Last Updated July 14, 2003
For a brief moment in the late 1990s, the eyes of the nation--and the world--were on Washington--Washington state, that is, not Washington, D.C. From Starbucks coffee to grunge music, from America's leading exporter, Boeing, to America's leading software maker, Microsoft, to America's most visible dot-com, amazon.com, Washington was a national trend-setter. An unusual environment and human creativity combined to produce these achievements: Seattle's cold misty air and 225 overcast days a year stimulate the appetite for strong aromatic coffee, and the shapeless blue jeans and sweatshirts worn year-round in this moist climate by professionals and teenagers alike created a trend made famous by Nirvana and Soundgarden and other grunge artists. Boeing's airframe business took off during World War II because the Pacific Northwest's abundant hydroelectric power made cheap aluminum possible, and the boom in air travel in the 1980s and 1990s kept Boeing's huge assembly lines humming. Microsoft, founded by the usually tie-less and tousle-haired Bill Gates and based in Redmond, across Lake Washington from Seattle, became one of America's great success stories as its software became embedded in the vast majority of the world's computers. With flannel shirts and umbrellas, blue-collar types working off hangovers as if in a Raymond Carver story, and professionals relaxing on woodsy acreage, Washington set a tone for the 1990s, a style plainly Middle American but with attitude, an ordinariness so hip it is no longer ordinary. As the end of the century approached, Washington was a commonwealth of nearly 6 million people, economically booming, pleased to the point of smugness with its physical environment and lifestyle. Since that high point Washington has had its woes, but it is useful to see how it got there, and what strengths it has to approach another peak ahead.
For Washington is a state which is not much more than a century old, one which in the two decades after statehood in 1889 built a new civilization, as transcontinental railroads reached the great ports of Puget Sound, the wheat-processing city of Spokane inland, orchard towns and fishing ports and lumber settlements. Shielded from the storms of the Pacific by the Olympic Mountains and the Sound, Seattle quickly became a serious American city, a lusty town full of lumbermen and railroad workers. When gold was struck in the Klondike and Alaska, Seattle became a metropolis of miners, prospectors and get-rich-quick operators, the site of the original "Skid Road" (skid row is a corruption propagated by a 1937 magazine article), where logs were rolled downhill to the port; today it's the focus of the restored Pioneer Square area. Booming young Seattle had a turbulent class-warfare politics in the years before World War I, pitting the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or Wobblies) against city business and civic leaders; the businessmen, after some violence, prevailed. Adding to the area's distinctiveness was its large numbers of Scandinavian immigrants, with their favorable views of cooperative enterprises and government ownership.
Over time, Washington was transformed by a series of national decisions that set its course for decades. One was government development of hydroelectric power. The Columbia River and its tributary, the Snake, falling thousands of feet in a relatively short distance, had far greater hydroelectric potential than any other American river system, and Franklin Roosevelt was always interested in these river valley projects. In 1937 Bonneville Dam was completed on the lower Columbia; in 1940 Grand Coulee Dam, the largest man-made structure in the world at the time, was opened where the Columbia cuts through the arid, surrealistically contoured plains of eastern Washington. Washington proved hospitable to the industrial union movement of the 1930s and became one of the nation's most heavily unionized states. When war came, Washington's hydroelectric power--the cheapest electricity in the country--made it the natural site for huge aluminum production plants, which require vast amounts of electricity, and the Seattle area became the home not only of shipbuilders, but of what became the biggest aircraft manufacturer in the country, Boeing, founded in 1916 by William Boeing after he bought a shipyard on the Duwamish River and turned it into an airplane factory. After the war, the Hanford plant on the Columbia was one of the government's main nuclear weapons manufacturing sites. Cheap power, aluminum, aircraft, nuclear weapons and high unionized wages: these became Washington's economic foundations in the post-World War II years.
Today's Washington lives less off the brawn of hydroelectric power and rail and ship tonnage and more off the brains that made Boeing the world leader in aircraft and Microsoft the world leader in software. Yet since 1999 there has been trouble in this moist paradise. The turning point may have come in December 1999, when Seattle hosted a meeting of the World Trade Organization. This was supposed to be an occasion for the city to shine in the international spotlight. But 50,000 demonstrators took control of the streets, smashing Starbucks' windows and preventing leaders from Bill Clinton on down from attending meetings; Seattle's police chief and mayor did little to stop the violence, and even came out with statements, echoed by Clinton, expressing sympathy for the lawbreakers. Seattle became a symbol of mindless protest and lawless violence. The image was reinforced in the Mardi Gras riots in February 2001; Mayor Paul Schell carried only 22% of the vote in the September 2001 primary to become the first Seattle mayor in 45 years to lose a reelection bid. Washington was hurt also by the dot.com bust; the high-tech industry boomed as businesses retooled to avoid Y2K problems, then it suddenly became apparent that customers had all the high-tech they needed, the stock market started tanking in March 2000, takings thousands of dot.coms down. Microsoft was sued by the Justice Department's Antitrust Division in 1998; in November 1999 Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft was a monopoly, and in June 2000 ordered the firm broken up. That decision was reversed on appeal in June 2001 and the company's leaders fought to preserve its aggressive and innovative culture. Boeing has had its problems as well. In March 2001 Boeing's chairman announced that the firm's headquarters would be moved out of Seattle, to Chicago. Politicians were aghast; Boeing executives, removed from Seattle, can cast a cold eye on its expensive and strike-prone Washington operations. Then, after September 11, the airline industry was hard hit and cut back its orders; Boeing cut back its Seattle area employment from 102,000 in 1997 to 62,000 in 2002, and more cuts seemed certain. Washington's unemployment rate was among the highest in the nation, with no net job growth from 1998 to 2002.
Amid this turbulence, the fundamentals undergirding Washington's affluent life seemed threatened. Light snowpacks threatened to reduce the supply of hydroelectric power even as demand from energy-starved California seemed likely to draw down supply. Proposals by Clinton administration officials to breach the dams on the Snake River threatened to reduce hydroelectric supply and to destroy the agriculture of eastern Washington just as the court decision to protect the endangered spotted owl largely shut down Washington's logging industry in the early 1990s. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced plutonium for the military, for years leaked radioactive waste and now must be cleaned up at the cost of billions, while new underground storage procedures have been criticized as unsafe. And in the Seattle area traffic congestion remained monumental on I-405 and I-5; the Alaskan Way viaduct along the port was damaged by the March 2001 earthquake and the pontoon bridge on Route 520 was approaching obsolescence.
All these problems may turn out to be no more than footnotes to what is mainly a story of success. Look at a map that shows elevation of mountains and density of population. On both sides of the Pacific, vast numbers of people are squeezed into small margins of level land between steeply rising volcanic mountains and the sea, or tucked into valleys. These islands of settlement are surrounded by vast wildernesses--desert and mountains, open sea and Arctic lands. Yet the inhabitants of these pockets of the Pacific Rim in the last three decades have produced more economic growth than anywhere else in the world and, if there are occasional slumps, the Pacific Rim (except for Japan) has always come surging back, as East Asia did in 1999. The question is whether Washington's laid-back tolerance can be so excessive as to undermine its impressive achievements.
Politically, Washington, with its Scandinavian and labor union heritage, was once one of the most Democratic states: Franklin Roosevelt's campaign manager James Farley used to refer to "the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington." Its mainstream Democrats--notably Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, who represented the state in Congress for a total of 87 years--believed in an active and compassionate federal government that built dams, aluminum plants and the Hanford Works at home, and pursued an internationalist, anti-Communist foreign policy abroad. Their political strength was built on a blue collar base, augmented by the respect big businesses had for their political clout. Today, the fulcrum of the electorate has moved from blue collar to white collar, from economic class warfare to cultural wars. The balance is fairly close. In presidential races, Washington leans Democratic: big Seattle-area margins delivered the state for Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and Al Gore in 2000. Democrats have also won most downballot races in presidential years. Three different Democrats have held the governorship since 1984, and Democrats hold both Senate seats and six of its nine U.S. House seats.
The political lines are fairly clear. The central city of Seattle is increasingly the liberal bastion, while old blue-collar lumber country strongholds have soured on many Democrats: Seattle's King County, by a wide margin the most affluent county in the state, is also its liberal stronghold. Republicans run best in the arid country east of the Cascades, with far lower income levels, this is a marchland between the culturally liberal Pacific Rim and the culturally conservative Rocky Mountains. Culture wars also are fought out in referenda. In 1997 voters rejected easing penalties for marijuana use and a ban on discrimination against (or for) gays; a gun control measure, requiring trigger locks for guns and safety tests for handgun owners, was rejected 71%-29%. In 1998, despite opposition from nearly every newspaper, all Democratic and some Republican politicians, Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft and Eddie Bauer, voters approved by 58%-42% a ban on racial and gender quotas and preferences in state government. In 1999, against business and union opposition, voters passed 56%-44% Initiative 695, which eliminated the 2.2% car tax and replaced it with a $30 annual fee; this reduced state revenue $750 million, or 7.5% of the state budget--the state courts later ruled the initiative was unconstitutional so the legislature passed a law to do it instead. Washington likes its politicians liberal, but operating under conservative restraints.
Washington had a humdrum political year in 2002, with neither the governorship nor a Senate seat up. But in 2004 it may be a focus of national politics. George W. Bush, who lost the state 50%-45% in 2000, did not visit it in 2001 or 2002, but might target it in 2004. This is a state sharply divided on cultural issues, where the outcome of elections can depend on whether turnout is high in liberal King County or conservative eastern Washington.
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