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 late 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. But since that high point Washington has had its woes, and it is useful to see how it got there, and the 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. Thriving 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 number 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 D. Roosevelt, who grew up in a great river valley, 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 misty 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; voters responded, and 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 March 2001, Boeing's chairman announced that the firm's headquarters would be moved out of Seattle, to Chicago. 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. Boeing continued to suffer from the airline recession, competition from Airbus and congressional opposition to the proposal to build KC-767 aerial refueling tankers. Recovery from the recession was slow: Washington's unemployment for a long time was the second highest in the nation, after Oregon's, and in early 2005 metro Seattle still had fewer jobs than it did at the end of 2000.
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 choke 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.
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 in the 1930s one of the most Democratic northern states: Franklin D. 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 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 favors the Democrats, but not necessarily by much. In presidential races, Washington leans Democratic. Washington's governor and both of its senators are all Democrats and all women, but Governor Christine Gregoire and Senator Maria Cantwell were elected by very narrow margins. Democrats hold six of Washington's nine U.S. House seats, and four different Democrats have held the governorship since 1984. But they almost lost it in 2004. The official count, after many shenanigans and legal challenges, declared that Gregoire had been elected governor by 129 votes. Republicans lost control of the state Senate in 2004 but gained the attorney general's office.
The political lines are fairly clear. The central city of Seattle is increasingly the liberal bastion, the upscale suburbs have been trending Democratic, 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: 65% for John Kerry in 2004, with a popular vote margin of 279,000, the sixth highest of any county in the nation. 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: it voted 60% for George W. Bush in 2004.
Washington had a tumultuous political year in 2004. Early on it was on both presidential candidates' lists of target states, but it had given Al Gore the best vote in 2000 of any of them and soon the Bush campaign stopped competing here. Nor did Republican Congressman George Nethercutt's challenge of Senator Patty Murray prove to be a serious threat. But the governor's race between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Christine Gregoire was close down to the wire--and after. Republicans did manage to hold two open House seats in which Democrats waged serious campaigns.