County, the 47th District.
Republicans think Democrats are wrong about a leftward trend on the Eastside. "They talk about Kerry," state GOP Chair Diane Tebelius says, "but they don't talk about [gubernatorial candidate] Dino Rossi, and [State Attorney General] Rob McKenna, and [U.S. Congressman] Dave Reichert," three Republicans who won on the Eastside in 2004. "It's about running good candidates."
Well, Democrat convert Rodney Tom—challenging GOP senator Esser—is certainly a strong contender. The former GOP rep—who says "the religious right has taken over the Republican Party"—has come out swinging. Tom trashes Esser, a conservative who voted against gay rights, accurate sex-ed curriculum, stem-cell research, education funding, closing the gun-show loophole, and the popular transportation tax. Tom says Esser "is not the face of the district. He might be a fit if he were running on the eastside—of the state."
"I don't run a poll before I vote," says Esser. "If polling showed that a Libertarian or a Green had an edge in my district, Tom would run as a Libertarian or a Green."
Or, in 2006 at least, as a Democrat.