HEIDI BEHRENS-BENEDICT relishes the role of giant-killer.
Gearing up for her second challenge to Republican US Rep. Jennifer Dunn, Behrens-Benedict has become the face of the new Eastside political balance. "I've always heard the Eastside referred to as this Republican bastion—it's not true," she says.
Strong words, but do the names Jim Wyrich and Dave Little ring a bell? They were Dunn's Democratic opponents in 1994 and 1996. And even though a more seasoned Behrens-Benedict can probably give Dunn a more significant challenge the second time around, she only drew 41 percent of the vote in 1998.
The theory of growing parity between Democrats and the GOP east of Lake Washington has become the Seattle media's favorite election season optical illusion, always seeming just around the bend until the vote takes place. Despite two high-profile Democratic wins, state Sen. Kathleen Drew (5th District) in 1992 and state Rep. Laura Ruderman (45th District) in 1998, and the Eastside's support for President Bill Clinton, Gov. Gary Locke, and US Sen. Patty Murray, the R-to-D ratio in most legislative district races has hovered around 60 percent to 40 percent—when the Democrats can manage to field a candidate. With the Legislature deadlocked at 49 seats for each party, the D's need some Eastside seats to dominate state politics.
They won't get them on the Eastside, says Reed Davis, King County Republican Central Committee chairman. While he acknowledges that residents east of Lake Washington have dealt the party some recent setbacks in statewide and countywide races, "that may be more a reflection of the candidates than anything else," says Davis. An examination of the party's uniformly good results in Eastside legislative district races argues against any major political shift, he contends. "My feeling is that the Eastside is still safely and solidly Republican," he says.
It's easy to argue that instead of the Eastside edging Democratic, the state Republican Party has moved away from Eastside voters. In the last four elections, the Republicans have had a winner at the top of the ticket just once (US Sen. Slade Gorton in 1994). Christian conservatives such as Ellen Craswell and Linda Smith may have controlled the state Republican Party machinery in the 1990s, but they've finished second in the hearts of Eastside voters. When mixed with those traditionally liberal Seattleites, the socially moderate Eastside electorate has helped turned King County into a graveyard for reactionary issues and candidates. Gubernatorial candidate Ellen Craswell got 42 percent of the vote statewide in 1996, but just 33 percent of the vote in King County; US Senate loser Linda Smith put up nearly identical numbers two years later. If Republicans can deliver more moderate candidates—George W. Bush seems to be perfect for the Bel-Square crowd—the Eastside's seeming leftward swing may prove temporary.
REP. LAURA RUDERMAN doesn't think so. "You've got a population out here that's very concerned about education, very concerned about the environment, very pro-choice." Observers attribute part of this shift to migrating urbanites seeking cheaper single-family homes and better schools. "A lot of my members are moving east of the lake into more affordable housing," says King County Democratic Chair Ron Forest, an officer of Carpenters' Local 131.
This creeping urbanism can be more clearly seen just north and south of Seattle city limits. The new city of Shoreline has become as impregnable a Democratic stronghold as Queen Anne. The 1st Legislative District, which combines part of South Snohomish County and a hunk of Eastside territory, is now represented in Olympia by a trio of Democrats.
Ruderman's 1998 election was a case of doing things right. She chose to challenge state Rep. Bill Backlund, one of the most conservative Eastside legislators and one who had held off a Democratic challenger by just eight percentage points in 1996. And she worked hard for her win. "I knocked on almost 13,000 doors, and I raised and spent $187,000," she says. "And I don't think I would have won without doing both of those things."
To get more good candidates to step forward, Ruderman argues, her party must disprove the notion that a majority of Eastside voters won't give a Democrat a chance. "I think that my having won has changed that [perception] slightly," she says. "And when I win again in November, it will change it even more. Once can be written off, twice can't." (Ruderman will challenge unfortunately named Republican Toby Nixon in November.)
But Democratic hopefuls have heard this tune before. After Democratic incumbent Kathleen Drew lost a narrow 1996 reelection race to state Sen. Dino Rossi in the 5th District, the D's targeted the two representatives races in the 5th in 1998. Their best finisher, architect Art Skolnik, managed just 43 percent of the vote. Not surprisingly, he's a bit less sure that Eastside party parity is on the way. "We're hopeful," he says. "Those of us who are sort of out in front of the curve probably think that it's not happening fast enough." This year, the Democrats have candidates in all three races in the 5th and a possible sparkplug in former County Council candidate Di Irons. Former state Democratic party chair Karen Marchioro is also challenging incumbent state Rep. Steve Van Luven in the 48th District. A Ruderman win is needed to keep any momentum going; a second Democratic Eastside seat in the Legislature would be huge.
And a solid race by Behrens-Benedict against Dunn would also provide hope for the future. Although Republicans assume future candidates can match Dunn's numbers, Democrats would love to test that theory in an open seat race should the incumbent be lured away by the Bush administration. "If Dunn were out of the equation, that would be a highly competitive congressional district in my view," says Democratic political consultant Don McDonough.
Behrens-Benedict, an interior designer and 28-year Bellevue resident, is still a relative newcomer to electoral politics. She entered the race two years ago after a letter she wrote on gun violence was published in the Seattle Times (after the school shootings in Springfield, Oregon) and she received dozens of phone calls encouraging her to challenge Dunn. This time around, Behrens-Benedict took advantage of her quick start by requesting early endorsements from unions and political groups. She says a recent tracking poll by another campaign found that she had pulled to within four percentage points of her Republican opponent.
Forest won't go so far as to predict a victory for Behrens-Benedict, but he thinks his candidate will go a long way. "She's got a lot of people working on her campaign, she's collecting money like it's going out of style," he says. "She's going to do very well."