A Fast-Growing, Locally Minded Northwest Shifts Toward Liberal Politics, Service Jobs


ECONOMIC, demographic, and social changes in the Northwest over the past 12 years have led to a shift toward more high-tech and service-oriented jobs and tourism. Its populace is growing increasingly liberal, yet skeptical of the federal government and unsettled about its future.

The economy has diversified as resource-based jobs have declined. The region - Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska - also is becoming more global in outlook as Pacific Rim trade grows.

At the same time, more and more people here are living in the region's urban areas. From other parts of the country, especially from California, people are drawn to a place seen as "mild and wild" (to use a Rand McNally phrase), to towns and cities viewed as highly livable, free of stressful circumstances, and within a short drive of spectacular wilderness. Between 1980 and 1990, for example, the population of Boise, Idaho, grew nearly 25 percent - more than three times the state's rate and more than twi ce the national average.

These shifts have led to a new body politic in the region that may seem paradoxical - more liberal on environmental and social issues, but increasingly eager to shuck the federal government as an impediment to local control and progress.

The result, says Phillip Burgess, president of the Denver-based Center for the New West, is "a very different kind of electorate than you had 10 years ago ... not the same kind of place at all."

The traditional western independence is taking what Missoula, Mont., Mayor Daniel Kemmis calls a "post-modern" twist, which is manifested in several ways:

* New coalitions building among constituencies historically at odds with one another - unions and chambers of commerce, for example.

* Broader interest in preserving the environment.

* Moves toward education and tax reform.

* Efforts to limit office terms. Ten of 14 states with these measures on their November ballot are located in the West.

A sense is growing throughout the region that "federal government has very little that it can contribute to positive change in this region," says Mayor Kemmis, who is well-known for his insightful thinking and writing on the West's future.

Still, he adds, translating economic and demographic changes into a new political landscape is a "slow and rough process."

What hasn't been slow is the shift in jobs. In "Greater Yellowstone," an area larger than West Virginia where Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming meet, 96 percent of the new jobs and 89 percent of the growth in labor income during the 1980s occurred in sectors outside of agriculture and extractive industries, such as timber and mining. Jobs in those traditional industries have dropped from 1 in 3 in 1970 to just 1 in 6 today.

The same is true in Oregon and Washington, where timber jobs have fallen to automation, increasing exports of unprocessed logs, and environmental restrictions. Tourism, Mr. Burgess notes, has become a top industry in all six states.

Many new workers, he says, are "lone eagles" or "freelance professionals" - writers, financial analysts, real estate brokers, manufacturer's representatives - "people who live by their wits and remain connected to the outside world by modems and faxes and airline tickets."

Others are retirees who are moving to small, cosmopolitan, culturally rich places such as Bend, Brookings, and Ashland, Ore., and Montana's Gallatin Valley. Among these are what Andrew Grose, an executive director of the Council of State Governments, calls "equity bandits" - those able to cash in expensive homes elsewhere to buy or build at prices high for the area.

"Northwest and the Rockies is a very attractive region in which to live," says Thomas Crocker, economics department chairman at the University of Wyoming. "It's becoming a kind of refuge for people who are rather well-educated and, in the language of the mass media, specializing in information. That's a major source of change that is beginning to build and likely to accelerate in these states."

THIS change, adds Professor Crocker in his New England accent, "puts a great deal of pressure on the traditional social structure."

Pressure to change is also coming from other forces. Until 1990, for example, state legislative districts in Wyoming were set along county lines, giving sparsely populated areas disproportionate political clout. After the 1990 census, a federal court ordered redistricting to reflect true population balance. "We'll have a whole new legislature, and this will give towns and cities new political weight," Crocker says. "This portends substantive changes in attitudes toward education, the environment, and lot s of other things."

A report by Westrends, a research group of the Council of State Governments, cites the "complex social and political challenges for western communities and states" resulting from a changing populace.

"Smaller communities discover newcomers may have different political values and priorities. For example, people migrating to the West after raising families and gaining economic security may be most interested in supporting land-use planning and stronger environmental protection, while `locals' favor stronger economic-development policies and higher education expenditures. Likewise, businesses from outside the region may be managing farm lands, once operated by families, with different political prioriti es than family owners," the report states.

Alaska differs from the rest of the region in that its economy remains largely tied to North Slope oil, with fishing and tourism next in importance. "There's been a little bit more diversification, but it's mostly talk," says Richard Ender, a business professor at the University of Alaska. "But known oil fields are running out, and the possibility of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) remains much in doubt. The state really hasn't prepared for this, so people are starting to worry."

"This tends to create odd politics. We have a strong antigovernment sentiment," says Professor Ender. Two years ago, Alaska chose independent Walter Hickel over GOP and Democratic candidates for governor; this year Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) are in tough fights.

This unsettled politics is felt regionwide. Washington State has an unusually large number of open seats at state and federal levels. Oregon's Senate race features 18-year veteran Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin, who barely survived a primary challenge from the left, and Republican incumbent Robert Packwood, a maverick criticized by the religious right. Montana, which lost a US House seat to redistricting, has two incumbents - as different politically as day and night - pitted against one another for the rema ining seat.

Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch perceives a regional trend favoring Democrats. Like everyone else, he waits to see what the elections may bring.

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