It’s a long haul from Southeastern Washington to Olympia, but the same issues of education and changing demographics hit home out on the farm.
This time of year Rep. Joe Schmick (R) of the 9th LD, can’t help but miss the routine of daily life back home. A second-generation farmer, Schmick lives in Colfax in the southeastern corner of Washington state, where he grows garbanzo beans and a handful of other crops. While his neighbors and constituents ready their fields, Schmick uproots to Olympia, where he lives in a trailer in a campground just outside the Capitol.
“We’re either going 100 miles an hour, or doing zero,” he said of the pace of legislative life.
But in that regard, Schmick’s family history of farming has helped him in Olympia. It’s his familiarity with the working man that he says distinguishes him from other figures in the political arena.
“There are too few people [in Olympia] that sign the front side of a paycheck or have to balance not just a household budget but a business budget,” says his colleague Sen. Mark Schoesler (R), also of the 9th district.
The 9th LD is one of the largest geographically in the state and encompasses all or part of six counties, including Whitman, Adams, Asotin, Garfield, Spokane and Franklin. Made up predominately of farm plots, its economic base is an unlikely split between agriculture and higher education.
Redistricting inserted portions of Franklin County and Pasco, adding even more farmland and more conservative voters. Neither were earth-shaking developments for the historically Republican quarter of the state. According to Susan Fagan (R), the other state representative here, Republican incumbents rarely lose their seats.
But the changing district lines did cost the 9th in higher ed. Two public universities—Eastern Washington and WSU—used to fall within its borders, making for one of the state’s largest blocks of public employees. But now EWU has been reassigned to the 6th district.
It’s too early to tell what that loss will mean for the 9th, said Schmick, but Sen. Schoesler ruminated that it may earn higher ed more advocates in Olympia. Rep. Kevin Parker and Sen. Michael Baumgartner both of the 6th LD, serve on committees of higher education in their respective offices.
“It was a rural district and included WSU,” said EWU spokesman Dave Meany, of the university’s previous home. “And so representatives and senators from our district had two state colleges to worry about. We’re excited to be in the 6th district, not because we wanted out of the 9th, but because it sort of represents another opportunity.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the 9th, however, is in primary education. A sizable Hispanic population in public schools has complicated the learning curve and teaching methods of the districts’ school system. English as a Second Language (ESL) students often enter with the foundation of knowledge but not the English proficiency to keep pace with their classroom peers.
That large Hispanic population (roughly 20%) has also made for a lower income bracket. Schmick lamented that most, if not all district schools, depend on Levy Equalization Assistance (LEA). Spokane, for instance, receives $13.2 million annually in LEA funding, accounting for about 23.4% of the school district’s budget.
Olympia’s financial woes threaten to undermine much of the 9th‘s basic educational foundation, said Schoesler.
“We have continued to go to the higher education budget like a bank,” said Rep. Fagan on her website. “…It’s time to prioritize education.”
She points to the 9th‘s classrooms as a lens through which to see the demographics of the district.
“It’s a greater challenge for us in Eastern Washington to get out to all of our constituents, to serve them well, and to let them know we understand their issues,” said Fagan, referring to the sheer size and scope of the region. “But in my opinion we have the best of both worlds here.”
The 9th LD – Old lines in red, new lines in blue View Larger