Marcie Maxwell was obsessed with TV celebrity John Curley.
Not for the usual reasons.
The Democratic House member from Renton was fixated on the former TV host because she thought he was going to challenge her for reelection.
“I spoke with a Renton Chamber staff person this evening who was in contact with John Curley (former host of TV’s Evening Magazine, current KIRO radio show host, and auctioneer for many regional nonprofit organizations),” Maxwell wrote to a House Democratic campaign staffer.
“John Curley specifically told her that he wanted Sammamish in the 41st (Legislative District) and he was going to run against me,” Maxwell wrote. “We need to keep Sammamish in the 5th – it is a very red city.”
The email was forwarded by the campaign staff to the state employee hired by House Democrats to work with the Washington State Redistricting Commission to redraw political boundaries following the 2010 census. It was just one of several emails by Maxwell to the House Democrat’s appointee to the commission, asking to keep Curley and other potential rivals out of her district.
She was not alone. Many of the hundreds of emails obtained via a state Public Records Act request show incumbents of both parties trying to keep potential challengers out of their districts. In some instances, partisan staffers on the state payroll began plotting the addresses not just of their party’s incumbents but of the other party’s “persons of interest.”
It was just one example of the level of partisan manipulation apparent in the communications between and among lawmakers, state party officials, House and Senate partisan staffers and the four partisan commissioners.
Yes, redistricting is a partisan process. Yes, the appointees come from the four partisan caucuses of the state Legislature. Yes, they strive to protect the political interests of those who appointed them.
But the emails show that partisan advantage wasn’t just one of the criteria used to draw new legislative and congressional lines. It was the dominant factor. While it is illegal to use public resources for campaign purposes, the once-a-decade redistricting process seems exempt from those laws.
• It began almost immediately. Commissioners appointed by the four party caucuses met with most incumbents after asking them to fill out questionnaires. The Senate Democrats’ survey, for example, asked: “What areas in adjacent districts do you think are attractive or unattractive to you politically?”
And House Republican commissioner Tom Huff’s survey asked incumbents for the locations of potential opponents and whether the incumbents could “donate good precincts to ‘seed’ an adjacent district with Republicans to tip them into our camp, while preserving your own place.”
One exchange between a GOP redistricting staffer and a legislative staffer gave advice about an upcoming commission hearing in the Tri-Cities.
“We find it’s best that people who are identifiably Republican should best limit comments to fairness/transparency of process and leave the other comments to low-profile people identified only as concerned citizens,” wrote House Republican employee K-Y Suh, “(don’t say you’re a Republican or that you’re with this conservative group).”
Suh and other House GOP staffers who lived in King County even used state GOP headquarters in Tukwila as “our close-to-home remote office,” as Suh called it.
• With each new proposal, staff and commissioners knew how changes would affect the political makeup of districts. This was done by knowing how each Census block voted in past elections in races like governor, U.S. Senate and state treasurer. Republicans even raised private money for microtargeting – opinion research that zeroed in on voters’ beliefs and philosophies.
Incumbents were protected in most cases. The real bartering took place over open seats and the handful of swing districts – places where either party could win.
Members of Congress were just as interested. Adam Smith, the Tacoma Democrat who saw his district change significantly, exchanged several emails with House Democratic commissioner Dean Foster.
“I should point out that the most important thing to me at this point is to make sure that Mercer Island is in my district,” Smith wrote. “Explaining why would take a while so I won’t. Just want you to know.”
It was included in the new 9th.
And later, Smith complained about a version that pushed his district too far into Seattle.
“I guarantee you more than one Democrat in that area will be considering a primary against me. ... Obviously I don’t want that.”
Smith did get a large piece of Seattle and Seattle Councilman Bruce Harrell did consider a challenge but choose not to run.
In an interview last month, Senate Republican commissioner Slade Gorton said he sensed from the start that Democrats wanted the newly awarded 10th Congressional District to be centered on Olympia, a move that would boost the electoral chances of Denny Heck.
He said Republican commissioners used that to make the 3rd and 8th districts more Republican and give some future Republican a chance at winning the 6th once longtime U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks retired (which he did after the maps were completed).
• Concerns over potential rivals crossed party lines. House Republicans seemed especially interested in a Democratic dentist from Renton who had already shown a propensity to raise lots of campaign cash.
“I have not looked to see where the various maps put Bobby Virk,” Republican Rep. Mark Hargrove wrote to the House Republican redistricting staffer Don Skillman. Later he asked someone who did not work for the House caucus to forward research about Virk to Skillman.
“If you were wondering, it looks like (state law) does allow him to run under ‘Bobby’ rather than ‘Mahadeep,’” the researcher wrote.
In the end, Virk ended up in the neighboring 11th District. Despite spending $201,000, he finished third in this month’s primary election among four Democrats for an open seat.
At one point in the redistricting process, a state Republican Party official passed on some intelligence: that an incumbent House Democrat was buying a new home and that Democratic commissioners were trying to make sure the new district kept her inside.
In an email, Gorton said that explained why his Democratic counterpart Tim Ceis had been pushing such boundaries.
“Tim has been quite insistent,” Gorton noted.
House Republican commissioner Huff saw an advantage.
“Should be worth some bargaining chips,” Huff said. Staff then went to work finding swaps that would boost the GOP advantage in neighboring districts.
Early Republican and Democratic maps were designed to provoke and stake out bargaining positions. Both parties displaced many of the other party’s incumbents.
“Both D plans killed Sen. Fain, the Sen Ds killed 15!!! other Rs, the House Ds killed 7 others,” one Republican redistricting staffer wrote. Later, these displaced lawmakers went from being casualties of the political wars to POWs. Gorton wrote before he met with a Democratic commissioner: “Tim Ceis will be in my office at 3:30 today on freeing prisoners.”
• Some advice from incumbent legislators was based more on the nonpolitical aspects of redistricting that dominated the public meetings of the commission – keeping communities together and not splitting cities and counties. But it could be sold only as long as it didn’t hurt politically.
After asking that both the Key Peninsula and downtown Bremerton stay in his 26th District, Democratic Rep. Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor said, “... that is a much more coherent district for voters. I understand that there is almost no difference in the (Republican/Democrat) ratios.”
And sometimes the comments were aimed at the other party’s maps.
“The GOP attempt is to make the district impossible to doorbell, just their kind of voter – isolated, ignorant and lower income,” wrote Rep. Hans Dunshee of one proposed 44th District in Snohomish County.
Gorton said recently that incumbent Republicans were more interested in helping the party in general than themselves specifically.
“I asked them whether they wanted their own districts safer or have a chance of winning a majority in the right year,” Gorton said. “They all said the latter.
“That doesn’t mean each wasn’t a little jumpy.”
• Sometimes, partisans viewed the same result through different lenses.
“It sounds like the 17th gets even tougher for me personally, but I know you two did an amazing job balancing many interests ....,” wrote Democratic Rep. Tim Probst to Ceis and Foster. In fact, his Vancouver-area district became slightly more Republican and was thought to be a 51.61 percent GOP district.
But the Republican senator from the same district – who Probst later decided to challenge for his Senate seat – didn’t see it that way.
“Are these the only changes in the District,” wrote Sen. Don Benton of the final map. “If so, then Slade and our people did a horrible job for me because what I lost could not have been more conservative territory.
“If this is all the change there is, then I got really screwed,” Benton continued. “It is obvious the Democrats won big on redistricting!”
In this month’s primary election, Benton got 52 percent of the vote and Probst 48 email@example.com