The Gristle

Pandemic Pandemonium

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

PANDEMIC PANDEMONIUM: Rep. Sharon Shewmake has announced she is running to represent Whatcom County’s 42nd Legislative District in the Washington State Senate. A professor at Western Washington University focused on environmental, housing and transportation economics and known for her pragmatic approach to solving problems, the Bellingham Democrat if elected, would replace Doug Ericksen in the Senate.

Ericksen—with the lowest record of attendance and voting in the Legislature—has not yet announced whether he will seek another term. The Ferndale Republican is recovering after he fell ill with COVID-19 last week in El Salvador. A social media post confirmed Ericksen had been flown to Florida by Air Ambulance, a private medevac service, and that his life was no longer in danger from the contagion.

Perhaps no story more vividly captures the pathos and folly of the angry right-wing culture war that has erupted around the common-sense public health response to COVID—a pandemic that has killed nearly 10,000 residents and incapacitated hundreds of thousands more, leaving countless families in Washington devastated. Ericksen last year formed an obstructionist group intended in part to grouse and strew misinformation about the governor’s public health response, and introduced a “Freedom Package” of bills designed to snarl at social distancing and vaccination mandates. While scoffing at modern medicine in health, the Republican in his illness cried out for its miracles.

We’re glad he’s on the mend, because no person should suffer the Republican Party’s cruel response to the COVID pandemic.

When he ran for reelection in 2018, Ericksen won by little more than 50 votes. This election, with a redistricting shuffle that appears to place even more votes from north Bellingham into the 42nd District, his time may be up.

We say “appears” because while they did ultimately submit a finalized map of the state’s political districts following the recent U.S. Census count, the Washington State Redistricting Commission failed for the first time since its formation in 1990 to complete the statutory and constitutional deadline to agree on a new set of legislative and congressional maps for the Evergreen State. Equally alarming, the commission may have violated the state’s open meetings transparency laws by taking a hurried series of votes as last week’s midnight deadline approached.

Because the commission failed to meet its deadline, the state Supreme Court will now take over the complex job of creating 10 U.S. House districts and 49 state legislative districts, with a new deadline of April 30. Before they do, however, the high court justices want to know exactly what actions the commissioned panel took as they failed to meet their deadline to approve new political maps.

“This should include the timing of any votes taken by the commission, exactly what each vote was regarding, and any other actions taken by the commission relevant to their constitutional and statutory obligations,” the justices ordered.

Curiously, the commission sent a signed letter to the Legislature affirming they had successfully completed their work, even as they held a press conference admitting that they had failed meet the deadline.

“The commissioners unlawfully closed their meeting without compliance with the requirements of a lawful executive session, and proceeded to conduct a series of secret back room cabals to conduct ‘straw polling’ and to come to a clandestine agreement to set new redistricting maps,” alleges a parallel citizens’ complaint filed in Olympia. “This violation is especially egregious as it concerns voting rights, a matter critical to the sound functioning of a democracy. By acting in secret to come to an agreement as to how they would vote, and by conducting a secret ‘straw poll,’ the commission undermined the validity of their actions.”

Perhaps, structurally, that is all they could do.

“Because it was clearly unprepared to take action by its constitutionally mandated Nov. 15 deadline for agreeing to maps, the commission found itself backed into a corner as the 11:59:59 deadline rapidly approached,” Andrew Villeneuve, an analyst for the Northwest Progressive Institute, explained. “With no maps ready to approve, the commissioners decided at the last minute to simply hold votes on the cartographic equivalent of vaporware. But even that gambit failed.”

“At this point the only way they could adopt maps is with zero transparency,“ Pierce County Council member Derek Young tweeted shortly before the commission adjourned. “I can only assume they’re stating positions to build a record for the courts.”

That seems the likeliest explanation, as in subsequent days the commission released maps upon which they say they agree but could not publicly approve. Their impasse suggests the growing inability of our political divisions to find common ground, but even more pointedly the dysfunction of the Republican Party to achieve structural parity with Democrats on the West Coast.

Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman was the only Republican holding an elected state administrative office on the West Coast. With Wyman’s departure to oversee election security for the Biden Administration earlier this month, there is not a single Republican left. The party is losing elections in the populous sections of Washington, Oregon, and California by ten-point margins.

Yet, by the provisions for redistricting the state established in 1990, Republicans receive two seats on the state’s redistricting commission. Democrats also receive two seats. A third non-voting commissioner acts as an administrator of proceedings. The structure of the redistricting commission means party representatives will push for a competitive 50/50 representation on maps while the outcome of elections themselves describe a different territory.

From the vantage point of the machine, GIS software can divide a state into geographically intelligent, orthogonally compact districts in a heatbeat. Human desires and political party objectives complicate the picture.

The maps the commission apparently finally agreed to push a few more votes into Whatcom’s 42nd District and the 39th District in rural Skagit and Snohomish counties, while further compressing the geographically compact 40th District. The court will decide whether these divisions stand.

But even gerrymandering may not save Ericksen’s eroding support. His actions—his record of inaction—will inexorably push him out of office more firmly than moving lines on a map.

Past Columns
Unfinished Business

December 22, 2021

Water, Water Everywhere?

December 8, 2021

Preexisting Conditions

November 10, 2021

Consensus from the Census

September 29, 2021

An Expanding Agenda

September 15, 2021

Primary to the Left

August 18, 2021

‘Free Dirt’

July 21, 2021

Roll On Columbia

July 7, 2021

Court in Court

June 23, 2021

Crisis In Court

June 9, 2021

A Community of Color

May 26, 2021

Grand Slam

May 12, 2021

Carbon Pricing Reality

April 28, 2021

Third Time’s A Charm

April 14, 2021

Salmon Need Water

March 31, 2021

Mid-Point

March 17, 2021

Carbon Pricing

March 3, 2021

‘Stop The Steal’

February 17, 2021

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