IS CAIN ABLE?
Christopher Cain is running for Seattle Port Commission again in 2003. While the political newcomer had a good showing in his first run for office in 2001, Cain's critics claim that his legal troubles mean he's not worthy of voters' support in the future. In fact, as a convicted felon who has not had his civil rights restored, Cain may have unwittingly committed a crime by registering to vote and running for office.
A Burien contractor, Cain survived a crowded 2001 September primary, raised over $11,000, and picked up 136,329 votes—43.6 percent of the total in his November race against incumbent Port Commissioner Pat Davis. His passionate oratory on behalf of the environment, workers' rights, and government accountability, along with grassroots support, helped him pick up solid endorsements including the local Sierra Club chapter, the respected Washington Conservation Voters, and Seattle Weekly. Since November's election, he has remained active on Port issues, opposing the third runway at Sea-Tac airport and the introduction of yachts to Fishermen's Terminal. He has started a newspaper, The Port Observer, to keep the community informed about what he calls the "corrupt institution."
His opponents do not find all this political activity nearly as important as Cain's legal history. Legal records in King County reveal that Cain has had nine criminal convictions: three juvenile felonies, four juvenile misdemeanors, an adult felony, and an adult misdemeanor. The criminal convictions began when Cain, now 34, was 16 years old and ended nearly four years later. In 1983 Cain had convictions for malicious mischief, possession of stolen property, and two thefts. In 1984 he was convicted of trespass, burglary, and theft.
His only adult convictions stem from an incident at Bellevue Square mall in 1986. According to court records, Cain and a friend attempted to rob Robert Lotterer. When a fourth man, Daniel Peltier, attempted to aid the victim, the records continue, Cain "spit in [Peltier's] face and both kicked and hit him." Cain was convicted of theft and simple assault. He received a sentence that included 90 days in jail, an anger management class, and financial payments.
Cain has been candid about his troubled teenage years. While he did not volunteer his criminal past during the campaign, neither did he shrink from it when it was raised. He asserts that he has turned his life around and that overcoming his problems gave him mettle that will serve him well in public office. "I have pulled myself up from the very bottom," he says. In the process he discovered, "There are certain qualities that I have—patience and persistence—that are required to reform a corrupt institution like the Port of Seattle. That is my goal, and I will achieve it."
His recent opponent, Pat Davis, asks a more basic question. "As a convicted felon, can he vote or run for office?" she wonders.
It appears that, legally, he cannot.
While Cain did serve his 90 days in jail, the court record says he did not complete some other aspect of his sentence (neither the judge nor Cain have indicated what). As a result, in 1991 King County Superior Court Judge Sharon Armstrong decreed that Cain "is not entitled to restoration of civil rights." When a felon has not had his civil rights restored, he cannot legally participate in the electoral system, either as a voter or a candidate, in Washington state. In fact, doing so constitutes a Class C felony, "punishable by imprisonment for up to five years and/or a fine up to $10,000," according to the Washington secretary of state's office.
Cain was caught off guard by this information. "Why is that? Is that a law?" he asked. "If no one is watching, I guess you can get away [with it]. I am a registered voter. I have been voting, and I will continue to do so." After some reflection, Cain vowed to have his civil rights restored. "I'm willing to discuss my past. I've learned from my mistakes, unlike Pat Davis who refuses to come clean about the $9 million she cost the taxpayers," he says, referring to Davis' key role in the World Trade Organization host committee that brought the 1999 WTO meetings and their multimillion dollar security bill to Seattle. "She lives in a glass house," Cain claims.
ANOTHER CAIN critic, Patricia Stambor, is concerned not about his old criminal convictions but about his recent tax problems. Stambor, a good- government advocate from Magnolia, watches the Port closely but does not endorse or give money to any Port candidates because she does not want to compromise her role as a watchdog. She observed Cain throughout the election season. When she discovered Cain's criminal past in a previous Seattle Weekly article (see "The Politics Of The Future," Oct. 25, 2001), she researched his record on her own and discovered recent tax warrants from the Department of Revenue and the Department of Labor and Industries.
When a business fails to pay its state taxes, a collection process ensues. Typically, a series of collection efforts are made—letters and perhaps phone calls—demanding payment. Eventually the state goes to court and gets a warrant for the amount of money it is owed. Stambor found that Cain had three tax warrants issued against him by the state. Revenue filed one in April 1999 for $13,440 and a second in January 2001 for $2,998. Both were paid off by last August—less than a month after Cain filed to run for Port Commission. Labor and Industries filed a warrant for $2,802 in June 1999 that was paid off in February 2001. Stambor was outraged: "A felony when you are 19 is forgivable but when you evade taxes and run for office—that's unconscionable." She wonders, "How can we trust somebody in office like that?"
Cain admits he has fallen behind on paying the taxes for his residential remodeling business. Running a business "is a new experience," he explains. "It's very cyclical, and it can be tough to make ends meet. Sometimes bills don't get paid on time."
Cain doesn't feel the tax problems disqualify him from being a good public servant. "I'm not perfect. The Port [Commission] is not a position of sainthood. If being perfect was part of the criteria [for election], then 150,000 people wouldn't have voted for me."
Then again, who knows what the voters will do in 2003 when they have more information about Cain.