Eastside Politics: Understanding the Powerhouse Next Door

Knute Berger ponders the Eastside’s potent pragmatism.
Knute Berger  |   February 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
downtown bellevue washington
An aerial view of Bellevue, Washington

I recently talked over coffee with Jim Vesely, the retired editor of The Seattle Times’ editorial page and a longtime Eastside observer. We met at the Tully’s on Mercer Island in “The Rock’s” dense new business district. Even affluent, single-family Mercer Island has done its share of taking on growth, building up, and becoming transit- and pedestrian-friendly. Sitting in the café, we could have been, for all intents and purposes, ensconced in Fremont.

The Eastside is no longer your parents’ suburbs. Because of the Growth Management Act of 1990, development has been driven into designated “urban” zones, turning old bedroom communities into full-fledged cities, and with more to come. Bellevue, as we know, is now dense and diverse, and still growing. The Sound Transit light rail planned for the Bel-Red Corridor will be transformative, expanding Bellevue’s downtown eastward and creating a continuous urban corridor connected to the region’s job engine that is Microsoft.

Politically, the Eastside is bluer than ever, less red. The new equation political consultants discuss is “density = Democrats.” But the Eastside Democrats are a bit different than Seattle’s, Vesely says. Eastsiders tend to elect centrist Democrats or moderate Republicans who share some of the characteristics of Microsoft (where some were formerly employed). They tend to be smart, impatient and pragmatic.

From Nickels’ pouting about succession to McGinn’s focus on bike lanes, Seattle leaders are seen as playing a kind of selfish political small ball.

So what does that have to do with Seattle? Vesely and other Eastsiders I talked to view Seattle as a city increasingly turned inward. Vesely thinks that Seattle pols are ceding regional vision and leadership. From Greg Nickels’ pouting about secession to Mike McGinn’s focus on bike lanes, Seattle leaders are seen as playing a kind of selfish political small ball. “Mayors and politicians in Seattle are not as great as the city,” Vesely observes.

Eastsiders, such as Andrew Villeneuve of Redmond’s Northwest Progressive Institute, point to a kind of can-do/can’t-do difference between the Eastside and Seattle exemplified in the State Route 520 expansion project. While Seattle still mulls over 520’s configuration in Montlake, the Eastside is getting its corridor built and the bridge replaced—at least replaced right up to the Seattle city limits, where planning gridlock begins. Seattle slows and fights, while the Eastside squabbles, then settles more speedily on “Get ’er done.”

A new, pragmatic, progressive—or as former Eastside legislator Deb Eddy phrases it, “socially positive”—Eastside seems to have less self-doubt, more drive. Seattle, once viewed as a regional bully, is now being viewed as 900-pound gorilla more interested in playing with itself than others. “Seattle is kind of irrelevant,” Vesely says. Interstate 405 and S.R. 520 get major improvements, rail is coming, and urban growth patterns are now the norm, at least west of Lake Sammamish. But even as the Eastside looks more like Seattle, it’s growing away from its psychic dependence on the Emerald City. The Eastside, Vesely says, “has a non-Seattle look at how the region operates.” Meaning it is no longer just a spoke in the great Seattle wheel, but a major hub of its own.

Wandering around downtown Bellevue, I’m struck with how the city of Bellevue Square has grown up with high-rises, a central park, a major transit hub. There are those in Bellevue who still hope Chris Hansen’s plans for a new basketball arena in SoDo fail so that one can be located with less fuss next to I-405 on Bellevue’s old auto row. Bellevue even has a branch of Mars Hill, the growing Christian church that has made its mark evangelizing to urban youth. The eeriest thing about downtown Bellevue is how much it feels like South Lake Union.

Over time, the Eastside has evolved into a fascinating incubator of state politics. The last four gubernatorial elections have featured Eastsiders (John Carlson, Dino Rossi twice, and Rob McKenna). Powerful new Democrats, such as Medina’s Ross Hunter and Mercer Island’s Judy Clibborn, are playing larger, key roles in Olympia. And the wealthy Eastside continues to be a piggy bank for candidates of both parties who come looking for cash from people like the McCaws and Ballmers. Pragmatism, centrism, partisan flexibility, energy, ambition and money: all components of an emerging regional powerhouse.

 

Write Knute Berger at knute.berger@tigeroak.com. His Mossback column is at crosscut.com.

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