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The Nation : Transplanted Californians Helped to Retire Foley

November 13, 1994|John Arthur Wilson | John Arthur Wilson is political editor of the Seattle Weekly and a producer for ABC News

SEATTLE — By Tuesday's election, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley knew he would have to carry his hometown of Spokane big if there was any hope of winning a 16th term to Congress. But this was a different Spokane from the one Foley knew. An influx of newcomers, from around Washington state but especially from California, had changed local political dynamics. And it was these newcomers--who lacked decades of loyalty to Foley--who would cost him his cherished seat in the House.

Foley narrowly won Spokane County, but as of late last week, he trailed Republican George Nethercutt by 2,500 votes--ending a legislative career that began with the 1964 landslide of Lyndon B. Johnson. True, Foley paid dearly for his backing of an assault-weapons ban. He was clobbered in the more rural counties of Eastern Washington's 5th District. That had been always rough territory for the courtly Foley, a man more partial to Brooks Brothers than Day-Glo hunting vests. But in the past, Foley had always mopped up in Spokane--forging a coalition of business leaders, well-heeled farmers and union members from the local aluminum plant.

But Spokane has been changing while 65-year-old Foley has been in that other Washington. The city's population has grown to 185,600, from 177,165 in 1990, and in Spokane County, total population (including the city) has swollen to 392,000, from 361,364 just four years ago.

A December, 1993, survey indicated these newcomers were coming from one state more than any other. Once you got beyond in-state migration, the largest percentage of new arrivals (16%) were from California. Neighboring Idaho was second, but at only 7%. The survey, by Robinson Research Spokane, showed these California arrivals to be younger, better educated, more with children than the area average and with a lower household income. Equity fat from selling their homes in California, they snatched up $250,000 homes in Spokane for cash, driving real-estate prices skyward.

In many cases, they were fleeing from the Golden State's sour economy, shaky school system and gang warfare. Even now, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce reports that almost half its requests for relocation information come from Californians. Chamber volunteer Janice Parr knows what's driving them; she just arrived in the Lilac City from Fresno two months ago. "There was just too much gang activity," says Parr, mother of an 8-year-old son.

Parr didn't arrive and register in time to vote in the Foley-Nethercutt race, but she's symbolic of the changing voter in Spokane. Foley's own polling, while not specifically surveying whether potential voters were Spokane-area newcomers, highlighted the Speaker's problem. He did well with women voters, aged 25 to 55, and seniors, generally long-time locals who retain fond memories of Foley before Congress was daily vilified on talk radio. His problem came, according to Janet Gilpatrick, Foley's top aide in the district, with younger voters, especially males, 18 to 33--just the kind of voter moving into the area from California.

The contrast between the young and old voter, and the long-time resident versus the newcomer, also came through loud and clear as you traveled the district.

A few months ago, I dropped into the Pine Shed Cafe along Spokane's neon-lit North Division Street. It was bedrock Spokane: a classic, smoky, greasy spoon where they don't serve espresso drinks but they'll happily get you two eggs, bacon, hash browns and a side of local politics. I got the trio--two men and one woman, all in their 50s--sitting adjacent to me talking about Foley. "He's just on the wrong side of the fence," said Rhett Mullis in his native Carolinians' drawl. "He's saved Fairchild," countered Marion Sawyer, referring to the Air Force base outside Spokane.

On a downtown street corner, amid boarded-up storefronts, I spoke to a small group of young women waiting for a bus. Foley's long career, his clout, even the Speakership, didn't mean much to them. They were worried about layoffs at a local hospital (thanks to talk of health-care reform), soaring rents as real estate boomed and increasing gang violence (another of those benefits brought by transplanted L.A. gang members).

To these voters new to the district--to those California transplants and thousands of others--he was the personal embodiment of Congress and the Democrats' 40-year control of the House. Foley's predecessor, the late Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, was wrong in this case. This time, politics wasn't local; it was national--the Republican flip side of the kind of partisan sweep that brought a young Foley to Congress 30 years ago.

In 1964, Foley defeated 22-year veteran GOP Congressman Walt Horan, arguing it was time for a change. This year, Nethercutt, a 50-year-old lawyer and former Senate aide, like Foley was when he first ran for Congress, made the same case. To the newer voters, said Seattle Democratic political analyst Ron Dotzauer, "It was time to give Tom the gold watch."*

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