A Sammamish Plateau Republican once called Brian Derdowski the John the Baptist of the slow growth movement. Well, guess whose head's on a plate.
Barring an absentee miracle, the King County Council member was defeated in last week's GOP primary by Dave Irons Jr. The race was filled with ironies, including this: In 1989, The Derd defeated long-time GOP council incumbent Bill Reams, a relatively moderate Republican in all things except his love of developers, over the issue of building a road across the Sammamish Plateau. Reams wanted it built, but was defeated by a grassroots coalition of suburban NIMBYs and Snoqualmie Valley hippies who supported the "sensible growth" movement Derdowski led. The Derd promised he would stop such road-building nonsense, and he did.
A decade later, the issue was once again roads, with Dave Irons Jr. claiming that Derdowski had failed because the plateau was underserved. Gridlocked commuters who listened to that message played a major part in defeating Derdowski for doing what he set out to do a decade ago.
Of course, he also set out to slow down the tsunami of growth the Seattle metro area has experienced in the last decade, roads or no roads. Ken Behring, the creepy California developer and Seahawks owner we all loved to hate, used to say you can't stop growth, and he planned mega-developments like the plateau's Grand Ridge to accommodate it. But he was right: While Grand Ridge was scaled back, in part because Behring made such a perfect poster-child for the Demonic Developers Fund, there were too many cracks in the growth management system to slow things down, especially in the booming economy of the last few years. Even cities designed to take major growth, like Redmond and Kirkland, have been choked, forced to take decades' worth of condos, office parks, and subdivisions in just a few years. Of course, it turns out it wasn't just the economy: A streamlined process for approving projects and a rigged county computer system did the developers as many favors as old Bill Reams (who, in the meantime, had slipped off to Olympia to work with the Republican majority in gutting the enforcement of environmental laws).
For a while, it seemed like Derdowski would succeed in his broader plan: to slow growth down to a manageable, sustainable pace. In the early '90s, other Eastside communities began to elect citizens, supported by Derdowski, who were growth skeptics: the late Georgia Zumdieck, who opposed downtown development, won a seat on the Bellevue City Council, and slow-growther Rosemarie Ives was elected mayor of Redmond. On the Eastside, at least, mainstream politicians had to take "sensible growth" seriously. Concern about quality of life transcended party, and many Republicans grew to hate sprawl as they saw their suburban villages and rural landscapes gobbled up by the Ken Behrings and Weyerhaeusers of the world.
But that's an old world memory, isn't it? By definition, growth is bringing new people—people who sign the community covenant papers and buy the cookie-cutter homes of Klahanie or one of its less charming clones. They don't remember the looping country roads, the berry farms, the horse pastures, the feed stores, the salmon streams. All they know is they're bumper-to-bumper and someone didn't build the schools and amenities fast enough to suit them. They arrived yesterday, but want a perfect place to live today.
Derdowski had seen this firsthand elsewhere. He was a child of southern California, where the paradise of his youth was paved as a parking lot. He's among those immigrants who came here, put down roots, and decided to help create a better outcome than Seattle becoming greater Los Angeles.
So he came as part of a tide he tried to stem, then got Californicated himself, falling victim to the new arrivals, folks living in a landscape that gives them little sense of place or context: People who take the surviving trees for granted, as if Derdowski and his followers hadn't fought for them. People who think the salmon are healthy because Issaquah still celebrates Salmon Days (might as well be Spotted Owl Week). People who've never heard of Harvey Manning and must think the Issaquah Alps saved themselves. People who really could not care less about what is disappearing—they just want to get to Costco on time.
Derdowski's defeat should be a wake-up call for county greens. Where were they on primary day? Paul Carkeek, a Preston activist and a longtime Derdowski supporter, believes environmentalists were asleep at the switch or too preoccupied with big-picture issues. He says they often disdain the dirty trench warfare required in fighting unglamorous local battles. "The cashmere commies really screwed up big time, too full of Brie," he says. He also criticizes himself for not working hard enough. But how much could he do? In Carkeek's neighborhood, 75 percent of his neighbors voted for Derdowski—a total of 75 people. He describes The Derd's loss as "a scalding hot mocha in the face."
Bob Simmons, who has covered the county growth wars for Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek and is now on the board of 1,000 Friends of Washington, agrees that Derdowski's defeat "really shows the disarray and weakness of the environmental community." He's incredulous: "They couldn't round up 500 votes to save The Derd's ass?"
In some ways, it's a miracle Brian's ass survived as long as it did. His quirky motormouth style and Twin Peaksian weirdness (harassment allegations, messy divorce, mysterious "FBI investigations") plagued him all his political years. A Derd campaign was always filled with accusations, last-minute hit attacks from opponents, ugly rumors. Additionally, he was a political platypus produced by a populist movement: a coalition that included greens, property rights folks, Democrats, Republicans, and neighborhood activists. How stable a base is that? Even his friends and allies disagreed with him half the time. His fellow council members mostly hated his guts for his changeable positions, stalling tactics, and down-the-rabbit-hole escapades. But somehow, Derdowski made it work, and he scored many successes.
The Derd became an important part of this county's political ecosystem. He played a critical role in providing some environmental balance in the County Council, delivering key swing votes that tended to keep his colleagues from running rampant on behalf of their developer funders. In addition, though his focus was always local, his understanding of the big picture and how sensible growth cannot be disconnected from economic and cultural forces is almost unique among local politicians. He's a visionary in the genuine sense, which is why his current work against the World Trade Organization is entirely consistent with his world view and strong environmental principles. He believes those principles—which honor localism and the crafting of communities—have a power to effect positive change beyond Issaquah, Sammamish, or Maple Valley. Perhaps Derdowski, who "failed" on the plateau, can join the battle against growth-at-all-costs on a bigger stage.