The Evergreen State’s population surge over the past decade was enough to give Washington a 10th congressional district.
And it already is prompting speculation about the look of the state’s new political map that must be drawn by year’s end.
Both Thurston and Pierce counties face big changes as their congressional and legislative districts are resized into roughly equally populated zones. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith’s 9th district runs from Tukwila to Lacey along Interstate 5 and could be pulled north or south, depending where the new district is placed.
It’s a puzzle that the two Democrats and two Republicans appointed to the state Redistricting Commission are just beginning to study as they gear up for formal work later in March.
Let the guessing begin.
“It’s a fun game,” says retired University of Washington demographer Richard Morrill. “The goal of the commission is to protect incumbents. That isn’t written into the law, but that’s what they will do.”
Morrill and other students of redistricting point to two places that lack incumbents as potential hubs for a new 10th district: Thurston County and northeast King County. But they cautioned that more analysis is needed of the 2010 census data released last week.
The commission’s plan for 10 congressional districts and 49 equal legislative districts is supposed to be completed and sent by Dec. 31 to the Legislature.
The Pierce County Council will appoint its own redistricting panel in spring, naming two Democrats and two Republicans, who will then appoint a chairman. They will have authority over redrawing the seven council districts.
Driving a lot of the potential changes is growth in Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert’s 8th District in east Pierce and King counties. The population grew by 24 percent over the past decade, giving it 138,300 more people than the new population target of 672,544 per congressional district.
State Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur said he suspects the new 10th District would end up in northeast King County, where he makes his home. That would push Reichert’s district south into more reliably Republican territory and move heavily Democratic Olympia into Smith’s district from freshman GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s, benefiting all three lawmakers.
“What we’re going to end up with is maybe four good (Republican districts), four good (Democratic districts) and maybe two in the air,” said Wilbur. “That would be fair. I would take that.”
The competitive districts in that scenario would be the 2nd District, which bumps up against the Canadian border near Bellingham, and perhaps the 10th, although that new district would almost certainly lean to the Democrats.
But the 10th could land anywhere in the Puget Sound region. There’s a possibility Pierce County, which has pieces of three congressional districts, could get part of it – and the extra representation in Congress that goes with it.
“I don’t care if we just get a block of it, I want it in Pierce County,” county Democrats’ chairwoman Rose Ehart said. “I believe it’s going to be ours.”
The new maps could shift Pierce County’s political center slightly to the south and east.
A mixed bag of census results showed how east-county cities such as Bonney Lake and Orting have seen growth spurts while Lakewood’s population stayed level and Tacoma grew by less than was expected.
And while Joint Base Lewis-McChord is growing, its official population declined because most soldiers were deployed overseas during last year’s census count. The census counted 16,252 people, but the base says there are nearly 25,000 in on-base housing.
The result: the 28th Legislative District is the only one in the state that shrank between 2000 and 2010, according to the Redistricting Commission. The district that includes University Place, Fircrest, DuPont, Steilacoom and parts of Lakewood and Tacoma would have to grow more than any other to meet the target population for legislative districts of 137,236 people.
That could send it southwest over the Nisqually River into Thurston County, or to the north where it would take from two other under-populated districts – the Tacoma-based 27th and 29th.
If the latter happens, it would cause the 27th and 29th to take more from adjoining districts as part of a ripple effect. That kind of chain reaction will be seen around the state every place there is high growth, or growth that lagged the state’s average 14.1 percent growth.
Politicos don’t yet know whether changes will tilt the politically competitive 28th District to the Democrats or the Republicans.
“A couple changes here or there and those close districts aren’t so close any more,” said Kevin Carns, director of the House Republican Organizational Committee.
But Carns said the biggest question he’s asking is where voters who are now in the Republican-leaning 2nd Legislative District end up.
That district, running from Rainier and Yelm in Thurston County to McKenna, Roy and Graham in Pierce County, was the state’s fastest-growing. The Republican-to-libertarian-flavored area grew by 36 percent and now has 26,471 persons more than the target.
That means it must shrink in geographic size – perhaps pulling out of southeast Thurston County entirely.
The 25th District, centered on Puyallup, is also growing fast and will lose voters, while the 30th District, which includes Federal Way, and the 26th District, which includes Gig Harbor, will both need to add people. The 31st in east Pierce and King counties is about the right size.
Tom Huff of Gig Harbor, House Republicans’ appointee on the Redistricting Commission, said staffers are still crunching the census data. But he sees “there are quite a few changes – some losses and some gains.”
“Right now it’s anybody’s guess, but it looks like the 28th would have to go south a bit,” Huff said, suggesting it could absorb some of the overpopulated 2nd. But he added, “We’re going to do our darnedest to keep as much natural boundaries as we can – rivers and water boundaries.”
Before new maps take effect for 2012 elections to the Legislature and Congress, at least three of the four members of the state commission must approve them. The Legislature can only fine-tune the maps.
In Pierce County, council maps are drawn up by a “districting master” named by the five-member county redistricting board. The maps need four votes on the board to be approved.
The state commission includes Democrats Tim Ceis, a former deputy Seattle mayor, and Dean Foster, a former chief of staff to Gov. Booth Gardner, plus Republicans Huff and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. On Friday the panel picked an executive director, Bonnie Bunning of Olympia.
Commissioners, who have compared their work to a jigsaw puzzle, usually like to work from the edges of the state inward – often starting in Eastern Washington and working toward the heavily populated Puget Sound area.
“You can’t go into Canada and you can’t go into the Pacific Ocean, so you start moving toward the center,” said Foster, House Democrats’ appointee.
It’s too early to say anything definitive about how state maps will look, said Lura Powell, the nonpartisan and nonvoting state Redistricting Commission chairwoman based in Richland.
“The data just got here,” Powell said Friday. “It’s really important for us to do this in a very deliberate and thoughtful way – and to listen to the public. To that end, we are encouraging the public to submit their ideas, but also to attend public hearings.”
But both political parties also will be urging their representatives on the commission to draw lines favoring their future electoral chances.
“My favorite part of redistricting is this is the purest political process we go through as a nation. It is pure politics,” Republican Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman said, adding: “Our state is a little more level playing field because the Legislature doesn’t do it.’’