Bremerton: A city divided ... into thirds

A campaign sign for state Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is pitched in the yard of a house on the corner of 15th Street and Naval Avenue in Bremerton. 15th Street is a dividing line between two of three legislative districts in Bremerton — across the street, residents are represented by Mason County’s state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.  - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
A campaign sign for state Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, is pitched in the yard of a house on the corner of 15th Street and Naval Avenue in Bremerton. 15th Street is a dividing line between two of three legislative districts in Bremerton — across the street, residents are represented by Mason County’s state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

Somewhere between the Manette and Warren Avenue bridges, three imaginary lines split the city of Bremerton into three legislative districts.

But even with three districts and nine lawmakers, Bremerton does not have a single elected official in the state Legislature.

Although the most populous city in all three districts, which spread from western Thurston County to Bainbridge Island to the Tacoma Narrow Bridge — and home to the county’s largest employer, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard — Bremerton’s closest legislative representative is state Rep. Jan Angel, who lives in Port Orchard and is the only Republican who represents part of Bremerton.

And the lines — one of which cuts Olympic College into two pieces — separate neighbors, grouping communities like the low-income Anderson Cove neighborhood in the city’s west side with wealthier retirement communities like Mason County’s Hoodsport.

State representatives who represent the divided city say they hope the state’s new district map, to be drawn with updated U.S. Census numbers next year, stays the same.

They admit it can be confusing, but insist it gives Bremerton more say in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, those who drew the lines 10 years ago say Bremerton’s split was an inevitable part of the struggle to draw equally populated districts, despite the state constitution’s directive that districts respect geographical and political boundaries.

“I can’t argue that it’s very logical,” said Dean Foster, one of the Democratic members of the five-member Redistricting Commission that drew the district lines, ratified in 2002.

The Redistricting Commission includes two Republican and two Democratic members, appointed by each caucus in the Legislature, and a non-voting chairman. They will be appointed by the Legislature in January and will be approved by the end of 2011.

The commission typically starts at the Oregon and Canadian borders and works its way in, which often leads to complicated boundary lines in the Puget Sound area in an attempt to maintain an equal population in each district, Foster said.

Although Bremerton doesn’t have state leaders who call it home now, it has in the past. State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has a housing project named after him in the city. And longtime Democratic congressman Norm Dicks is city hall’s namesake. Despite often being listed in news stories as a Bremerton resident, Dicks lives in Belfair. Both Dicks and Chopp were born in Bremerton.


Those who drew the lines after the 2000 census say Kitsap County’s position in the middle of Western Washington made Bremerton’s split unavoidable, despite the state constitution’s requirement that boundaries “be separated from adjoining districts by natural geographic barriers, artificial barriers, or political subdivision boundaries,” at least to the extent possible.

Instead of keeping all mid-sized cities in contained districts, the bigger concern for the Redistricting Commission was maintaining an equal population for each district, which sometimes required taking chunks of some cities to balance the numbers in other areas. Typically, the courts don’t object to such convoluted boundary lines unless racial discrimination can be proved, said Dick Derham, a Republican member of the commission.

“There are times when a policy is worth overriding,” Derham said of the constitution’s directive, adding that several cities, such as Renton, are similarly fragmented. “We decided that it wasn’t a critical consideration to reduce Bremerton to two districts.”

After having held several hearings throughout the state to collect public opinions on state boundaries, the board heard no concerns about Bremerton’s split, Derham said.

He added that for smaller communities, such as Shelton, being cut into multiple districts might be more of a burden than a benefit because they might not be able to maintain relationships with six or nine representatives. But for larger cities such as Bremerton, which have diverse interests, more legislators can represent the city on more committees, increasing its influence.

Both Derham and Foster said some commissioners try to lobby for boundaries friendly to their political party, but because the final plan must be approved by three of the four members, efforts to gerrymander the map tend not to get far.

“I don‚Äôt believe that the division in Bremerton had anything to do with politics,” Foster said. “Neither political party gets away with anything.”

Although Derham doesn’t believe the political parties were able to manipulate the map, he said the map has room for improvement.

“We like to think we knew everything,” he said. “We probably didn’t.”


The intent of those who draw the map is to group an equal number of people in each section, which can make district lines appear arbitrary.

One district, which covers downtown Bremerton and Union Hill — the 26th District — is represented by lawmakers from Port Orchard and Gig Harbor. The 23rd District, covering Manette and most of East Bremerton, is represented by officials from Bainbridge Island and Poulsbo. The lawmakers who serve the 35th District, which covers Anderson Cove, Rocky Point and a portion of East Bremerton, are from Mason and Thurston counties.

With the exception of Port Orchard’s Angel, the rest of Bremerton’s far flung lawmakers are Democrats. Another Republican, Linda Simpson, is the only candidate this election season who lives in Bremerton. She is challenging Democratic state Rep. Fred Finn, who lives in rural Thurston County.


Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who represents Manette and most of East Bremerton, said Bremerton’s fragmentation can be confusing to voters. She had spoken with voters before who couldn’t figure out which district they lived in.

“It’s complicated to know which district you’re living in,” she said, adding it might be easier for her if she represented all of East Bremerton instead of all but a silver along Wheaton Way which is included in another district.

Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent said the split might contribute to low voter participation in state races because voters might recognize certain names seen on campaign signs throughout town, but not see those names on their ballots.

“I think it can be confusing,” Lent said. “It’s an awkward thing.”

However, Rolfes and Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said that Bremerton’s division actually gives it more clout in the Legislature, with nine representatives instead of the three it would get were it contained in one district.

“I’ve always thought that who did the redistricting was very clever,” Seaquist said. “Bremerton tends to kind of punch its weight in the Legislature because it’s got three districts.”

That extra clout has given Bremerton a strong voice on ferry-related issues and has helped legislators secure money for downtown revitalization efforts, Rolfes said.

Both Rolfes and Seaquist said they hope the current division of districts remains in place when new lines are drawn next year.

“I would hate to lose Bremerton,” Rolfes said.

Simpson, the Bremerton Republican running against Finn, said residents are largely unaware of their state representation and Bremerton’s split.

“I think people generally don’t even pay attention and they don’t get out there and vote and they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I don’t think people look at where they live versus other segments, other districts.”

If elected, she would represent the entire state and not just her district, she said.

“I don’t care whether I have this side of the street or that side of the street,” Simpson said. “My job is to represent the people.”

However, unifying Bremerton into one district might make it easier for voters to know who represents them, she said.

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