All's Quiet in the Other Washington
By William Booth
Sen. Slade Gorton says words cannot describe his happiness at returning to his routine after the impeachment trial of President Clinton. "It was so wonderful getting off the plane," he said.
And then it got more wonderful.
Because in the last week, Gorton can almost count on one hand the number of times -- in a hundred encounters with supporters and citizens -- that he was asked to defend, describe or in any way illuminate the people back home about the impeachment matter that consumed the other Washington for the past year.
At a ceremony here at Foster High School, Gorton presented the Tukwila School District with an "Innovation in Education" award for the district's hard work in assimilating newcomers from Somalia, Bosnia, Russia, Vietnam and Mexico. The immigrants have transformed this once-white, working-class community to a place whose ethnic diversity has grown by 1000 percent in seven years.
At a reception following, the only voter to put the heat on the senator was Dustin Washington, a security guard at a middle school who is also an adviser to the group Students Against Violence Everywhere. Washington didn't like the bombing of Iraq.
Why didn't he ask about the impeachment proceedings?
"I knew he'd give the typical politician's answer," Washington said, as Gorton was posing for a picture with school board members and Rotarians. "It's not important. It's a distraction."
During his week home, Gorton said, "I got a few questions here and there milling around, but no, impeachment was not a topic of conversation. I think the whole thing will have an extremely short half-life. I don't know what the issues are going to be a year-and-a-half from now, but I don't think impeachment will be one of them."
Is the issue gone? That is what many in the Washington state GOP, especially its moderate wing, would like to think.
Gorton was one of the few Republicans to break ranks in the Senate, splitting his vote -- casting a no for perjury and a yes for obstruction of justice -- in the trial that determined Clinton should not be removed from office.
But Gorton is up for reelection in 2000, and the increasingly powerful Democratic Party here has got him in its cross hairs.
In the 1998 elections, Democrats picked up two congressional seats in Washington, and perhaps more telling, they added 12 seats in the statehouse.
Paul Berendt, chairman of the state Democratic Party, says he is organizing a coalition solely on the idea of anybody but Gorton. "We don't need to wait for our candidate," he said, "to start going after Slade."
Berendt, however, agreed with Gorton that impeachment itself might not be the issue that voters care about in the Evergreen State, where the economy is red-hot despite layoffs announced by the region's powerhouse Boeing Co.
"It's not so much the impeachment that voters will remember," Berendt said. "Bill Clinton will be a fading memory. Impeachment, too. But not the power of the right wing in Congress. That was on full display, and it makes people nervous. I may be guilty of regional bashing here, but the fact that all these House managers all had these southern drawls and they were all these middle-aged white males trying to force their versions of morality on everybody else. I don't think voters liked it."
On Thursday, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke said he would not oppose Gorton in a Senate bid. Instead he said that the Democrats have other powerful candidates, including state Attorney General Christine Gregoire and Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn.
Female voters represented about 53 percent of the Washington state electorate in 1998, and strategists in both parties said that women could be a powerful force in the upcoming elections.
Unlike some Republicans, Gorton came home not to ruminate on impeachment but to remind voters what he does in Washington.
In appearances across the state, he said that in the 106th Congress he will work to increase money for education, but require less paperwork; to stop the federal government from pushing plans to recover the dwindling stocks of salmon by removing dams; and to get a tax cut.
"I don't think Senator Gorton has done himself any irreparable harm with his impeachment vote. I don't know if voters want to even hear about it, because we're all so happy it's over," said Tukwila Mayor Wally Rants, an independent. "But that doesn't mean that the Democrats won't try to use it, and that's to be expected."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company