Kent Kammerer wasn't a journalist, but he talked to people. He loved talking to people.
I first got to know him when I was invited down to the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, a rag-tag, grassroots group of truly independent Seattleites that meets once a month in a diner to hear speakers talk about civic issues. The SNC can be a tough crowd. That first time, I was on a panel with then Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher, who was nearly eaten alive by citizens angry at the paper, and the media in general. The SNC may be a kaffeeklatsch, but the participants can bite.
A couple of things struck me. One was that it was a refreshing change from Seattle Nice: these were activists who weren't shy about asking questions or speaking their minds. And these were no-Astro Turf activists, but people who represented and loved their varied patches of Seattle. It was like a meeting of Darwin's finches all in one room. Grumpy finches.
The other was that the group had no particular ideological bias, save a general questioning of civic authority, namely city hall, downtown business, the media, and conventional wisdom. They are a coalition of folks who don't indulge in group-think. Some lament Seattle's one-party-townness, but at the grassroots, outrage is often less driven by ideology than circumstance. As a guest, you never knew from which field a ball was coming, left, right, or from somewhere up in the bleachers
Presiding over it all, like a mossback Yoda, was Kent Kammerer, who booked the guests and took careful, thorough minutes of the meetings, which he would send out afterwards. I was impressed by these documents because they showed that Kent actually listened to what was said, and worked hard to present even views he strongly disagreed with fairly. And over the years, as I attended breakfast both to speak and listen, I became friends with Kent. I found a retired teacher who was intensely curious, deeply thoughtful, not cynical — capable still of hope and outrage — and someone deeply committed to democracy.
Through the SNC, he helped facilitate direct links between neighborhood activists and policy makers and others who were civically engaged. Recent coalition guests include King County prosecutor Dan Satterburg, new city librarian Marcellus Turner, Sound Transit and Metro critics Emory Bundy and John Niles, Anne Levinson on police accountability, University of Washington Professor David Montgomery talking about how civilizations unravel and fall apart. The ensuing Q&A's at the breakfasts are always the best part. I love the image of a bunch of crusty neighborhood activists discussing theories on the fall of empire while eating hashbrowns at Ballard's Salmon Bay Cafe.
Kent was the ringmaster of a crucial level of civic debate in Seattle. He helped create an old-school social network with more substance than Facebook. It was a place where people could gossip and argue over the back fence, but also often put questions — big questions, or wonky or trivial questions — to people in the know.
Kent loved new information. He was a teacher, but also a student. And his love of asking questions extended everywhere. I remember early on Crosscut, I had written a story that had infuriated the town of Pomeroy, Washington. Kent wrote me. It turned out he had traveled to Pomeroy, he knew Pomeroy, and that I had missed some important things about the place. Kent knew these things because he'd once parked his RV there and had met and talked with the locals in this obscure part of Washington. He was well-traveled around the region, and I imagined him exploring it "Travels with Charley"-style. His impressions were insightful. They came from listening. It turns out, Kent not only took the minutes at SNC meetings, but he had a knack, an ear, and a love for talking to people who were just people and taking in their stories and opinions.
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