Last winter, King County Republican Party Chairman Michael Young vowed to inject a strong shot of conservatism into the arm of lefty Seattle and its surrounding environs, telling the Seattle P-I that he was planning to field Republican candidates for all City Council seats and Democratic County Council strongholds in November.
Though technically nonpartisan, City Council seats are often uncontested or battled over exclusively by liberal candidates. The County Council, which swings 5-4 in favor of the Democrats, has entrenched districts on both sides—none safer for the Dems than Seattle-centric Districts 2 and 4, long held by council Chairman Larry Gossett and council member Larry Phillips. But Young was undeterred, insisting that Phillips (who's held the seat comfortably since 1991) was ripe for a challenge.
But last month's filing deadline came and went, with both Gossett and Phillips getting a free pass. And the City Council races have only one conservative challenger, whose primary issue is a naked statue in the sculpture park.
So what happened to the plan to bring some red to blue Seattle?
"I was serious; we made an honest effort," says Young, shaking his head and insisting that this isn't a boast he makes as a formality heading into each election cycle. "I thought we had a group of people who would do it."
In the end, though, Young says practicalities like money and time scared his prospects off. He says it's tough to get folks to make the effort, "particularly when they won't necessarily win but are in it to make a point."
Jim Nobles was one of Young's hopefuls who ultimately bowed out. Nobles—a former Seattle Monorail Board member and self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, social libertarian, and environmental progressive—signed up in April to run for the City Council seat now held by Peter Steinbrueck, but dropped out a little more than a month later.
Nobles says he cut and run because the "support just wasn't there." But he says this was more about getting in late than being a Republican. He says candidates Venus Velázquez and Bruce Harrell had already raised considerable amounts of cash by the time he started making the rounds.
Though he's now running against Scott Noble (who's more noble, Nobles or Noble?) for the King County assessor's post, Nobles says he hasn't lost all ambition to be on the City Council and wouldn't rule out trying again in the future. He says Young's December boast wasn't just "crazy talk."
"It's possible to put a slate of credible [conservative] challengers together," Nobles says. "People are fed up with the one-party mentality. [The City Council members] are all different shades of Democrats."
Young says to be successful in Seattle, Republicans have to work on winning votes the old-fashioned way: on the issues. "The record needs to be established that the liberal Democrats in this city have not done a good job," he says, adding that city and county officials have failed to deliver on the basics like public safety and transportation. Young cites drug-related crime like the recent shooting near his Belltown condo and the viaduct stalemate as examples of lapses in leadership. He says Judy Fenton, who's running against council member Sally Clark, plans to make these two issues an integral part of her campaign.
But Fenton, who filed the day of the deadline, has another ax to grind, namely concern over a particular piece of public art. She says the fountain at the base of the Olympic Sculpture Park that depicts a naked man and a naked boy facing one another isn't appropriate for children.
"We spend a lot of heartfelt time and effort teaching our children boundaries and guidelines, telling them if somebody touches us in ways that aren't appropriate what they should do," Fenton explains. "If somebody sees that statue, it will undo that and confuse them."
Asked if this is a viable platform, Young simply smiles and shrugs.
Though he didn't catch Young's comments in December, former state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance says it's not unusual for party leaders to be so bold. "You have to inspire your troops, be cheerleader in chief," he says. Still, Vance concedes that when you make claims and don't come close to delivering, it can hamper future efforts.
"You have to be careful," he says. "But you have to be bold, too."
Vance insists Young's been doing a bang-up job with the local party, but that there's only so much you can do "when the national brand has been hammered."
"Seattle [voters] didn't like the Republicans anyway, and they didn't like Bush; then Iraq absolutely killed us," he says. "Republicans need to tough this out, hang on, and it will change."
Beyond simply sticking the Bush era out, Vance says the Republican Party has to do a better job of recruiting good candidates in the suburbs—bread-and-butter folks like soccer moms and PTA members—rather than relying time and again on conservative activists to throw their hats in the ring. He says Young's strategy is solid: that the Republican Party should be fielding candidates everywhere for every race. But when it comes to Seattle, Vance says the issue is one of demographics: "When I started in this business [in the 1980s], a Republican could get 40 percent of the vote. As families have moved out of Seattle, it's become a completely different type of city. The politics have changed. Gentrification may change it back."
Republican King County Council member Reagan Dunn, the son of former Eastside Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn who represents the rural southeastern corner of King County, says it's critical to get young Republicans involved so they can work their way up. Asked if there's a viable farm team assembled as of this moment, Dunn says: "It's an ongoing process, but it's taking on a new shape."
While populating as many of the races as possible with conservative candidates is important, Dunn says Republicans also need to be strategic. "You have to look at the district, look at the trends, and decide if it's worth your time to run there," he says, adding that running for nonpartisan posts is a great way for inexperienced candidates to hone their political chops.
But Dunn says the bottom line is that it's tough to be a Republican in King County. "You've got to work twice as hard and be twice as good," he says. "And you've got to raise a lot of money."
Young admits that making conservative inroads in Seattle is a "glacial effort," but it's one he vows to continue. He's already got his eyes on the 2009 mayoral contest, but stops short of making any definitive promises, offering only: "We're going to try hard this time."
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