Ten years ago one of the big questions in politics was: “What’s the matter with Kansas?”
Today it could be rephrased as: “What’s the matter with Kennewick?”
The Kansas question came from a book that explored how curious it was that Kansans increasingly voted against their economic self-interests. They supported corporate-backing, government-slashing politicians, instead of candidates who were more overtly offering to help them.
But nowhere has politics gotten curiouser of late than the Tri-Cities, right here in Washington state.
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Last week it was revealed that of all the nation’s congressional districts, none benefited more from the infamous stimulus — the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 — than our own 4th Congressional District of Eastern Washington.
It turns out the government showered down $3,753 for every resident there — the most in the U.S. by far, and eight times more than the mean national figure of $469 per person. (The part of the stimulus being analyzed here is just the $260 billion in direct project spending, not the $300 billion in tax cuts or other general aid sent to states.)
Yet the politicians in the 4th are among the most hostile to the idea of government spending anywhere.
The congressman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, spent the five years since the stimulus passed decrying it as both useless and dangerous. He voted against it and almost immediately declared it a “colossal failure.”
“It’s clear that the reckless spending coming from Washington, D.C., must stop,” he said in one of many news releases on the matter, titled “Trillion Dollar Stimulus is Failing.”
He wrote in another: “Central Washingtonians know that the way to grow the economy is not to grow the federal government.”
Do they? Because of the top 10 employers in the Tri-Cities, six are the federal government, while the other four rely heavily on federal grants or subsidies. The stimulus meant more than 3,000 jobs at the Hanford nuclear reservation alone and, during the darkest days of 2009, propped up the economy there. When the Tri-Cities finally took a hit from the recession, it was because the stimulus ended.
Hastings’ district is basically a company town — with that company being Uncle Sam.
Yet it chooses to represent it someone who rails against its essential nature (though not so vigorously that the river of money ever seems to slow). Why? Why not elect someone who isn’t constantly philosophically attacking the lifeblood of the community?
In Thomas Frank’s book about Kansas, he theorizes that voters often say they’re concerned most about jobs and the economy, but what actually motivates them are hot-button religious or cultural issues, such as abortion or gay rights.
That doesn’t sound quite like Central Washington to me. Candidates there don’t tend to crusade on any religion other than “government is bad.” It makes the question of what’s the matter with Kennewick even more perplexing. Essentially it’s a district of government employees who votes year after year that they are a ruinous force that must be stopped. Save us from ourselves!
Are they caught up in a Western myth of the individualist? Do they maybe resent government precisely because it’s their boss?
What’s the matter with Kennewick will get maybe its biggest airing ever in 2014. Hastings is retiring and some of the candidates vying to replace him are so anti-government he looks like Jim McDermott by comparison.
One favorite is farmer Clint Didier (theme song: “Hell to Pay”). He goes way beyond the usual no-taxes promises expected of Republicans, and has signed a pledge to never vote for any budget that “grows government.” Nothing could ever go up. So if his government-dependent district elects him, it will be voting, theoretically, to freeze itself.
“Nothing is ever going to change in this country for the better until we stop the growth,” Didier says.
That’s a rugged stand. It would be a principled stand if they ever followed it.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org