Purple People Eaters

The Democrats cannot gain control of Congress by denigrating the suburbs.

Seattle Democrats tend to be contemptuous of the suburbs, especially the Eastside, unless, of course, they need them.

Local D's are getting all atwitter about the prospects of winning a congressional seat in the 8th District, touting the campaign of political unknown Darcy Burner, a mom and ex-Microsoftie who is seen by the Howard Dean crowd as the gal who can defeat first-term incumbent Republican Dave Reichert and, just possibly, help tip the control of Congress from the elephants to the donkeys.

Or is it the jackasses?

A favorable profile of Burner by Eli Sanders in last week's The Stranger read like it was designed to give her bandwagon some big mo. "This year . . . Democrats in the deep blue cities of Western Washington don't have to go all the way to Iowa or Ohio. To be a part of halting the Bush agenda, they simply have to drive 15 minutes across Lake Washington."

Burner might want to consider mobilizing a different set of doorbellers before marshaling the Capitol Hill Deaniacs, though. I mean, this is the newspaper whose editors wrote a feature-length secessionist diatribe after the Bush victory in 2004, a manifesto that included such gems as:

"[T]he denizens of the exurbs—are not real Americans. They are rubes, fools, and hatemongers."

"Pandering to rural voters is a waste of time."

"We no longer have to concern ourselves with the survival of the family farm, nor do we have to concern ourselves with saving fragile suburban economies from collapse. They're against us; we're against them. This is a war."

And my favorite: "To red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exburbs, we say this: Fuck off."

I eagerly await the Blue Army's reception in a district that it holds in such contempt.

The 8th ranges from the Snohomish County line in the north to the Lewis County line in the south, from the Gold Coast of Bellevue to the Cascade Crest. Yes, the Democrats have been gaining some ground in the district, but much of it is staunchly conservative to moderate, and most of it is rural, exurban, and suburban. Many of the voters in its populous suburbs are devoted ticket splitters: They experience no cognitive dissonance voting for John Kerry, Patty Murray, Dave Reichert, and Dino Rossi. (For a good look at the mind-set, check George Howland Jr.'s story about Issaquah, "Swingtown, WA," July 28, 2004.)

Looking at the national electoral map shows that the way for Democrats to pick up seats is not by emphasizing lefty urban secessionism, but rather by embracing the purple politics of the middle in order to get swing areas to swing. Unfortunately, it's the centrist politicians that make the current crop of Democratic lefty activists so uncomfortable. Just look at how the Daily Kos crowd relishes the idea of drumming Joe Lieberman out of the Democratic tent.

The key to making progress in the greater Seattle suburbs—and picking up a district like the 8th—is recognizing that the Democratic Party is a mainstream party, not a playpen for the urban fringe. Another is to accept that in the Seattle suburbs, partisanship is often looked on with suspicion. Family, hard work, common sense, and a personality that goes down well are important, which is why a vote for nice-guy Rossi, who claimed he could fix Olympia, and mom-in-tennis-shoes Murray, who cares about your family, made sense. They make the perfect suburban couple.

The lack of partisanship is also why some suburban pols can switch parties with few negative consequences. Bill Finkbeiner started out as a Tom Harkin Democrat before he switched parties, left the state House, and rose to GOP leadership in the state Senate. Last week, GOP state Rep. Rodney Tom announced he was switching parties and planning to run for the state Senate as a Democrat. Such defections are less ideological than practical—how best to get a pro-family and pro-business agenda moved forward. Many suburban voters don't care about party—they want results. And they want a candidate who can effectively work a coffee klatch. In this arena, by most accounts, Reichert is a master. The moderate face is more important than actual moderation, though Reichert seems to be making an effort to steer to the middle (see Buzz, p. 11).

Darcy Burner may be good at it, too. So far, she's untested and unknown, and there's no evidence that she can do any better than Democrats who have not been hugged by Howard Dean. Most pull about 45 percent of the vote. KIRO's Dave Ross, for all his name recognition, only managed 47 percent in a year that was supposed to be great for D's. Burner is getting some things right: The fact that she's a mom helps, plus her Web site uses language right out of the 1992 Bill Clinton playbook, such as "helping families that work hard and play by the rules."

That sends an important signal. In 1992, I did a cover story for Eastsideweek about why Clinton would be good for the Eastside. It was a tough sell then—merely putting Clinton on the cover got the paper banned from some outlets. The real Clinton appeal wasn't his liberalism but his pledge to replace the extreme with the mainstream: balanced budgets, help for small business, aid to working families.

If the D's want to take back Congress, they'll need candidates and campaigns that can credibly address those issues. Those seeking to evangelize "rubes, fools, and hatemongers" might want to sit this one out.


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