Susan Hutchison: No Answers, Lots of Questions

Since declaring her candidacy for county executive, she’s rarely come out of hiding.

On March 6, Susan Hutchison stepped up to the podium at the Red Lion Hotel in Olympia to speak at the annual prayer breakfast convened by the governor. It was a rare public appearance for the former KIRO-TV news anchor, who announced her candidacy for King County Executive on April 8–and a memorable one. Much of her talk centered on Richard Dawkins, the renowned English biologist and author. And some of it, if Dawkins is to be believed, was made up.

“This is the age of the activist atheists,” said Hutchison, wearing a cardinal suit, pearls, and an ever-so-gracious demeanor that nonetheless dripped with irony. She pointed to Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. “As fate would have it, as the Brits like to say, Dawkins and I have been brought together with one degree of separation. Until recently, Richard Dawkins held the Oxford University Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, which is funded by Charles Simonyi. Long before I came into the picture, Charles gave that donation to Oxford.” (Hutchison has served as executive director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences since its inception in 2004. Simonyi, a Microsoft billionaire, has in recent years become a philanthropist and space tourist who has twice paid tens of millions of dollars to travel with Russian and American astronauts.)

“I said to myself, ‘I need to meet this guy,'” Hutchison recounted at the breakfast, referring to Dawkins. “And indeed I did.” She then described engineering an opportunity to sit next to Dawkins at a Windsor Castle dinner, whereupon Hutchison confronted him with her religious beliefs, such as her desire for a “personal faith” that listens to God through the words of Jesus.

“At which point, Dawkins becomes unglued,” Hutchison told the Red Lion crowd. She then quoted the scientist in a faux-British accent: “‘You started out so beautiful, so universal, so lovely. And then you became so tawdry, so parochial, so base, when you said the word Jesus.'”

According to Hutchison, she then took Dawkins’ face in her hands as you would a child’s, stressed their Simonyi connection, and told him they would get along. By the end of the evening, things took an amiable turn; on a subsequent encounter, he apologized for monopolizing her time, telling her how much he enjoyed her company. By drawing this famous atheist to a religious person like herself, Hutchison concluded: “God has done a work with Richard Dawkins and me.”

Dawkins, however, remembers their encounter differently. “It is true we had an argument, which was actually, at least for a short time, more acrimonious than she says. But it was not about Jesus,” he claims. “I do not believe she ever mentioned Jesus or her religious beliefs during the whole dinner. I am sure I would have remembered that, because I would have been so flabbergasted at the idea of Charles Simonyi appointing a religious nut to manage his foundation. What I remember with the utmost clarity was that our argument was about George W. Bush. She told me that she voted for Bush, and I was utterly shocked.”

Nevertheless, he says they reconciled and had several warm meetings afterward, at none of which, says Dawkins, did Hutchison “give me even the tiniest indication that she was religious.”

Hutchison did not make herself available for an interview with SW despite numerous requests over a period of two weeks. Asked about the discrepancy, Hutchison’s campaign manager, Jordan McCarren, says only that the candidate and Dawkins are “friends”—but offers no explanation.

It all adds to the mystery about Hutchison, who since declaring her candidacy has disappeared from public view. She has not attended several candidate forums, including one put on by the Alki Foundation in May. (McCarren says Hutchison just agreed to attend a June 25 forum organized by the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce). And she has not granted media interviews.

“I don’t know why [her handlers] are keeping her under wraps,” says public-affairs consultant Rollin Fatland, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. “My guess is that they just decided that with her name familiarity, she is going to make it through the primary. Why risk it? They don’t want her to have her Katie Couric moment too early.” (Couric famously interviewed another political novice, Sarah Palin, and the results caused endless mockery.) Hutchison isn’t even revealing her party affiliation; she doesn’t have to, since the race has newly become nonpartisan.

McCarren balks when asked if she is a Republican, saying instead that she is an “independent thinker.” But all signs point to her being in line with the GOP. She openly flirted with running as a Republican against U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell in 2006, and has donated virtually exclusively to GOP politicians, including Bush, onetime presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and gubernatorial hopeful Dino Rossi. And former KIRO colleagues say she was known as a conservative—something that stood out in the mostly liberal milieu of the newsroom.

She stood out in other ways as well.

KIRO executive Lloyd Cooney was on vacation in Hawaii when he spotted Hutchison working as a sportscaster at KITV in Honolulu. He told KIRO president Ken Hatch about her, and he looked for her when he vacationed there.

“She had a strong physical presence,” Hatch recalls. It was the early ’80s, and Hutchison, a former homecoming queen at her Annandale, Va., high school, was in her 20s. She was also an Air Force general’s daughter, the wife of a Marine, and, very briefly, a Marine candidate herself. (Just out of college, she had enrolled in officer training school, but received a medical discharge after a few weeks.)

KIRO eventually recruited Hutchison to Seattle. “Susan was very much a lady from Virginia,” says Nick Latham, a former KIRO public-relations representative. “She was from a military family. She treated everybody respectfully.” That, he notes, is not the norm in boisterous newsrooms full of “yellers and screamers.”

Hutchison didn’t engage in griping sessions about management either, recalls Mark Gardner, a former KIRO executive producer who worked with Hutchison in the ’80s and early ’90s. He speculates that might have something to do with her military background, giving her a sense of “honoring the mission.” As such, he says, some thought her aloof, while he considered her someone with a more “formal” bearing.

Gardner says too that some anchors “felt like they were more involved in the editorial process than maybe Suzie was.” Whereas others would copyedit their scripts before airtime, Hutchison “wanted to keep her mind clear so she could present well on the air.”

“She was hired to be a news anchor, to look good on the air,” Gardner adds.” And for the most part, he and others say, she did it well. Longtime KIRO reporter Karen O’Leary says colleagues sometimes made fun of Hutchison for minor gaffes, but believes the criticism was unfair. “I think Susan was ridiculed for some of her mistakes—which everyone makes on the air—because she is a conservative and because she’s a woman,” says O’Leary.

Her being a woman was apparent; her being a conservative came out in casual conversations. Nobody remembers her being strident with her politics, but there was a general sense, as former KIRO and CNN anchor Aaron Brown puts it, that “she was someone who had strong political views, a lot of them based on her religious background.”

Hutchison left KIRO in 2002 after an atypically bitter fight with management, which had changed a couple of times since she had been hired. In a lawsuit, she claimed she had been pushed aside in favor of a younger female anchor (Kristy Lee, who left for Boston in 2005), and charged KIRO with age discrimination. The suit ended in a settlement for an undisclosed amount.

Since then she has been doling out Simonyi’s money, coordinating public relations for his million-dollar trips to the International Space Station, and serving on various boards. She was invited to join the Seattle Symphony board in 2004 shortly after Simonyi announced he would give $10 million to the organization, and now serves as its chair. She also served for nearly a decade on the board of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank best known for its support of the neo-creationist theory intelligent design, leaving last year, according to its president, Bruce Chapman. (Hutchison was still listed as a board member on the organization’s Web site until shortly after she announced her candidacy.)

Chapman says Hutchison “was, in general, supportive of all our programs,” including the one focused on intelligent design. Given what a hot-button subject that is, she’s sure to be asked about it when she surfaces—as well as questions that actually relate to the running of the county, like how she would manage its horrendous budget situation.

Then there is the question of her credibility. Dawkins, who watched a video of her speech at the prayer breakfast, tells of a story she told about him involving a wedding at which he supposedly sang “Amazing Grace.” She portrayed the incident as remarkable because of the song’s religious content, he claims.

“I would have no objection to singing ‘Amazing Grace’ because I think it is a good tune,” he says. “But I don’t know the words, so it unfortunately cannot be true that I sang it word-perfect, as she alleges. I don’t think this is an important error on her part, except that it casts further doubt on her veracity as a witness.”

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