Politics & Government

Congressional clout climbing?

WASHINGTON - Washington state is expected to pick up an additional congressional seat when the Census Bureau announces the latest population figures Tuesday, adding to its clout in the nation's capital.

But it’s not a sure thing.

Though the latest estimates show the state is in line for a new, 10th congressional district, it’s right on the edge, and analysts warn that their projections didn’t factor in members of the military based overseas. The upcoming census numbers will count overseas military.

“It does seem dicey,” Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, which tracks census and political data, said of Washington state’s chances for a new seat.

In 2000, Brace said, everyone expected Utah to gain another seat in the House of Representatives. But when the final numbers, including military overseas, were crunched, the seat went to North Carolina.

Last year, Brace said, it looked like Oregon would gain an additional seat; now it looks like it will be Washington.

“The numbers seem to indicate the Northwest will gain a seat, but it could be Washington or Oregon,” he said.

If Washington does gain another seat, it will set off a months-long battle over where to put it.

The state’s leading expert on redistricting, Richard Morrill, an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington who specializes in urban demography, said a new 10th district most likely would be centered in Olympia.

But in order to create a district, the redrawn boundaries could divvy up Pierce County into four separate districts, shift voters from one district to another in Eastern Washington, and even carve up the Olympic Peninsula.

In the political world, the stakes of redistricting are high, and Democrats, Republicans and incumbent House members will be tracking it closely.

Every 10 years since 1790, the census has determined how many seats in the U.S. House each state will have. Each state has two senators.

The 435 seats in the House will be apportioned among the 50 states based on population figures collected in the decennial census.

Washington has gained a seat in two of the last three reapportionments. In 1982, the 8th Congressional District involving parts of King County and eastern Pierce County was created, and in 1992 the 9th Congressional District, which includes parts of King, Pierce and Thurston counties, was added.

Washington is one of only seven states where the legislature is not directly involved in drawing new boundaries for the congressional and legislative districts.

Voters in 1983 approved a constitutional amendment stripping the Legislature of its traditional redistricting authority and handed it over to an independent commission.

Democrats appoint two members, Republicans appoint two members and then they select a nonvoting chairman. It takes a majority of the commission to approve a redistricting plan.

Even so, it remains a hotly contested political exercise.

“It can be nasty,” said Morrill, who should know. In the early 1980s, a federal court appointed Morrill as a special master responsible for redrawing the district boundaries after the Legislature failed compromise.

Dean Foster, a chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Booth Gardner and a member of the 2000 redistricting commission who has already been appointed to the 2010 commission, said the panel’s members know why they are serving.

“No one is confused,” Foster said. “They were all appointed by partisans.”

The commission may make the redistricting in Washington appear less political than in other states, but Luke Esser, chairman of the state Republican Party, said that can be deceiving.

“Both parties have to think they hoodwinked the other,” Esser said.

While Washington state will learn Tuesday whether it will receive a 10th seat, the commission won’t actually start drawing lines on a map until more detailed census numbers are released early next year. But there’s already plenty of speculation.

Morrill’s early analysis begins in Eastern Washington, where strong population growth, especially in the Tri-Cities, could mean shifts in the boundaries of the 4th Congressional District represented by Republican Doc Hastings and the 5th Congressional District represented by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Morrill said Okanogan and Adams counties could shift from the 5th District to the 4th District, and the 4th District may then lose more than 100,000 residents of Yakima to a newly configured 3rd Congressional District.

The 3rd, now represented by incoming freshman Republican Jamie Herrera, would stretch from Vancouver and Clark County along the Columbia River into Yakima, Morrill said. Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum and Thurston counties would be stripped from the current 3rd District to create the new 10th Congressional District with Olympia at its heart.

So far, so good. But now it gets more complicated.

Creating the new 10th District will likely mean changes in the 9th Congressional District represented by Democrat Adam Smith, the 6th Congressional District represented by Democrat Norm Dicks, the 8th Congressional District represented by Republican Dave Reichert, and the 7th Congressional District represented by Democrat Jim McDermott.

Morrill said Pierce County could end up split between the 6th, 9th, 8th and the new 10th congressional districts.

But Morrill said it’s more likely Reichert’s 8th District will shed parts of eastern Pierce County and shift its boundaries north.

Further north, the 2nd Congressional District now represented by Democrat Rick Larsen may have to lose much of Snohomish County to the 1st Congressional District represented by Democrat Jay Inslee.

Had enough?

“It’s like a clockwise circle running from Spokane to Vancouver to Bellingham,” said Morrill.

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008 lblumenthal@mcclatchydc.com