Seattle's liberals and "progressives" need to grow up. Seattle's conservatives need to speak up. So far, the latter looks more likely. And what follows could prove worrisome for local Democrats. Their grip on Seattle politics might loosen considerably over the next decade. Especially if a low-key GOP marketing campaign now under way in Seattle helps more Republicans and others who vote for them to brave the tangible social risks of "coming out."
Moderate Republicans, of course, were once a strong presence in Seattle, through the 1960s and into the '70s. Their exemplar was Dan Evans, who rose from 43rd District state representative to governor, then U.S. senator. During those years, a host of other Seattle Republicans served in Olympia, on the City Council, and even in the mayor's office.
But Republicans largely faded from relevance in Seattle. There was Watergate and Nixon's resignation in shame. The '70s counterculture grew institutional roots in Seattle, as did politically active public employee unions. Seattle families fled for the suburbs to escape forced busing in Seattle Public Schools. More recently, a strident politics of liberal symbolism and public disorder codified municipal Seattle's disconnect from reality, and helped cow moderate and conservative voices. The City Council advanced emotional debates on topics such as the treatment of circus animals, the destruction of Eastern Washington dams, and even the permissibility of nuclear submarines at Seafair. During the ultimately disastrous tenure of one-term Mayor Paul Schell, the WTO and Mardi Gras riots showed an emasculated city unable to police itself for fear of seeming too authoritarian.
The cumulative effect was pronounced. Seattle became the hole in the half-doughnut or "crescent" of vote-rich, politically diverse suburbs running from Snohomish County through the Eastside suburbs of King County and into Pierce County. Politically, Seattle is only now beginning to shake off its identity as an irrelevant city of illiberal liberals—a place sadly taken for granted by Democrats and all but ignored by Republicans.
The Soviet of Seattle?
It's still not easy being an "out" Republican or conservative these days in Seattle. Here are some admittedly gloomy snapshots of life in Seattle under the vestiges of one-party rule.
• Sandy Beeman of the Central District's Squire Park, 49, is a physician's assistant who assists cardiovascular surgeons at Swedish Hospital. She arrived in Seattle from Texas a year ago and is still adapting. At a neighborhood picnic, she asked which party a voter registration worker represented. The answer: "What other party is there?" Beeman made a point of saying she was a Republican. Listserve e-mails from members of her neighborhood group have often been filled with strident invective against President George W. Bush. During last fall's presidential campaign, Beeman was replacing the Bush-Cheney signs outside her home up to four times daily. The night before the election, she left some signs visible in the backseat of her car, parked on the street. The next morning, one of her tires had a key in it and was flat. "Moving to Seattle is like moving to a Soviet-bloc country, reading the stuff on the utility poles, hearing your neighbors compare Bush to Hitler. For the tolerant party, I find my Democratic neighbors to be very intolerant of anything Republican," she says.
• Mary Segesta, 40, of Fremont, is a Microsoft program manager who moved here after working for Apple Computer and Sun Microsystems in the San Francisco Bay Area. She had a "W" sticker on her car last fall and was driving to Office Depot in Ballard. "This old beat-up car made a turnaround. The guy followed me toward the store. In the lot he was screaming, 'How does it feel to be a communist?' He pointed to my car and the sticker, said something about Hitler, and then repeated his question." Segesta brushed him off, but says she found the incident both comical and sad.
• Warren Peterson of Pinehurst, in the city's North End, served one term as a Republican state representative from Seattle's 43rd District in the mid-'70s. More recently, the soft-spoken, circumspect Boeing retiree, 65, was the Bush-Cheney campaign chair in the 46th. At a North Seattle sandwich shop, he shares some war stories. Out with several other volunteers waving Bush-Cheney signs at motorists in Ballard last fall, he says one man leaped up through his open sun roof, flipped him off, and yelled, "Die of a heart attack, you Republican faggot!" Another driver lunged over his son in the front passenger seat, who looked all of 10, to flip off a Bush supporter.
• Ross Marzolf, 50, lives in the Central District. He's the executive director of the King County Republican Party. Last fall, he says, he was shopping—as some urban Republicans do, actually—at an organic foods store, the Madison Market. "I was standing in line and heard one clerk say to another, 'I just saw my first Bush supporter.' I said, 'I guess I'm No. 2, then.' He looked at me like I was from Mars and, as I was leaving, said something about the president dying and having a good funeral." Disturbed, Marzolf later contacted the management and got an apology, but no longer shops there.
The Bush death meme has come up before. Last summer, I was at the Seattle home of a good friend, a card-carrying Democrat with whom I've always had spirited but friendly political disagreements. This time, things were a little different. Another guest—a guy I know and have always liked, in fact—began musing out loud. He had the perfect plan, he said, to kill Republicans and President Bush. Hide in trees at golf courses with a specially developed gun that shoots golf balls at their heads. It would always look like a golfing accident, he explained. Lots of laughs all around.
If such episodes had been less frequent or the feelings underlying them had at least subsided after the election, perhaps it would be a bit easier to minimize their effect on political participation in Seattle. But on Inauguration Day this year, students at Seattle Central Community College surrounded an on-campus military recruiter at his table, heckling and shouting at him and ripping up his pamphlets. He had to be escorted away by campus security. Then 36th District Democrats issued a resolution supporting the students and urging the banning of recruiters at SCCC. Not to be outdone, the Garfield High School PTSA passed a much-publicized resolution to bar recruiters there, though it couldn't be implemented. At Caffe Ladro in West Seattle, one regular is a short, burly, work-booted guy who pulls up right in front, in a Ford pickup bearing a pro-labor bumper sticker, and then another—from JailBush.org—that says, "George W. Bush Is a Lying Sack of Shit." No one blinks an eye.
This kind of stuff, recycled over and over and over in Seattle, takes a toll. With my notebook out, I recently attended a fund-raiser in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood for King County executive candidate David Irons, currently a suburban Republican council member. A 50-ish woman from Seattle grasped one of my hands and held it for a long, long time between both of hers. She looked deeply into my eyes as she spoke, seemingly near tears. No, she wasn't hitting on me. She just really, really, really wanted me to know that Republicans are decent, good people, who have gotten involved in politics for the same reasons as many Democrats—to actually try to make the world a better place. In Seattle nowadays, this is, tragically, almost a breakthrough concept.
Creating GOP Support Groups
Gradually, the political hooliganism of the Loud Left will become less intimidating to Seattle's quiet and mild middle, especially as Republicans continue to build their ground game. "The party will grow in the city," predicts ex-Texan Beeman over coffee at Starbucks on 12th Avenue, hard by Seattle University. "Not because we will convert Democrats, but because we will discover each other." Beeman helped organize a 37th District GOP election night party at Piecora's Pizza on Capitol Hill, in the belly of the Democratic beast. An encouraging crowd of 40 showed up to celebrate as Bush locked up a second term and, for the first time in 20 years, a Republican seemed on the verge of capturing the governor's mansion in Olympia. There were the old, the young, students, couples, party stalwarts, and newcomers. "There is a lot of opportunity here in the city for Republicans. You can do a little bit and shine," says Beeman. Peterson, the former state legislator, recounts a lot of positive feedback while waving signs for Bush in Seattle last fall, from "guys in plumbing trucks" and "folks bringing us coffee and pizza."
There have been other rays of hope in the recent past. Despite well-documented financial support from suburban Republican business interests, former city attorney and tough-talking law-and-order mayoral candidate Mark Sidran lost by only six-tenths of 1 percent in 2001 to regular Democrat Greg Nickels in the nonpartisan contest. Thanks to his reign as city attorney, conservative Democrat Sidran had been roundly reviled during the campaign by liberal Seattle interest groups as another Rudy Giuliani (read: heartless Republican). Yet Sidran, who spoke compellingly about Seattle's dangerous political isolation in Puget Sound, obviously struck a chord with local voters. Since last year, Republicans have been building organizational muscle in Seattle. At regular GOP meetings in Seattle's 34th, 36th, 37th, 43rd, and 46th state legislative districts, they're organizing right now around the candidacy of Irons.
More importantly for the long term, they're continuing to grow the ranks of the precinct committee officers (PCOs) who identify local R's as they come out of the woodwork or move in from other locations. Like counselors to gay and lesbian youth in red America, Seattle Republican PCOs tell stories of encountering "questioning" individuals, wondering if, in fact, despite discouraging social strictures, they might not actually be Republican. They are looking for more information and a local support group with which to discuss their concerns and perhaps affirm their identities.
It's also clear from the Seattle Republicans I've been meeting over the last several months that they'll draw energy and inspiration from the King County vote-counting debacle that they believe robbed Republican Dino Rossi of the governor's office. The Irons candidacy is especially important right now to Seattle Republicans, who, like their brethren elsewhere in the county, remain appalled at the sloppiness counting votes in the Christine Gregoire–Rossi nail-biter. Irons, currently in his second term as a County Council member, optimistically predicted to me in Magnolia that he'll pull close to vulnerable incumbent Democrat Ron Sims in fund-raising and take 50 percent of the Seattle vote while defeating the county executive this November. If anything, Rossi's loss—just confirmed in court—will heighten grassroots zeal for Irons-backing GOPers countywide.
The campaign has continued scheduling small events in Seattle, and small events are where Irons, a smart, very capable guy—but a middling public speaker—does best. At the Magnolia fund-raiser, the house was packed with Seattle supporters, hobnobbing with each other, cornering Irons, and later, whipping out their checkbooks. Nibbling on the pita triangles with caramelized onion and Gorgonzola, the skewered tortellini with pesto, and the vegetarian sushi were more than a few thirty- and fortysomethings.
A striking percentage of Seattle Republicans are women. After humble beginnings seven years ago, the Republican Women of Seattle club now draws dozens of members, many of them younger professionals, to its meetings over pizza, salad, and wine at Olympic Pizza and Spaghetti House II in the heart of ultraliberal Wallingford. At one recent gathering, guest speakers included an advocate for a possible statewide ballot initiative on medical liability reform, and a King County GOP lieutenant with guidance for ground-level organizing and Irons fund-raising in the city.
Wallingford resident Pam Brady, 33, an executive assistant for BP Pipeline, is president of the club. She says the Seattle group is one of 40 in Washington and six in King County affiliated with the National Federation of Republican Women. "We have a lot of worker bees. There's an infrastructure in place of active, committed Republicans in the city. It's a matter of getting the right candidates with the right messages on environmental issues, education, and transportation." She wants and expects to see change in Seattle's political climate. "When people can't talk about their politics, it isn't healthy for a democracy."
Some Seattle Republicans or "Republican questioning" individuals are longtime Puget Sounders or Washingtonians; others are moving in from states such as Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and California. They support George W. Bush, the Iraq war, the war against terrorists, the Bush tax cuts, private accounts on the Social Security menu, and economic growth. They tend to be pro-choice, moderate to liberal on environmental issues, and tax-weary but not intractably opposed to new taxes. Some approve of gay marriage, others prefer civil unions. There are some hard-line conservatives to be sure, but the group as a whole is hard to pigeonhole.
Which is why once again this summer, the GOP will have a booth at the funky Fremont Fair (Saturday, June 18–Sunday, June 19). You almost wonder: To serve notice the party's alive and kicking in Seattle, should some buff GOP participants sporting painted-on Rossi or Bush buttons join the fair's famed nude bicyclists parade? There are certainly some eligible candidates.
A onetime GOP state legislator from Seattle, Michael Ross says the party must address minority issues.
Michael Ross has a somewhat different idea. He's a liberal black Republican who served a term as state representative from Seattle's 37th District in 1971–72. Ross, 63, says the party has to speak more strongly to concerns of minority, mixed-race, and working-class voters in Seattle, South King County, and Pierce County. He says R's must address the importance of workforce diversity, and they should highlight retention of essential social services in tight budgetary cycles. Ross also says the GOP must impress on minority voters in Seattle and the suburbs that, for all the talk of the party's affinity with small-business owners, the GOP isn't still a lackey of big business.
This goes back to Bush and tax cuts, but as Ross notes, it affects GOP party-building efforts in the city and beyond. Microsoftie Segesta says the urban middle class and first-time home buyers have made out well under Bush. Speaking rhetorically of her sharply anti-Bush neighbors in her Fremont town-home complex, she asks, "What is it you hate about Bush? You bought a house for the first time while he was president, because interest rates were lower. You've got more spendable income because taxes were cut on his watch; more to spend on home remodeling, vacations, cars, and entertainment. And unemployment is dropping."
In The Footsteps of Scoop
There are plenty of other "Blue City Conservatives" in Seattle, and buoyed by Bush winning a second term and Rossi's strong showing, they're finding their voices, the first step to reclaiming a share of political power.
Conservative, but not quite Republican: Writer Doug Anderson authored a "Democrats for Bush" blog last year.
Doug Anderson, 49, is the prototype. Granted, as far as Seattle's vocal "Bush equals Hitler" crowd cares, Anderson—who authored a ballsy "Democrats for Bush" blog last year—is just a GOP dupe. It runs a bit deeper than that, though. The famed Democrat and cold warrior U.S. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington was a familiar visitor to the Anderson family's home in Everett, where Anderson's dad, Robert, was mayor from 1969 to 1978. More than that, Jackson was a strong political influence on the teenaged Anderson, due to Jackson's emphatic pro-Israel stance, strong support of military deterrence against the U.S.S.R., and plainspoken manner.
A self-proclaimed "Scoop Jackson Democrat," Anderson sees a lot that's wrong with the Seattle liberal political culture. He'll tell you all about it when he's not working on his novel, writing poetry, editing his literary tabloid, Klang (which drew an admiring e-mail from author and outspoken liberal Tom Robbins), or playing deft bossa nova, classical, and blues instrumentals on his artisan-crafted guitar.
For Anderson, 9/11 was a turning point. Over a steaming bowl of beef pho in Columbia City, he lets loose against "mass slaughter as the opening gambit to dialogue." He continues, "I can't escape thinking about 9/11 as the fault line of our age. To explain away the killing of innocent working people, their hopes and dreams, is a tacit assent to what the terrorists did. What's bad for terrorists is good for us, and the person who seemed to grasp that faster than I did was George W. Bush." Anderson, who hangs out with other musicians, artists, and poets, says, "I've lost a couple of lifelong friends because of my support for Bush." Anderson says his post-9/11 awakening has extended to other issues. "I'm really in transition, going back and examining things. I don't see why education can't be competitive. We should let families decide, with government vouchers. Why can't we all do what rich people do?" He adds that the emphasis on multiculturalism in Seattle Public Schools seems especially misguided in Southeast Seattle, where he lives. "Look around the community. These kids are already surrounded by multiculturalism. What should be celebrated in their schools is the English language; that's their ticket out of poverty."
What's happened in Seattle, Anderson argues, is the full flowering of 1970s sensibilities. "In the '70s, a lot of 'establishment' families' kids came of age, and moved into media and politics. The face you see of Seattle today is the face of the '70s. But the '70s idealism has almost all been implemented, and we're suffering for lack of anything else to agitate over. Seattle has become a political playground, and we're able to fool ourselves that the rest of the world is a playground, too."
So if it's that bad, why does Anderson stay? He replies, "Why should I move because I think so many people here are off base politically? There's an endless supply of material," some of which he posts—along with ruminations on media, music, and literature—for readers of his blog, Sunbreak City (www.sunbreak.blogspot.com). "Living here forces me to figure out why things are the way they are. There's a sense of walking near the edge, a sense of being the underdog," Anderson explains.
Seattleite Brendan Vaughn, 24, also puts a premium on political diversity in Seattle. The 1998 Ballard High grad works as a marketing analyst for Walt Disney Internet Group and is completing his second master's degree this month, an M.B.A. in technology management from the University of Washington. He insists he's not a Republican, not yet anyway, but he voted for Rossi and Bush. As for living in such liberal climes, Vaughn says, "It's a lot better to surround yourself with people who don't all think the same way you do."
Is the GOP's Tent Big Enough?
Ka-ching! It is precisely in this embracing of heterodoxy that Seattle's "out of the closet" conservatives differ most pointedly from the town's standard-issue liberals, who so relish the ceaseless ideological clusterfuck that has become local politics here. That difference is why the city's conservatives may actually hold an advantage if they can only manage to exploit it.
A recent convert to the GOP, Jeanne Congdon is a small-business woman who worked her way up from welfare.
Until a few years ago, Jeanne Congdon didn't even know she was a Republican. But her bootstrap saga has certainly shaped her conservative sensibilities. The high-school homecoming queen from a working-class Philadelphia suburb had three children by the time she was 19 and arrived in Seattle in the early '70s after fleeing a bad marriage. Congdon was on welfare and food stamps for a short time, got a receptionist job, became a Realtor, and then with a scant $5,000 grubstake, gradually established a successful local chain of dress shops named Sbocco, which she closed when she retired in 1997. All along, she's kept at real-estate investing, and has owned 22 properties, nearly all residential. She has done well.
In the years preceding 9/11, Congdon says the cynical race-baiting defense of O.J. Simpson during his trial and "Bill Clinton lying" about having sex with Monica Lewinsky were both "sickening to me. All the women covering up for Clinton, saying, 'It's only about sex.' Excuse me, it's about character, judgment, and values."
A more personal experience with sexual politics in Seattle also influenced the views of the fiftysomething Congdon. Several years ago, while involved in the remodeling of a Pioneer Square condo she'd purchased, Congdon says one city of Seattle inspector on the project touched her inappropriately two separate times, and another inspector was repeatedly verbally abusive. After unsatisfactory talks with the city about the problems and finding that her character and integrity were under attack, Congdon filed suit. She says a documented $27,000 settlement with the city was reached in 2002. The whole episode left her wary of local government and wondering about Seattle's "progressive" values.
Sept. 11 was huge to her, says Congdon. "People who I thought were friends sent me e-mails about terrorists, that 'we should bomb them with butter,' and that the real problem was how stingy we are." In a Ballard coffee shop, Congdon heard a couple "trashing Bush for 9/11, saying it was his fault. I jumped in and said, no, it had been planned before he even took office. In this city, people will reflexively choose whatever side is against Bush and against Republicans. I'm not a hard party-line person, but to constantly trash Bush and Republicans is no recipe for success. What's your suggestion? What's the alternative?" Congdon believes, "Bush is brilliant to get a toehold in the Middle East."
Liberal pet causes like boosting the minimum wage also get Congdon exercised. "You're supposed to move on. As people work and work harder, they become worth more money. The issue is, can they earn it, not can they get it. If anyone has shown what they can do with nothing, it's me. People need to make their own happiness and their own life instead of playing the victim card."
Central District businesswoman Shellise Montgomery, 37, says she's a third-generation black Republican, at least on the side of her father, who hailed from Tennessee. "My family was Republican when we couldn't be Democrats, because the Democrats ran the KKK. The Republicans' attitude was, if you have a business and make money, you were accepted. You were green, not black or white." The Garfield High School grad has a master's degree in engineering. She worked for several years as a project manager for Puget Sound Energy; now she runs an income-tax preparation service and a payday loan operation. She has done consulting to help minority contractors bid for smaller jobs from Seattle Public Schools.
As I enter her 23rd Avenue office, Montgomery is finishing a phone call about a youth football team she's hoping to sponsor. The traffic roars by as we talk, and a steady flow of clients and colleagues stream in and out. There's a Russian-accented guy paying back a loan and a voluble contractor of Trinidadian descent with some beefs about small- project bid notifications from local government agencies.
A single mother with three children, Montgomery is pregnant with her fourth child and will be getting married later this year. She observes, "I've had more Democrats ask me why am I having a baby and say I need to get an abortion, whereas my Republican friends say, 'Great,' and 'Hang in there, your business will grow even more, and you're going to make it.'" She says she's not always preaching the Republican gospel, but when people show an interest or are undecided, as in last fall's gubernatorial election, she speaks up. "Rossi was talking about economic growth and opportunity. That's what this community needs. As a businessperson, you want a path that's clear of obstacles. He made it so people could understand that."
You can certainly get an inkling of Brian Ballard's politics from the name of his blog: GayNeoCon (www.gayneocon.blogspot.com). That the Republican Party isn't where he wants it to be on gay antidiscrimination legislation in Washington state or on gay marriage is a concern, but one to which he brings a constructive, work-from-within approach. He is secretary/treasurer and past president of the Washington state chapter of Log Cabin Republicans and serves on the federation's national board. Ballard tries to help identify Republicans who are or could be supportive of gay rights. He advocates for equal and fair hiring practices for gays and tries to help Republicans learn how to better think and talk about gay rights. He believes it's important "to fight the demonization of Republicans in the gay community."
Ballard, 39, is a senior project manager for musicnet.com, which markets encoded digital music repackaged and sold at consumer Web sites. His Republican roots go back to his years at Atlantic High School in Delray Beach, Fla., in the age of Reagan. "We had an informal 'Reagan for Czar' club. He was getting us our place back in the world after the years of Carter's malaise." He says he wants conservatives to realize there are gays and other "nontraditional people" who have conservative perspectives on "80 percent or more of the other issues out there."
Ballard says nationally, there is "a sizable percentage of gays that vote Republican, between a quarter and a third," but regardless of sexual orientation, "as soon as you come out as a Republican here, minds start to shut down. You become the butt of the joke."
Ballard believes the population of Seattle Republican and independent voters can be mined and organized, to help "neutralize the Seattle vote in statewide elections." The tight race for governor last year showed how important every vote is, Ballard adds.
If Republicans are to reclaim a serious presence in Seattle state legislative races, Ballard says, they'll have to start talking about urban issues more convincingly. He ticks off a few: how to fully fund the repair of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, how to improve mass transit, and how to address the needs of small-business owners in the city.
Republican and Fremont real-estate baron Suzie Burke says renewed GOP viability in the city isn't unthinkable at all. Over warmed-up coffee in her airy office suite atop the Red Door Tavern, Burke tells me, "The split is closer than most people think. But you have a significant part of the city's population that does not feel represented. They've tuned out because everything is the same brand. Our City Council needs to be in districts; lacking that, we've had this focus on funny issues."
Burke says Republicans in Seattle can and must build their ranks by offering a more visible alternative. She advises them to work their way up the ladder, first by running for School Board and City Council and by seeking nominations to city and county government commissions, where despite vetting to weed out R's, she says there are still vacancies that sometimes can't be filled without them.
It will all take time, of course. But Seattle's predicament reflects a larger challenge for urban conservatives and especially national and state GOP strategists. In a much-noted essay published online in The American Thinker in March, conservative commentator Ed Lasky argued that with suburbs no longer strictly the province of Republicans, and with big-city Democratic mayors becoming more skilled at co-opting Republican big-business interests, " . . . now is precisely the time for Republicans to extend their dominance in areas heretofore considered terra incognita: the nation's cities. . . . This [current] capitulation is wrong. . . . It is based on an outmoded and distorted view of city residents. . . . The Democrats see major cities as cash cows to be milked for favored groups; we should see them as areas . . . that with the right type of Republican activism and resources could be painted red. We should no longer avert our eyes from the city, for we do so at our own peril."
Put another way, as Mercer Island, Bellevue, and Issaquah continue to turn purple, Seattle must begin to do so as well. It's time to make Seattle a two-party town.
Writer and communications consultant Matt Rosenberg moved to Seattle from Chicago in 1994. He contributed a regular guest op-ed column to The Seattle Times for three years. He blogs at Rosenblog (www.rosenblog.com), Sound Politics (www.soundpolitics.com), and Red State (www.redstate.org).