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In Grays Harbor County, A Crack Emerges In The Blue Wall

Jennifer Wing
Jim and Jamie Walsh pose for photograph in their Aberdeen home. Jim won his first election for state representative in the 19th Legislative District. It's an area that's traditionally been a Democratic stronghold.

The last time Grays Harbor County voted for a Republican was in 1928, when Herbert Hoover was elected — that is, until last year when it went for Donald J. Trump. 

At one time, Grays Harbor was an economic powerhouse. Tim Quigg grew up there.  He says back then just about anyone could get a job that paid well.

“Guys in the plywood mill, they’d make, you know, eleven bucks and hour. Back in ‘73, or whatever it was, it was a lot; an engineer was making five," said Quigg. "The jobs were union wages, had benefits —retirement. They had meal tickets. Whether you’re in a cannery, a fishing boat, a plywood mill — everything.”

But over the last 30 years, a number of economic factors, including federal environmental regulations put in place to protect the northern spotted owl, resulted in lost jobs, closed mills and forests sealed off from logging.

The community continues to struggle with an unemployment rate that hovers around 8 percent. More than half the children in public schools are on free and reduced lunch.

Today, Grays Harbor County relies heavily on Obamacare. The expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare is providing health insurance to a lot of people in Grays Harbor who otherwise wouldn’t have any.

But what good is insurance if you don’t have doctors? It’s hard to get doctors to set up a practice in the county — especially pediatricians, because Medicaid doesn’t pay as much as private insurance, so doctors move away.

Poverty, jobs, health care; these are issues traditionally owned by Democrats.

Still, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by 7 percent.

Vini Samuel is a Democrat. She’s the mayor of Montesano, just east of Aberdeen along the Chehalis River. For her, Trump’s victory is a slap in the face.  

“And I think that we deserved it and I think we needed it,” said Samuel. She says her party needs to do a better job of meeting voters’ basic needs.

Jim Walsh, is a Republican and a newly elected state representative from the 19th District, which includes Grays Harbor County. He is part of the change from blue to a shade of purple in this part of Washington state.

“I think people who live here are tired of the talk and they really want economic development. They want to try something new.  And since it's a place that culturally has always been conservative, but traditionally voted Democrat, 'something new' means vote for the other guys," said Walsh.

This week on Sound Effect, join us as we spend some time in Grays Harbor County talking to voters and elected officials about the election and whether what happened here should be seen as a flipping of the political script, or just a ruffling of its pages. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.