Ever since 1994, when Tom Foley lost his position as Speaker of the House and Republicans regained control of Congress after 40 years, Democrats around Spokane have seemed a little, well, deflated.
Sure, with Spokane's own Lisa Brown as the Washington State Senate majority leader, and with both U.S. Senate positions and the governor's mansion occupied by Democrats, it's clear that Washington is still a thoroughly blue state.
But locally, things are still mighty red. Just look at the results for the 2004 general election. Out of 28 partisan offices up for grabs at the federal, state and local levels, Spokane County voted Republican for all but five of them. Outside the Democratic stronghold of the 3rd District, Dems won Spokane's votes for only two offices. The Spokane County Commissioners are all Republicans. The County Assessor is a Republican. The Prosecuting Attorney's a Republican, too. You get the picture.
But despite all that, and with the state Democratic convention fresh in their memories and the prospect that their party may regain control of the United States House of Representatives this fall, local Dems seem reinvigorated.
One reason for this seems to be Peter Goldmark, the Okanagan rancher with a doctorate in molecular biology, who's vying for Cathy McMorris' seat in the U.S. House, and who arrived at a press conference in Spokane a few weeks ago on horseback.
The other is Chris Marr, the former auto dealer who's vying for state Senate in the 6th District, a seat that's been won by Republicans for 66 years, but lately only by slim margins. Marr could be a very competitive candidate. A charismatic Asian-American, he's got a background in business (with Foothills Auto Group, and as a former chairman of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce) but an environmental sensibility (last year he fought his own industry and backed a bill to reduce vehicle emissions in Washington).
But Marr downplays the importance of his party affiliation to an extent, saying that many voters looking at the current state of the federal government feel "stung" by their willingness to vote the party line. He believes voters in the coming elections will vote more on the issues that matter to them.
At the same time, Marr says Democrats are in a good position to take advantage of such a party shake-up, noting that although Don Barbieri's bid for the U.S. House in 2004 failed, it won over much of the business community, which is normally thought to vote for Republican candidates. He says Barbieri's campaign also "organized the county party in a way it's never been organized before. [It] commanded focus to the Spokane urban area, that we're growing, we're maturing."
Barbieri is now the chair of a new elections committee within the local Democratic Party. Candidates running for office on the Democratic ticket come to the committee (comprised of members from all five of Spokane's legislative districts) to talk about their positions on local issues and to outline their campaign plan. The committee then forwards a recommendation up the ladder to the central committee, which uses the input when making endorsements.
"That's been a really tremendous tool for us," says Sharon Smith, chair of the local party. Not only does it give the party a good feel for the candidate, but it gives the candidate a look at the resources available to them through the party. Couple that with a strong push to get local supporters involved (via a new database of subscribers) and keep them informed (via their Web site, SpokaneDemocrats.org) and, Smith says, Dems are becoming considerably more cohesive than they have been in the past.
Though the party's renewed focus on thoughtful policy-making and "balance" -- a green-friendly businessman, a cattle rancher with a Ph.D. -- could be perceived as Kerry-esque waffling, Smith thinks it will be an asset in the coming election cycle.
"I think people have hopefully now seen what not being thoughtful enough and what not being balanced enough gets you," she says. "People will be rethinking that now. A stubborn approach, a one-sided approach ... is probably not healthy for us in the long term."