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Washtucna is Still Bush Country

by Ralph Thomas
Seattle Times, July 17, 2006

(Ken Lambert ) Three generations of Washtucna wheat farmers, from left: Lester Snyder, 84; his son Jerry Snyder, 55; and Jerry's son Jason Snyder, 22. President Bush 'comes across as someone who wants to help us,' says Lester Snyder, who thinks the president deserves more support. WASHTUCNA, Adams County -- It's almost lunchtime at Les Snyder's farmhouse, and the conversation winds through the usual topics. The high-school football team needs just one more victory to break the all-time state win-streak record. Fuel and fertilizer costs just keep going up.

And, inevitably, Iraq. Sure, things are bad over there, Snyder says, but not nearly as bad as the media paint it. "All they print is the bad stuff," says the 84-year-old Snyder, waving hands gnarled by a lifetime of farming. "Thousands of people over there have gotten drinking water that never had it before."

Snyder, a World War II veteran, is a little annoyed that so many people these days aren't standing behind President Bush. As he sees it, America is much better off than it might have been if Bush hadn't been in charge through these tumultuous times.

With the midterm congressional elections less than four months away, Bush's poll numbers nationwide are among the worst any president has seen in decades. His approval ratings have inched up in recent weeks, but they remain below 40 percent in more than half of the states, including Washington.

That's not the case out here on the edge of the Palouse, the most pro-Bush pocket in one of the nation's most anti-Bush states.

Despite a sagging farm economy; despite the daily onslaught of grim news out of Iraq; despite the loss of a local boy to a sniper's bullet near Baghdad -- support for the president remains strong here.

Talk to enough people in Washtucna and you will hear occasional gripes about Bush and the Republicans who control Congress. There's a general sense that Bush and the rest of the politicians have not done enough to help the state's struggling wheat industry or to rein in run-amok government regulators. Some even criticize Bush for pushing tax cuts at a time of record budget deficits.

But on matters that many here consider far more important, Bush wins high praise.

Many like that he is a religious man -- and that he stands firm against things such as gay marriage and abortion. They describe him as "one of us."

Those who express misgivings about the war are quick to add they think the United States should not pull out of Iraq until the insurgency is quashed. And while people in liberal enclaves such as Seattle may describe Bush's foreign policies as reckless and arrogant, many here see him as a strong leader who is keeping Americans safer from terrorists.

"It plays real well with me that he had some backbone and said, 'Either you're with us or you're against us,' " says David Baumann, 55, standing arms crossed in front of the workshop at his family farm. "There's nothing more important than having a strong military."

Town on the downslide

Washtucna is a tiny crossroads town in sparsely populated southeast Washington, about 115 miles east of Ellensburg on State Route 26. Nestled in a coulee walled by craggy outcrops, the town is surrounded on three sides by an ocean of wheat fields and on the other by scablands that stretch south to the Snake River.

At last count, Washtucna had 255 people -- enough to fill about 2 ? pages in the phone book. Dozens more live in the clusters of tree-surrounded farmhouses that sit miles apart in the wheat fields.

In the five or so minutes it takes to walk the full length of Main Street, it's easy to see from the shuttered storefronts and paint-chipped signs that this is a town long on the downslide.

"When we moved here in '64, we had a grocery store, three service stations, a hardware store, a liquor store and a drugstore," Carol Lund says from behind the bar of Sonny's Tavern, which she has owned for much of the last 40 years. It is one of the Washtucna's last surviving businesses.

Several forces -- most tied to wheat farming -- are to blame for the town's decline.

Wheat prices aren't much better than they were generations ago. And thanks to improved harvest technologies and a federal conservation program that pays farmers to let their fields grow wild, there are far fewer people working the wheat fields these days.

Many folks here say they are too preoccupied with making ends meet to spend much time worrying about politics. Syd Sullivan, Washtucna's mayor off and on for nearly three decades, said he recalls a time when people talked politics a lot. But these days, he says, they seem disillusioned.

"I think the government is just so big, people probably feel like there's nothing they can do besides vote," says Sullivan, 75, his soiled Golden Grain fertilizer hat slightly askew. "And everybody over here understands that King County controls everything anyway." Some discontent

If Seattle has a political opposite, it's Washtucna.

During the 2004 election, Bush got only 18 percent of the vote in Seattle. But he won 73 percent in Adams County. And in Washtucna Rural Precinct (No. 221) -- where both Snyder and Baumann cast their ballots -- 93 of the 100 people who voted went with Bush.

Lund, 68, who describes herself as one of the town's only openly Democratic residents, says she thinks many of her neighbors are Republicans simply because that's what their parents were. "It's hereditary," she says.

But many old-timers here consider themselves political independents who vote for the candidate, not the party.

Snyder says Bush "comes across as someone who wants to help us." Baumann says he sees Bush as a man of strong character.

"Sure, he did some drinking when he was young, but all of us did some foolish things," Baumann says. "He's changed."

Snyder, a lifelong Washtucna resident, once served as a Democratic precinct chairman in the 1970s. He campaigned for several prominent Democrats, including former U.S. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Tom Foley, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Snyder's son, Jerry, also used to consider himself a Democrat. But he says the Democratic Party these days is too closely tied to labor unions, environmentalists and others who push for laws and regulations that hobble farmers.

People here still seethe over a resolution the Seattle City Council passed six years ago that called for breaching four dams on the Snake River to help save endangered salmon.

"It's gotten to where everything the Democrats do hurts us," the elder Snyder says.

Bush scored big points with farmers three years ago during a campaign stop at the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River, about 50 miles from Washtucna. Bush vowed to keep the dams in place.

But even here, in the heartland of Bush's dwindling base, the president takes a few knocks.

Bush has proved himself "pretty weak" when it comes to battling the budget deficit, says Rudy Plager, a former farm-equipment salesman who now serves as a Republican on the Adams County Commission.

"To have the tax cuts he has proposed in a time of war is irresponsible," Plager says.

And Jerry Snyder, president of the Washington Wheat Growers Association, says Bush hasn't lived up to a campaign promise to help struggling farmers.

Many growers are unhappy with the federal farm program and don't think the government has done enough to help them compete in foreign markets.

Ron Baumann, David's brother, says he doubts Bush could win as many votes here as he did two years ago because some farmers think the president has "kind of abandoned us."

David agrees, but adds, "He has been a little busy lately."

Support for the war

Less than three weeks after Bush was re-elected in 2004, the war in Iraq took a tragic turn for tiny Washtucna. Army Spc. Blain Ebert, the 22-year-old son of a local wheat farmer, was killed by a sniper at a roadblock near Baghdad.

Though it's clear Ebert's death hit hard here, there is no sign that it shook people's support for Bush or the war.

"Blain's death was not in vain," David Baumann says. "I just keep thinking that I'm freer here in this country because he died over there."

Blain's father, Mike Ebert, says it helps knowing that his son wanted to be in Iraq and felt strongly that he was doing some good.

"We have never had any hard feelings," he says.

Even some Democrats in the area say they support the war effort, or are ambivalent.

"It all depends on what day you talk to me," Lund says. "Sometimes I think it's worth it; sometimes I'm not sure."

Others are convinced that Bush was a far better choice than John Kerry, especially on matters of foreign policy and national security. They don't think the Democrat would have had the resolve to keep up the fight in Iraq.

"It's just got to be done," Les Snyder says. "If we don't, the terrorists are just going to eat us up."

Population: 255
Racial breakdown: 92.5 percent white, the rest Hispanic or Native American
Median age:45.2 years
Median household income: $43,654
Source: Claritas, 2006 estimates
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk

Ralph Thomas, Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Washtucna is Still Bush Country
Seattle Times, July 15, 2006

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