Will the new 9th Congressional District push Rep. Adam Smith further to the left?

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WASHINGTON — Washington’s remapped 9th Congressional District will be the state’s first made up of a majority of racial and ethnic minorities, people who as a group are markedly more liberal than whites.

And the man representing the district is Rep. Adam Smith, of Tacoma, arguably the state’s least liberal Democrat in Congress.

Perhaps more than any of the state’s nine U.S. House members, Smith, a moderate Democrat, faces re-election in a district that has shifted sharply, geographically and demographically.

That could require political footwork from Smith to align himself with an electorate that may care less about the military and veterans issues that have been a big focus of his for years and more about health care, Social Security, and other public programs.

“People of color care about the achievement gap and the opportunity gap. And people of color are especially concerned about budget cuts,” said Tony Lee, policy director of Statewide Poverty Action Network, a Seattle advocacy group, and founding member of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington State.

Smith’s fiscal restraint has sometimes conflicted with positions favored by minority groups. For example, during the 2009-10 Congress, he was the only Democrat from the state to vote against a $154 billion infrastructure-jobs and local government aid bill.

The reshaped district might entice a Democrat, possibly a minority candidate, to challenge Smith this year in his race for a ninth term. Already Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, of African-American and Japanese-American heritage, is considering a run.

The district’s southern edge will move 30 miles north from Rainier, Thurston County, to near Smith’s home in northeast Tacoma, adding Seattle’s Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and Leschi neighborhoods and Mercer Island, Newcastle and Bellevue.

The new boundaries represent a 20 percentage-point shift toward Democratic voters, as measured by the 2010 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Dino Rossi.

The redrawn 9th District favored Murray by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, second only to the 7th District represented by Jim McDermott, a Seattle liberal stalwart. No other redrawn congressional district in Washington has veered as much politically.

What’s more, Joint Base Lewis-McChord will be spun out of Smith’s district into the newly created 10th District, which was added to reflect Washington’s population gains. Smith last year won the top Democratic seat on the House Armed Services Committee after the panel’s four most senior Democrats failed to get re-elected, gaining a key say on defense and national-security matters.

Yet for all the changes in his district, Smith says, he expects much to remain the same.

For one thing, Smith plans to hang on to his ranking post on the Armed Services Committee, saying that Bellevue and the Eastside are home to many defense contractors with a keen interest in military issues.

“I’ve always had a very diverse district,” Smith said. “I really represent the entire Puget Sound region.”

Smith also argues a person’s political views aren’t colored mainly by race. “There are a bunch of different factors that make up who you are. The most important thing is to listen to people.”

Ethnic diversity

Non-Hispanic whites will make up just less than half of those who live in the new 9th District. People of Asian or Pacific-Islander heritage will make up an additional 23 percent, Latinos 12 percent and blacks 11 percent.

In Seattle as in the rest of the nation, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans are much more likely than whites to identify themselves as Democrats or leaning to the Democratic Party. African Americans, for instance, are three to four times as likely to call themselves Democrats than Republicans. Ideologically, non-Hispanic whites are more apt than any other group to call themselves conservatives.

As a child of blue-collar parents who grew up to become a lawyer, Smith said politics for him always has meant promoting equality and opportunity for the less privileged. He said he has a good relationship with minority communities and noted that he served as state chairman for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run.

The middle of three brothers, Smith, 46, was adopted as an infant by Ben Smith, a ramp worker at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and his wife, Leila, a stay-at-home mother.

Smith hasn’t strayed far from his working-class roots. With his wife and two children back in Tacoma, Smith sleeps in his office on the fourth-floor of the Rayburn House Building during the week rather than shell out for rental housing on Capitol Hill.

Smith is solidly liberal on most social issues. He supports abortion rights, affirmative action, same-sex marriage and allowing illegal immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship.

At the same time, however, Smith believes voting the party line isn’t always best. He has been particularly wary of increasing spending and cutting taxes without offsetting them with revenue. In December 2010, he joined a minority of House Democrats in a losing vote against extending the Bush-era tax cuts for two more years.

Smith belongs to the House New Democrat Coalition, a group Smith says is united by pragmatism, not ideology. Reps. Rick Larsen, of Lake Stevens, and Jay Inslee, of Bainbridge Island, who is running for governor, also are members.

Smith often ranks to the right of his fellow Washington Democrats judged by voting records.

The National Journal in 2010 gave Smith a liberal score of 65 on a 100-point scale based on key economic, social and foreign-policy votes. That ranked Smith fifth of six Democrats among members of the state’s House delegation and far behind McDermott’s score of 83. (Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, who retired last year, scored 59).

More recently, Smith backed the two-month extension of the payroll-tax holiday, which has reduced workers’ share of Social Security taxes from 6.2 to 4.2 percent. But Smith said he opposes his party’s push to reduce the rate even lower, to 3.1 percent. And he’s undecided whether the tax cut ought be renewed for the remainder of this year.

Fiscal prudence

Lee, the advocate for the poor, said he can respect Smith’s fiscal prudence. Yet Lee said minorities tend to earn less than their white peers and said Smith’s position risks forsaking the neediest.

“Low-income people need to have a tax cut and the economy needs it,” he said.

Rebecca Thorpe, assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, predicts that Smith’s new constituents likely will push him slightly more to the left on policy issues. Thorpe said Democratic legislators from majority minority districts tend to take more progressive positions on measures that benefit racial minorities, including immigration, education and welfare programs.

Not everyone believes the racial split will be the defining feature of the new 9th District. Karol Brown, chair of the 41st Legislative District Democrats in Bellevue, which will become part of Smith’s district, believes many voters, from managers at Microsoft to service workers in Tukwila, share common concerns about jobs and the economy.

For those Democrats, Brown said, it would matter less whether Smith votes the party line than if he listens and responds.

Smith “really makes decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Brown.

“I’m really, really happy to have him as my congressman.”

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed

to this report.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com