Listening to the rumble from a swing district
A number of voters in the politically diverse 8th District are disillusioned with Republicans but unconvinced Democrats will do much better.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The election is still two days away, but the coveted swing voters of east Kent have already spoken.
They've chucked the political ads in the trash.
The garbage bins behind the post office here are packed with thousands of dollars' worth of glossy political fliers, reflecting the discontent — even outright disgust — many voters feel about the choices they face Tuesday.
In three days of interviews with about two dozen voters in Kent, the Iraq war loomed larger than any candidate or other issue. Even rock-ribbed Republicans said they're embarrassed by the war. Some felt lied to.
Voters questioned the way the GOP-controlled Congress and White House have handled issues ranging from schools to health care, immigration to Social Security.
Self-described independents and liberals — who each make up about one-third of the vote in this suburban area — were disturbed by the erosion of civil liberties in the name of combating terrorism.
But the potential for a much-predicted "wave" election that would throw the Republicans out seemed distant.
Voters frustrated by Republicans also were skeptical that Democrats could do better. And those who have soured on the GOP's party loyalty thought the Democrats would be just as partisan.
"The people want a leader who protects and secures America and creates jobs," said Christie Martin, a 25-year-old special-education teacher who plans to vote Republican. "I hear how America is the bad guy in the world and we spend a lot of time tearing down our leaders. But we're not the ones who initiated 9/11."
Paula Gilmore said she used to cast votes across party lines, but President Bush has turned her into a deep-blue Democrat. "I don't think anything Congress and the president have done has anything to do with the interests of the people of this country," said Gilmore, a 63-year-old aerospace project manager.
"I didn't used to be like this, but we've got to get the Republicans out."
A classic swing district
Many street corners of suburban east Kent front empty lots waiting for inevitable development. The only signs bigger than the 4-by-8-foot political banners are those selling subdivisions of new Craftsman-style homes for as little as $250,000.
The growth — Kent's population is up nearly a third in a decade to 85,000 — has turned the area into classic swing-voting territory, with equal portions of Democrats, Republicans and independents. A handful of precincts are among the most evenly divided in the 8th Congressional District, which itself is the state's most politically competitive.
It is here that elections are won and lost, and the campaigns know it: Voters get two or three political fliers a day as well as several automated phone calls a week.
In 2004, the area favored both Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi. It sends candidates from both parties to the state Legislature. Voters tend to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal or libertarian — pro-choice and pro-gun.
This Tuesday, they'll decide close races for state Senate and House and pick between Republican Congressman Dave Reichert and his well-funded Democratic challenger, Darcy Burner.
The county urban-growth boundary, which restricts where development can occur, runs just east of Kent, making the property-rights initiative on Tuesday's ballot personal for some.
These are places that demographer Robert Lang of Virginia Tech calls "boomburgs." Families flee bigger cities such as Seattle for cheaper housing and good schools, bringing more socially liberal values with them. In Kent, immigrants also are arriving, with Sikhs and Ukrainians buying entire cul-de-sacs.
"A lot of the voters in these places see incompetence" in the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, said Lang, who has studied the voting habits of boomburgs.
"In their workplace, if they rolled out a project and it failed, there would be consequences. There have been no consequences in Washington, D.C. Nobody lost their jobs."
Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke, a former GOP state legislator, heard those complaints while going door to door during her campaign in summer 2005.
"There was such a mood out there that the president has polarized people tremendously, even more so than Clinton when he was in office," Cooke said. "This president has come across as not caring about the public as much."
Traffic, wages and education are pressing local issues in Kent, a largely commuter town. But Cooke sees national issues looming large on Tuesday.
"My suspicion is that it has been turned into a statement on the president," she said.
"Will I have Social Security?"
It was after dark, and Johnnie Uzzell Jr. was still in the work clothes he'd put on before dawn when he dropped into a Kent strip mall do some shopping. A husband and father, Uzzell said he was an independent voter, but this year was going mostly Democrat.
"I base it on my paycheck, and my paycheck says it was better back then," said Uzzell, who sells uniforms for a living. "I'm almost 40 years old. Will I have Social Security when I'm old? My wife is a flight attendant, and she about lost her pension. There's a lot of things I didn't think about when I was a kid."
Republicans counter anti-Bush sentiment by reminding voters that races are about candidates, not parties. But some GOP voters said they were energized by the specter of Nancy Pelosi, a liberal congresswoman from San Francisco, becoming the speaker of the U.S. House.
Sue Webber, a retired librarian, took a break from shopping at a Pier 1 store to say stopping the influx of illegal immigration was her top issue. Congress approved a 700-mile fence on the southern border, but Webber wished lawmakers had been tougher.
"I'm not always happy with what the party in power is doing, but they're much better than the alternative," she said.
Uncertainty over Iraq
National polls say the Iraq war is commanding voters' attention like few issues have in recent elections. And Kent voters, like those in the nation as a whole, are uncertain about what to do next.
Jack Thomas, a 30-year Navy veteran and currently a defense contractor, said he is a Republican but may vote for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell because of the way the GOP has handled the war. "We rushed in there, but once we made the decision, you pretty well have to back them up until the job is done," he said as a nursed a beer at a Kent bar.
"As a Republican, I'm embarrassed about the war. In 2004, we had such strong support across the country. And now we're having to beg for votes," he said.
Webber, the retired librarian, said Iraq has not shaken her trust in the GOP. "We've gone in to help them set up a democracy, and they're not ready yet. It would be irresponsible to leave until they're ready to stand up on their own," she said.
"War is war. If you look at World War II or Vietnam, the casualties are minimal, even compared to Korea."
Alina Rush, a 41-year-old former Army reservist, said she's an independent who'll vote for Cantwell and Reichert. Bill Clinton, she said, bears some blame for letting terrorism take root, but she said the Bush administration was invading her privacy with its domestic-surveillance program.
"I think we should get out [of Iraq]," she said as she picked up a dessert at a downtown Kent mall. "We should not be the world's baby-sitter. We should not be physically or economically supporting another country when we have things to do here."
Sick of negative ads
If there is one thing these voters agreed on, it's the corrosive effect of negative ads.
Uzzell, the uniform salesman, said the only Republican he would vote for was Reichert, a Kent native, in part because of Burner's ads hammering the first-term congressman's ties to Bush.
"You've got Darcy Burner, and I don't know anything about her. And she's throwing mud, and if you're throwing mud, you probably got something to hide," Uzzell said.
Betty Wattenberger, an 83-year-old retired secretary, hopes the Democrats win control of Congress but worries about what kind of leaders they will be.
"I hope they are statesmen, good Christian people," she said. "I hope they will do what's good for the people, not what's good for their party and their power."
Meanwhile, back at the Kent post office, the pile of tossed political mail continues to grow.
Staff reporter Justin Mayo
contributed to this report.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605
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