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A visit to rural Thurston County

Crossing (out) the divide

Since 2000 there’s been the notion that there are red states and blue states. People in red states—mostly inland and southern—are said to be the sort who never saw a regulation they liked, refer to undocumented residents as illegal aliens and shout “USA, USA” at Trump rallies. On the other hand, the view of people in blue states—mostly coastal and northern—is that they would offer excuses for anyone who doesn’t have a job, are always ready to pay higher taxes, and tune in every night to comedy shows making fun of Donald Trump.

The motivation to get away from those characterizations is limited—we’re all victims of a news media determined to promote these clichés, including Fox News (the hard sell) and NPR (the soft sell). Election results seem to corroborate the idea of a nation split between more rural and conservative “red” parts of the country that vote Republican, and more liberal urban “blue” areas that vote Democratic. Check the color-coded maps of the midterms and you’ll see a big swath of red covering the middle of the country, bordered by blue on the West Coast and Northeast. This is similar to our state where almost the whole of Eastern Washington down to the Columbia River votes Republican, while a strip of western counties along the water vote Democratic.

The two-party system seems like a pretty blunt instrument to use as a measure of anything.

But the two-party system seems like a pretty blunt instrument to use as a measure of anything.

Maybe the clichés distort reality. Do these voting patterns really tell us something useful about who we are?

I decided to visit a rural part of Thurston County with this question in mind. In the recent election for County Commissioner, Bud Blake, the incumbent running as an independent with Republican endorsements, got 70% of the vote in Rochester’s 5 precincts, as compared to Tye Menser 30%, running as a Democrat. It was almost exactly the reverse in Olympia’s precincts. Menser got 71% of the vote and Blake 29%.

In addition to party orientation, the candidates were subject to some other red/blue preconceptions. Blake was raised in the South, retired from an Army career and is clean-shaven. Menser, on the other hand, graduated from Harvard, worked as a public defender, and has a beard. Mind you, Blake is fluent in Russian, and Menser plays bluegrass guitar — but never mind that.

Rochester is an unincorporated town about 20 miles south of Olympia. I talked in mid–January with Kellie McNelly about the town as she knows it. McNelly has been executive director of ROOF (Rochester Organization of Families) for 20 years. With an annual budget of $300,000, ROOF runs a food bank, after-school tutoring classes for 50 kids, an ESL program for adults and a summer camp among other programs.

The town feels far from any urban core, though many people who live there drive into Centralia and Olympia for work. The biggest local employers are the school district and Great Wolf Lodge, run by the Chehalis Tribe. Briarwood Farms is a chicken processing and egg operation that employs many of the Hispanic people who live in the community. There are several small farms that are part of the movement to grow organic produce, along with more traditional dairies. Providence Hospital has a clinic in town, but there’s no hospital.

There is little interest in incorporating. With a population of about 2500, the town lacks the tax base to allow for self-sufficiency. There is little infrastructure that a municipality would be responsible for: homes are on wells and septic system, not on municipal water or sewer. This means there are no apartment buildings—a couple of private companies operate well-water utilities that serve multiple homes. Roads are the responsibility of the county, police protection the task of the sheriff.

County land-use regulations and building codes appear hardly less complex than those that apply to Olympia residents—and in some cases, more so. Property-owners in Rochester and elsewhere were infuriated with the county in 2014 when the feds declared the Mazama pocket gophers a protected species. People suddenly discovered that, before they could get a permit to build almost anything, they were subject to convoluted and time-consuming inspections and expenses based on the presence of “protected critical habitat.” More recent irritation arose when the county was newly tasked to determine the presence of sufficient water before new permit-exempt wells could be drilled.

Action by government can be welcome. The state and county stepped in in 2007 when the Chehalis River flooded and caused more than $3 million in damage to 165 homes in Rochester and threatened people’s lives. They have continued since then to collaborate with other jurisdictions on projects to minimize the consequences of future flooding. In the fall of 2017, a 385-acre fire started in a residential area destroying and damaging homes and other structures in Rochester and burning a third of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages that area and is implementing a restoration plan.

Rochester is not immune to other conditions we associate with urban life. There is a drug problem, mainly evidenced by the presence of discarded syringes. There are homeless, though not visible in tents. In this rural area, they occupy RVs, campers, or squat in abandoned outbuildings. There is poverty perhaps hinted at by the number of recent house fires associated with wood-burning stoves. Briarwood Farms was accused by animal activists of keeping its chickens in abusive conditions. There is no public transportation, and a seemingly high incidence of accidents that coexists with other traffic problems and the fact there’s no place to go without driving. At 2 pm on a recent Tuesday, traffic was backed up so far on Highway 12 that it took two changes of the light to get through the town’s main intersection.

Rochester relies on a level of volunteerism that takes on tasks that might elsewhere be carried out by government. ROOF performs the social service functions listed earlier. Their budget comes 55% from foundation grants. ROOF has applied for and received grants from a Community Investment Partnership (CIP) but those monies come and go. At the time of my visit, the food bank was flush with holiday contributions, including stacked containers of food from a Great Wolf food drive and other local contribution. By summer, according to McNelly, the abundance will have disappeared. The shelves of a decent-sized small library are filled with random donated books. Significantly there is a computer terminal maintained by the Timberland Library System so people can order specific books and materials. Volunteers cover the two days per week the library is open. Volunteers staff a fire department, and recently they have been busy with those house fires.

There are a couple of social spaces where the Rochester community comes together. Swede Hall preserves a rural tradition with its once-a-month dance. It’s also the host of “Swede Day” and a parade every June. No surprise: it’s also the place where the Chamber of Commerce held a candidates’ forum with Bud Blake and Tye Menser last fall. Swede Hall preserves a rural tradition with dances once a month, as well as being the site of the “Swede Day” picnic and parade in June. The other traditional aspect of social life in Rochester revolves around their thriving public school, with a full fledged academic and sports program.

In response to a question about why Rochester voted in such disproportionate numbers for Bud Blake, the answer was that people saw no particular reason to change. And—maybe– that people in the community were not interested in having to follow “city” rules and regulations. There were frustrations around pocket gopher rules that seemed irrational, along with an enduring belief in the idea of independence.

When I looked back over my notes and some other election results, I came up with a new thought about an urban/rural divide. For one thing, closer to half of Rochester’s voters said yes to Initiative 940, limiting impunity for police, which suggests a willingness to consider new regulations under some circumstances. There’s also this bit of information: population density in Olympia is 2600 people per square mile; in Rochester, it’s less than 800. When you live cheek by jowl, you might invite a number of explicit rules about who can do what. When it seems like you’ve got all the room in the world, why would you think it necessary for an outside entity to tell you what to do?

It turns out that Rochester, even with a cursory look, has a version of some of the same issues as do we in Olympia: insufficient public transportation, poverty, drugs, threatening flood waters, homelessness and burdensome regulations that seem unrelated to reality. Both communities might support government proposals that tried to eliminate these problems rather than to regulate them.

Bethany Weidner has lived in places as big as Washington, DC and as small as Bow, Washington.

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