Statewide, voters overwhelmingly approved a plan Tuesday to shut down state-run liquor stores and allow the sale of hard alcohol at grocery stores and other retailers.
But voters in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties had other ideas. Those counties were the only two Western Washington counties — and among only five statewide — to vote against the liquor privatization plan, which appeared on the ballot as Initiative 1183. The measure got only 48 percent approval in Cowlitz County, but it earned a whopping 59 percent "yes" vote statewide.
Observers said Friday they believe Cowlitz and Wahkiakum voters snubbed the measure because voters here are more conservative on social issues and resistant to change. A vigorous local campaign against the measure — featuring Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson — helped sway local opinion too, those observers said.
Nelson opposed the privatization measure because he believes it will lead to more liquor sales and, thus, more underage drinking, drunk driving and domestic violence. On Friday, the sheriff said he believes local voters recognized that their communities already are struggling with myriad substance abuse problems and feared liberalizing liquor sales would make the problem worse.
"I think that people here took a fairly conservative approach that said, ‘Hey, you know what? We don't like this idea .... (Substance abuse) is one of those things that we're working against now, I just don't know that we need any more,' " Nelson said.
John Morton, manager of the Triangle Mall branch of the Washington State Liquor Store, said he believes voters here are "more old-school." The area has a higher population of older voters who are "resistant to change," he said.
Morton said he expects Longview's state-run liquor store will shut down June 1.
Cowlitz County Commissioner George Raiter also said he believes the "more energetic" No campaign locally made the difference among voters.
"Everyone has their own reasons for voting and you can never really know, but I think there was a pretty energetic local campaign against it," said Raiter, who added he was one of the county's 10,166 "no" votes. He added that the "yes" campaigns tended to run more ads in the Puget Sound area, where the initiative had 60 percent approval.
Longview's Dave Grumbois, who was the Southwest Washington coordinator for the No on 1183 campaign, and others spent two years campaigning against the initiative in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties, starting with the previous liquor privatization measures in 2010. Grumbois pointed out Friday that there was no organized "Yes" group in Cowlitz County pushing the initiative.
And, Grumbois believes the county's strong union history also played a role.
"We had a lot of union support in Cowlitz County, and while the official campaign and ads talked about public safety, those of us here in Cowlitz County knew it was all about jobs."
Grumbois said about 12 state liquor store employees locally are set to lose their jobs now. He said voters also may have been turned off that Costco, the big box discount retailer, bankrolled the $22 million yes campaign. It's another case of a big company pushing its weight around, he said.
"Cowlitz County understands small town community values and understands the importance of local jobs and community," Grumbois said. "Above all, that message did ring true in Cowlitz County."
Wahkiakum County turned in the second-highest percentage of "no" votes of any county in the state, with 54 percent of voters opposing I-1183.
"I think our small community had a lot to do with it," said Wahkiakum County Commissioner Lisa Marsyla.
Her county's population is about 4,000, and only 1,300 residents voted on the liquor initiative. That means only a few votes in one direction can sway the percentage. More importantly, Marsyla said, an aggressive campaign on an issue can have a greater effect than it would in a larger county.
The Wahkiakum Community Network, a non-profit group that works to prevent substance abuse, made a strong push to get county residents to oppose the initiative, Marsyla said.
"They were very vocal about the liquor (initiative)," Marsyla said. "That might be a huge piece of it."
Opponents in Cowlitz County also fought hard against the initiative.
"I think part of the reason is you had a very active "no" on that from some local people, and they worked it hard," said Rep. Dean Takko, who represents both counties.
Takko said he believes safety concerns may have been a factor for some voters. He said others may have questioned whether a change would lead to savings. After getting barraged with campaigns from both sides, some voters may have simply been confused about what to believe, he said.
"I don't think you can pin it down to really one thing," Takko said.