Bright Man's Burden

What will it take for Seattle's black political community to get behind a candidate like Darryl Smith?

Darryl Smith became infatuated with guayabera shirts prior to a 1998 trip to Cuba, and has been collecting them ever since. A New Jersey native who arrived in Seattle's Columbia City neighborhood a little over a decade ago by way of San Francisco, Smith is a tough cat to pin down—a chameleon of sorts who's capable of thriving in culturally paradoxical corners.

Once a professional stage actor and jazz drummer, Smith is now a Realtor who just finished a term as president of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, where he is widely credited as a key figure in Columbia City's renaissance.

"I think if you look at what Darryl's done in the community he's lived in, you can't deny that it has been advantageous for the development of Southeast Seattle at large," says Mount Baker resident Norm Rice, who was Seattle's first and only black mayor.

Recently, Smith has channeled his considerable acumen into electoral politics, failing to get past the primary in an upstart 2003 bid for Seattle City Council despite the backing of one of the city's two major daily newspapers' editorial boards.

"I still think people don't realize how much Darryl has done," says Rice. "And he has to communicate that a little better."

"I think it's challenging for people to figure me out," Smith concedes.

A practicing Buddhist who is married to a white woman, Smith's spiritual pursuits are solitary, his sermons cerebral. Politically, the 43-year-old gravitates toward issues of housing, neighborhood revitalization, and small-business development, eschewing the civil rights underdog story lines that have, in this town and many others, helped propel politicians who share his African-American heritage— politicians like Ron Sims.

Appointed in 1996 as King County's first black county executive, a post he was subsequently elected to and holds to this day, Sims cut his political teeth in the early '80s as an aide to George Fleming, who became Washington's first black state senator in 1971. Fleming was a protégé of legendary Sam Smith, Seattle's first black City Council member. As local political pedigrees come, Sims' is as regal as it gets.

"George Fleming mentored me," recalls Sims, now 57. "He hired me sight unseen on the advice of Sam Smith. He knew I wanted to be in politics, but I don't think he mentored me to be in politics. But was he hoping? Yes."

Smith showing his lotus tattoo.

Harley Soltes

An ordained Baptist minister who belongs to the Central Area's prominent Mount Zion Baptist Church and is prone to bear hugging friends and enemies alike, the bright, gregarious Sims lives life out loud and in a crowd— a passionate public presence among his brothers and sisters. A Spokane native, Sims moved to Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood shortly after a term as student body president at Central Washington University. After a series of postbaccalaureate government appointments, he quickly turned his attention to electoral politics, absent such diversions as theater, jazz, and Latin-American fashion.

A recent Saturday morning on the greenbelt near Columbia City's public library saw Smith and Sims together onstage, promoting walking as a means for people to get in shape during a daylong, county-sponsored fitness fair. Clad in designer shades, a straw fedora, leather sandals, and a four-pocket guayabera, Smith, playing emcee, welcomes Sims to the stage with a warm intro and a quick backslapping embrace.

Once at the podium, Sims regales the audience with a tale about how, upon receiving a bad fitness score from his doctor, he was forced to cut back on his favorite guilty pleasure.

"I love maple bars, but now I don't eat maple bars every day," says Sims to an amused crowd. "I never wanted to exercise regularly, but I had to change my lifestyle."

By appearances alone, it would seem as though Sims and Smith should be political allies. For starters, they're both black—and, historically, black politicians in Seattle get each other's backs. But in 2003, Sims, whose wife is Filipino, endorsed an Asian-American opponent of Smith's in the City Council primary, casting doubt on the latter's Afro-centric bona fides.

"If there is a general perception that a candidate is being rejected by African Americans, there will be enough solidarity to refuse that candidate," says state Sen. Adam Kline, a Caucasian who's been elected multiple times in a minority-heavy Southeast Seattle district—the 37th —historically represented by blacks such as Sam Smith, Fleming, Dawn Mason, and, most recently, Eric Pettigrew.

"You look anywhere in the country, and identity politics are important," says consultant Christian Sinderman, who helped guide Smith's 2003 council bid. "So I think it's important for people to win support from what is perceived as their natural base. It can be a bit superficial, but it actually means something."

King County Executive Ron Sims is a politician who "can get over the bridge."

Harley Soltes

Sims describes his failure to support Smith in part: "People think because you're black, you're going to get elected. But I don't know where Darryl's church base is, and in this city, you'd better have a home church. The people in the black community who vote are in a church. That is the tie that binds people."

Public-affairs consultant George Griffin, a former aide to Mayor Rice, opposed Smith along the same church-state breach.

"I guess the litmus test for me with Darryl is when I asked him if he knew any of the African-American pastors in town and he said, 'No, I'm Buddhist,'" says Griffin. "I said, 'Hell, I'm Catholic, but I know all the black pastors.' So I've always felt he didn't really have a lot of the connections you need if you're going to run for office."

Yet in the next breath, Griffin acknowledges that efforts by African-American kingmakers to identify the heirs apparent to Sims, Rice, County Council member Larry Gossett, and City Council member Richard McIver have proved somewhat futile of late.

"We need to do a better job of cultivating new people to run for office," says Griffin. "We should be able to field a slate of at-large candidates who can run for office, and we just have not done that. It's no one's fault but our own that we don't have more candidates vying for office. Now we've got Ron, Larry, and Richard in terms of local government, and we need to look at who the next wave is."

"I can't name many up-and-comers, and there was a time that I could," laments Ernie Dunston, president of the Breakfast Group, an influential local nonprofit comprised of prominent male black business leaders who meet monthly in an effort to foster volunteerism and economic empowerment in the African-American community. "That's what's depressing to me. At one time, we had a lot of potential candidates in the wings, and it was a matter of grooming people to come in behind them. But it took so long for their turn to come that they went and made inroads in corporate America."

"The Democratic Party only touts African-American candidates with a civil rights record,' grouses Sims. 'At their conventions, the Democrats still trot out Sharpton and Jackson, while the Republicans trot out Condi and Powell. Politics aside, whom do you think we wanted on that TV?" Ron Sims

To this end, legendary Mount Zion pastor the Rev. Samuel McKinney cites a disconnect in the type of mentoring Sims received on the way up, among other factors.

"Sam Smith mentored George Fleming, who mentored Ron Sims," McKinney says. "I don't see that happening now. People see their opportunities elsewhere. I'm not saying young people aren't interested in politics, but they've had a different experience and set of expectations.

"Back in the day, some people said we were out on the street because we didn't have any phones to call with," adds McKinney. "Now we do."

"I agree it's not what it used to be," acknowledges Sims. "In the old days, Sam Smith kind of nurtured it, but then it dried up."

Add to the mix the whitening of the Central District— traditionally the city's epicenter of African-American political power—and the interrelated flight of many middle-class blacks to South King County and beyond, and these are challenging times for African-American politics and its Seattle grass roots. Times that require fresh thinking, cross-ethnic coalition building, and a willingness to move beyond boilerplate civil rights issues, say Sims and others.

All of which would seem to lead to coalescence behind a 21st-century candidate like Darryl Smith—which, to the chagrin of supportive bigwigs like Rice and McIver, hasn't come close to happening yet.

As he finishes an animated cell phone conversation with a Sierra Club leader regarding Mayor Greg Nickels' recently unveiled roads levy (Smith is shocked at its largesse), Smith pulls his white Infiniti into a metered parking spot near Seattle Tattoo Emporium on Capitol Hill, where he is set to go under the needle for the first time on a drizzly Friday afternoon.

Smith is greeted here by one of his Windermere Real Estate co-workers, a heavily tattooed silver-haired bloke who's getting some touch-up work done on his right arm. Upstairs in a loftlike space is another acquaintance of Smith's, a tattoo artist named David, whose son is a classmate of Smith's daughter's at Orca Elementary.

Dressed in black dress shoes, a pair of blue jeans, and hipster eyeglasses, Smith strips down to a white undershirt and rolls up a sleeve so David can commence etching a pale pink lotus flower—a treasured Buddhist symbol—on his left shoulder.

Smith, daughter Sofia, and wife Andrea John-Smith walk home after shopping at the Columbia City Farmers Market.

Harley Soltes

"Columbia City wasn't on the map when we moved there in '94," says Smith, who chugged a beer during lunch to calm his nerves and, clenching his jaw as David pokes away, probably wishes he'd had another. "It was what we could afford. So I work for this hard-core capitalist industry, but for me, it comes down to creating housing like NewHolly and Rainier Vista [two former barracks-style housing projects that have been revamped as mixed-income communities] and marketing the heck out of it.

"People of color will say, 'This is beautiful,'" continues Smith. "But there is a visceral connection to it as the ghetto, and they're not coming back. So we've got to get their kids back."

The Windermere office Smith works in sits across from the Both Ways Cafe on the corner of 50th Avenue South and South Genesee Street, a couple blocks inland from a Lake Washington trail that leads to Seward Park. While this part of town consists primarily of well-off Jews and blacks, to the immediate southwest is Columbia City, which has traditionally served as home to a more colorful, economically diverse populace.

Up until the late '90s, Columbia City's main downtown corridor—which carries historical landmark status—along Rainier Avenue South was utilitarian at best, anchored by Angie's Tavern, the Royal Esquire nightclub, and the Busy Bee convenience store. Now teeming with new restaurants, shops, galleries, ale houses, and theaters, downtown Columbia City has been transformed into a destination neighborhood—think Wallingford with black people—thanks in no small part to Smith.

"The things that have happened in Columbia City are absolutely spectacular, and it's impacting Rainier Valley at large," says Herman McKinney, a Breakfast Group committee chair and executive director of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce's Urban Enterprise Center.

Ex–Rice aide Griffin differs with Herman McKinney and his former boss on the turn of events in Columbia City, saying that the neighborhood's renaissance has contributed to displacement of lower- and middle-class blacks.

"He's built his reputation there in Columbia City," observes Griffin, referring to Smith. "And to me, the folks in Columbia City nowadays regard diversity as how many ethnic restaurants you have in a community. I think it's lost on him that gentrification in that community has really harmed people."

"The folks in Columbia City nowadays regard diversity as how many ethnic restaurants you have in a community. I think it's lost on [Smith] that gentrification in the community has really harmed people."

Griffin also says that voters and power brokers alike were turned off when Smith authored a letter—co-signed by a handful of local business and community leaders—in December 2004 that stated his blunt opposition to locating a Casa Latina day-labor center on the former Chubby & Tubby property on Rainier Avenue South. Smith claims he wasn't opposed to Casa Latina setting up shop in the Valley, he just had a problem with them relocating to what he saw as a too crucial plot in the area's commercial corridor. But before Smith had time to flesh out a nuanced explanation, he'd already been rolled in the press by Latino power brokers and their allies—with nary an African-American leader willing to vouch for him publicly. The rift re-emerged when Smith sought to fill the City Council vacancy created by Jim Compton's resignation last December. In his quest for an appointment, Smith was passed over in favor of fellow Southeast Seattle resident Sally Clark, a white, lesbianformer Department of Neighborhoods manager whom Smith says he will not challenge when she must defend her incumbency via election later this year.

"I don't think he was unfairly scapegoated," says Griffin. "He's the one who wrote that letter, and it's got some undertones in that thing which say, 'You're pretty much not welcome here.' People went to the central and southeast parts of town years ago because they couldn't go anywhere else. And now, it's a community where I wonder what the heck's going on."

"I was dismayed that Darryl didn't get that latest appointment," says Ernie Dunston. "That Casa Latina thing could really be his albatross."

Smith, who has designs on another council bid during the 2007 cycle, hopes voters will come to better understand the breadth of his perspective.

"Seattle is a very progressive, genteel kind of place, not like where I come from," says Smith, whose uncle, the Rev. Walter Taylor, was a former local NAACP leader who was elected as Englewood, N.J.'s first black mayor in 1971. "If there's noise about racial politics, people don't want to get involved."

In concurrence is Dunston, who says his group was extremely impressed with Smith when he spoke at one of their monthly meetings. (Smith has thus far declined to join the Breakfast Group, saying it would appear too politically motivated at this time.)

"Casa Latina was sort of a Rainier Valley issue, and the overall [black] community wasn't that keenly focused," concedes Dunston. "In the environment we have here, anytime you get on the wrong side of an issue that has to do with race, you stand a chance of really being stigmatized."

Smith and Mayor Greg Nickels take the pledge at Smith's last meeting as president of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce.

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About an hour before quitting time on Friday at City Hall, Dick McIver emerges from a conference room, jonesing for a cigarette. A fifth-generation Seattleite who is married to Marlaina Kiner-McIver, a widely respected civil rights leader, McIver is unapologetic in his pursuit of less- than-healthy endeavors. When asked whether he plans to visit the Four Seas, his favorite cocktailing spot in the International District, after work, McIver replies: "I'll be there at 5:30. Every day."

In 1997, McIver, a seasoned multiagency analyst, was appointed to fill John Manning's term in the City Council's hallowed "Sam Smith Seat," which has been filled by an African-American since Smith's 24-year council tenure ended in 1991. Prior to Manning stepping down, McIver had not considered seeking elected office. But he was recruited into the race when, he says, "My wife got on me, and people said, 'Look, you've got the background.'

"It's an honor," McIver says of the appointment (he's been elected three times since). "I think we in Seattle have been lucky to have had such significant minority representation."

"In a way, it's disheartening," says McIver of the recent trend of suburban black flight. "But what are we as African Americans doing about it? The International District has established itself as a center where you can buy things that you can't buy anywhere else. There's cohesion there."

To be sure, this incantation covers the whole ethnic rainbow—not just blacks. In fact, while McIver expresses gratitude for his support from African Americans, he describes the black voting bloc as lacking the clout it may have had when he was a young man.

"I don't think you can win with just that base, although it helps," says McIver. "There's not significant voting among black people."

Kline and former 37th District state Rep. Dawn Mason, who's twice challenged Kline unsuccessfully for his seat in Olympia, offer substantially different takes.

"There's an activist base that's much more sophisticated than the numbers show," says Kline. "It's an outgrowth of the civil rights era."

"You don't have to have African- American support to win, but without it, you can cripple your chances," says Mason. "It doesn't matter that [black folks] move to South King County, the community is entrenched."

One reason for McIver's relative pessimism, as Mason alludes to, is demographics: In 1990, the city's black population stood at around 10 percent. Today, with white people lining up to offer long-standing black residents a half a million dollars for the dirt in neighborhoods like the Central District and Columbia City, the population has dwindled to around 8 percent. Even the Rev. McKinney, who has long encouraged his Central District parishioners to hold on to their inner-city property, recently sold his Madrona home to a retired white Washington State University professor and moved south of the city limits to Lakeridge.

"When I lived in Madrona, I told people not to sell because they were sitting on a gold mine," says McKinney. "But my wife was ready to go, and I was given an offer I couldn't refuse."

"In a way, it's disheartening," says McIver of the recent trend of suburban black flight. "But what are we as African Americans doing about it? The International District has established itself as a center where you can buy things that you can't buy anywhere else. There's cohesion there: Even if you live in Northgate, you can go there and find your culture. We haven't built that sort of presence. I'm not sure what our culture is anymore, other than American."

Perhaps the reason McIver can be so critical of his base's perceived shortcomings has something to do with his family's ultrafirm roots in this city, as well as his years spent toiling behind the scenes as a government planner.

"The McIvers' history in this city is real, real deep," says Tony Orange, the longtime executive director of the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), who is regarded as a key political gatekeeper in the black community.

"Dick's connected in the black community," adds Rice. "He doesn't need to do a whole lot, he's just there—and people don't have to ask that question when they go to the ballot box."

Of all the black political figures in town, McIver and Rice rank among the most supportive when it comes to candidate Smith's accomplishments and aspirations.

"He's doing the kinds of things he should," says McIver. "Darryl is pretty well-known in the Valley, but he needs to focus on the North End. For Darryl, I just think he ran against the wrong people. Had he run against Compton, I think he would have won."

"He should have picked somewhere else to go," seconds Rice. "I think that was his biggest mistake. The field was so crowded that it was tough for him to distinguish himself. In a race, it isn't always about whether you're qualified; it's just what you were up against.

"I think he's smart, intelligent, and has a lot of potential. I think Darryl's misfortune was just timing and not spending more time networking."

King County Council member Larry Gossett and Urban League President James Kelly think it's a bit more complicated than that.

"He has a strong base in the Rainier Valley, has a really easy personality, and is smart and well-educated," says Gossett. "But his base probably wasn't deep and varied enough. He's a candidate who happened to be black. There are people who haven't been here very long, but have gotten involved in black community politics. That just wasn't his calling."

"In this town, it's hard to win anything on the first try," says Kelly. "Darryl isn't from here, and it takes a long time in the African-American community for us to say, 'OK, this guy has toiled in the vineyards long enough for us to get behind him.' Darryl's one of many talented people that I think the community, and the general public at large, will be proud to elect. He just needs to spend a little more time in the vineyard."

Hogwash, says Rice.

"I don't buy that," says the ex-mayor. "How can you say he hasn't been there? If you look at Darryl's accomplishments, they're there. I think that's the key."

Still, Rice feels Smith needs to do a better job exerting his presence within the black community and exhibiting a desire to work on touchstone issues.

"Sometimes you need to just spend some time talking with people without having the agenda of running," says Rice. "Where you've been and who you are is going to mean a lot in the African-American community. And I think you've got to show people that you're sensitive to issues about race and equity and the kinds of things that we care about."

While he acknowledges he could stand to do some more seed sowing among the old guard, Smith sees it as a two-way street.

"What I don't get, that I do think happens elsewhere, is there's no great groundswell to help people," says Smith. "People that have approached me with that vibe—it's not the black community. I don't know if it's because I'm perceived as pro-business or what. I have a lot of support from McIver and have good relations with Sims and Rice, but there aren't a whole lot of black folks stepping forward and saying, 'We see potential in this man.' I admire the hell out of these guys, but as far as people seeking me out, that hasn't happened."

His pale hairless scalp gleaming in the sun, Kline strolls up to Mio Posto, an airy new restaurant near the Mount Baker Community Club, having just dropped his dog off to "chase rabbits" through the evergreen wilds of Seward Park.

When asked if his dog is roaming solo in a designated off-leash area, Kline responds mischievously: "No, but it's my off-leash area."

A self-avowed bleeding-heart urban liberal—Kline regularly co-sponsors legislation that would permit Eastern Washington to become the 51st state—Kline recently shuttered his private law practice to "indulge [his] political obsession full time."

"It's more fun than barreled monkeys, what goes on behind the scenes," gushes the stocky, bearded über-wonk as he wolfs down a wood-fired sausage pizza.

Kline had long been involved in issue politics—chief among them abortion and the environment—before he sought an appointment to the state Senate in January 1997, part of the "row of dominoes" that came as a result of Gary Locke's election as the lower 48's first Chinese-American governor in 1996. With that, Sims was appointed to fill Locke's shoes as King County executive, Dwight Pelz relinquished his 37th District Senate seat to assume Sims' County Council seat, and Kline was tapped to replace Pelz after an appointment pageant that split evenly along racial lines.

"There were six of us, three white and three black," recalls Kline, whose district is about a quarter black. "There was an African-American gentleman who pulled each white candidate aside and asked us not to run because this was one of the only districts capable of electing an African American. I told him I wanted to be judged not by the color of my skin but by the content of my character

"I've had enough experience in the African-American community not to feel like an outsider and to ignore attempts to make me feel like one. I credit my victories to a lack of racism among people of color. It used to be that people would favor a black candidate over a white candidate. Now, it's about policy."

Not quite, counters his electoral nemesis Mason (both say they're on friendly terms).

"People don't always understand policy, but they understand seeing you in a restaurant and you saying, 'Hey baby, how's your mama?' That's what politics is about," says Mason.

Actually, it's both, says Sims.

"The issue is: Can you still be black and win in a liberal white environment?" says the county executive. "I don't know; I do. A friend of mine once said, 'Ron, you can get over the bridge.' What he meant was that we tell African-American kids that they're going to be in two worlds, and they'd better learn that cash language.

"I live in two worlds. I'm not going to be race neutered, but I love public policy."

Since his first race—an unsuccessful challenge of powerful County Council member Ruby Chow in 1981 (a subsequent 1985 quest proved triumphant)—Sims has seen the dynamics of minority politics become less black and white, to go, in essence, from maple bars to guayabera shirts.

"The first time I ran, the black power structure knew me, but the black community didn't," says Sims. "There's a difference. There was a candidate in that race who ran his photo in The Facts [a long-standing local African-American newspaper] every week. I didn't. I said, 'Why? Everybody reads the Times and P-I.' But black people said, 'We don't know you,' and what I learned is to be in papers like The Facts is to be known. I go to my barbershop, and the conversations come from papers like that. African-American, Asian, and Latino communities are deeply distrustful of mainstream press.

"I'm optimistic about how communities of color will transform politics. The issue will be coalition politics, but it won't be like when I came up. The fact that I'm married to an Asian woman has allowed me to gain entry into other communities."

This, Sims explains, is a signal that meat-and-potatoes African-American issues could stand to diversify as well.

"The Democratic Party only touts African-American candidates with a civil rights record," grouses Sims. "At their conventions, the Democrats still trot out Sharpton and Jackson, while the Republicans trot out Condi and Powell. Politics aside, whom do you think we wanted on that TV? Black people are tired of civil rights candidates."

Sims aide De'Sean Quinn represents a new generation of up-and-comers whose political influences include Chuck D.

Harley Soltes

Sims' director of council relations, De'Sean Quinn, a 33-year-old ex–Morehouse defensive tackle who ran Dick McIver's 2001 re-election campaign before eventually shifting to county politics, agrees wholeheartedly.

"In politics, we're kind of tagged with traditional African-American issues—police accountability, human services, and so on," says Quinn, who lives in Tukwila. "But African-American opinion has really diversified, and with Al and Jesse, it's kind of one belief. Condoleezza and Colin, they actually climbed the ladder and achieved."

Ask Tony Orange or just about any local black politico for his or her list of potential young candidates, and Quinn, without exception, garners mention. But while Quinn graduated from Garfield High School with George Fleming's daughter and considers Norm Rice's presence as mayor while he was an adolescent to have been "huge," his primary political influence growing up was none other than Chuck D.

"We were into socially conscious rap—Public Enemy and all that stuff," says Quinn. "Our parents marched for civil rights so we wouldn't have to. The effect that musichad is that we were expected to do better than them."

Which points to yet another challenge: the lure of the private sector.

"I should be doing better than my father," says Quinn. "But if I stay in politics, I might not."

"The problem is," says McIver, "if you're African American and you're intelligent, the private sector will outbid the public sector every time."

On this topic, the Rev. McKinney offers an enlightened sports analogy.

"A lot of youngsters got excited by basketball when they felt baseball was too slow," says McKinney. "So I'm not sure people have rejected politics or baseball, they've just gone where they can better utilize their talent."

Couple that with what Gossett and others see as a current lull in grassroots efforts, and Seattle's African-American power base appears to be in a bit of a quandary. But as McKinney and Sims point out, whatever apathy exists may be eroding quicker than a Gulf Coast levee in a storm.

"The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina really exposed the underbelly of this nation," says McKinney. "Many of the blacks who migrated to this area followed the railroads from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, so there's a connection to many people here. It's sensitizing people who may not have been interested."

"People said, 'See that?'" says Sims. "The mast got torn off. Do black folks got an attitude right now? Oh yeah. That means a change is in the offing, because a culture is being created where African Americans are in a position to speak their minds like never before."

"Politics might not be on the front burner," McKinney concludes. "But you can't escape it."

mseely@seattleweekly.com

Editorial intern Katie Becker assisted with research for this story.

 
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