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From ‘fair’ to ‘crazy’: Public weighs in on Spokane County commissioner redistricting maps

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 14, 2021

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.

The bipartisan committee splitting Spokane County into five commissioner districts has until Oct. 23 to settle on a final map. That map matters because it will largely determine the political makeup of the county commissioners for at least a decade.

Committee members appointed by Republicans and Democrats have repeatedly shared different ideas on what constitutes a fair commissioner map.

Brian McClatchey, one of the two committee members appointed by Spokane’s Democratic state legislators, argues that it’d be fair to have two commissioner districts that lean red, two that lean blue and one that’s up for grabs. The two-two and a swing proposal makes sense, McClatchey says, because roughly 55% of county voters are Republicans and 45% are Democrats. 

Jim McDevitt, one of the two Republican-appointed committee members, has a different idea of fairness. He says if 55% of the county votes Republican, then the GOP should get three seats and the Democratic Party should get two.

The committee is down to two compromise maps, one drawn by the two Republican committee members, one drawn by the two Democrats. In some ways, those two maps do reflect compromises made by both sides. But politically they don’t show much compromise. In fact, they might represent a slight step backward.

According to an analysis by The Spokesman-Review, the compromise map drawn by Democrats would likely lead to two blue districts, two red districts and one swing district. The Republican-drawn compromise map could lead to four red districts and one solidly blue district.

At this point, it’s no mystery what the committee members think makes for a fair map. But what do outsiders, who have been watching the redistricting process for months, think is fair?

Bill Siems is a retired Washington State University chemistry professor and part of a small core of loyal redistricting followers who have hardly missed a single committee meeting in the past months.

Siems, who lives in Spokane and identifies as a progressive, agrees with McClatchey’s argument, but adds another point.

“The fair (map), the one that corresponds with how people have voted in the past, is 3-2 (favoring Republicans) but sometimes 2-3,” Siems said, adding that as a liberal, he would prefer to see a 3-2 Democratic majority on the county commission.

Siems has spent roughly 150 hours drawing commissioner maps using a free online service available at davesredistricting.org. Several of the maps he’s drawn and shared at the public meetings have appeared to address some of the concerns expressed by the committee members, and while the members haven’t directly adopted any of his proposals, they have publicly thanked him for his efforts and input.

Tolar Bryan, who lives south of Liberty Lake, is one of the conservatives who’s hardly missed a redistricting meeting. Bryan, who grew up in North Carolina, flew for five years in the Air Force and worked for Exxon before retiring in 2003, said he’s been attending the meetings religiously because he wants to keep a watchful eye on the process and ensure there’s no gerrymandering.

Bryan said he thinks McClatchey’s argument for two red districts, two blue districts and a swing is perfectly reasonable. But he thinks it’s more fair to draw a map that results in a 3-2 Republican-Democrat commission split.

Medical Lake resident Jeffrey Olsen, who hasn’t been a meeting regular but who spoke at the redistricting committee’s Thursday public hearing, backed the Republican-drawn map rather emphatically.

“What are you, crazy?” Olsen said to the committee Democrats, whose most recent map places part of the South Hill in a district with the West Plains cities. “Medical Lake has nothing to do with South Hill. To force it into it brings the conservatives in the West Plains a terrible chill down their back. They know what South Hill is and they have nothing in common with it.”

Diana Wilhite, a Republican and former Spokane Valley mayor who has acted as a sort of Spokane Valley representative at committee meetings, also prefers the map drawn by committee Republicans.

From a population standpoint, it appears logical for the Valley to get its own district. Each district has to have about 108,000 residents, which makes the Valley tailor-made for a singular commissioner.

The Valley isn’t going to get its own district, though, because doing that would create population issues elsewhere.

“If you did that to the Valley, you would then have to pair the big rural areas with chunks of Spokane,” Siems explained. “That doesn’t really make sense, because Spokane is really too blue.”

So instead, the committee is probably going to split the Valley along north-south lines. As long as the Valley is split into two districts – and not three, as the most recent Democrat-drawn map shows – Wilhite will be happy.

Ben Wick, Spokane Valley’s mayor, said a two-way split works well for the Valley. He said he was sharing his thoughts not as mayor, but simply as a Spokane Valley resident.

“If we’re split in half, we may have a chance to be a possible majority in two commissioner districts, which may give us influence over two commissioners,” Wick said.

Wilhite said she’s adamantly opposed to a map that splits the Valley in three. Lumping western Spokane Valley into a district shared with eastern Spokane is simply unacceptable, she said, because the Valley specifically became a city so it didn’t have to be part of Spokane anymore. How can it possibly be lumped back in with the city? she asked.

Ann Murphy is president of the nonpartisan Spokane area League of Women Voters. She’s one of few who have attended almost every meeting.

Murphy said she thinks the two red, two blue, swing proposal sounds fair. Having competitive districts, instead of ones that repeatedly result in Republican or Democratic landslides, is important.

“Whoever’s going to be running, they’re going to have to do a little bit of work and really connect with their constituency,” Murphy said.

Jac Archer, organizer and program coordinator with Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR), agreed that the fairest map will have competitive districts. Archer, who is Black and nonbinary, also said they think keeping like-minded communities together and creating competitive districts is more important than simply worrying about the party line splits.

Murphy also said the argument that Spokane residents should be boxed into only two commissioner districts is a bad one.

The people of Spokane deserve as much of a say in county commissioner elections as anyone else, she said.

“If you don’t want me participating in what the county does, why don’t you let me stop paying my county taxes?” she said.

The redistricting committee is meeting multiple times this week, in multihour stints, in an effort to whittle the two maps down to one.

It’s possible the committee will have a draft final map done Wednesday or Thursday, and it’s also possible a draft final won’t be done until next week.

If the committee can’t reach an agreement at the local level, the decision will pass on to a state-level redistricting committee.

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