"Ain't no party like a West Coast party, 'cause a West Coast party don't stop."
Or so I hoped, inching slowly down I-5 to Olympia. I was heading for new Washington State Governor Jay Inslee's Inaugural Ball. Man on a mission to see sumpin' new.
Being neither Crosscut's Olympia expert (that would be John Stang) nor engrossed by statehouse minutiae, my assignment was simple: Cover the party, the big (mostly) black-tie gala held last night (a school night, mind you, so you kinda know where this is headed already) to launch the new Governor's term.
Earlier in the day, Inslee was sworn in and gave an inaugural address that drew mixed reviews. My goal was to dig deeper, to see if the party offered any clues as to what's in store for us during the next four years.
I hoped to gauge the enthusiasm for Governor Inslee, the man in the fleece jacket who had competently if unspectacularly won election to his new job. Inslee's campaign appealed to Washington state's deep blue urban core mostly by not saying too much, lest excessive concreteness cause him to stumble en route to the governor's mansion. I also wanted to find out what the Rob McKenna red-edges-of-the-state crowd might have to say — or drink — as they watched the torch passed from Democrat to Democrat (for the fifth time in a row).
But mostly I wanted to expose the root of the partisan bickering that has long infected government. To shine some light into the vast chasm that afflicts our political discourse. By taking the pulse of this inaugural ball, the quality of its food and beverage, the snappiness of its repartee and its overall revelry, perhaps I could discern who is truly in control: the jocks or the nerds.
Because there is no political body of any consequence, from condo board to Congress, that isn't ruled by the same power dynamics we all watched play out in that high school civic crucible: student council. Reductio ad high schoolum.
In the Inslee vs. McKenna race, even the mainstream media picked up on the jock-nerd meme, with King 5's Robert Mak offering lengthy investigative reports about both Inslee's and McKenna's high school exploits.
You can likely guess which was who, and if not, this video should resolve any doubt.
But back to the party. It was large; more than 2,000 tickets sold in advance. There looked to be plenty of pro forma enthusiasm. The line to enter the capitol building stretched across the entire campus, with people reporting waits of 50 minutes to get inside. Inside, there were plenty of rooms set up for partying, but the official festivities unfolded within the rotunda itself. The mood was more polite than exuberant.
An aversion to talking points led me straight to the straightest talkers at any such shindig like this: the chefs, caterers and bartenders. Did they vote? Jock or nerd? Could they guess which was which?
I caught one bartender, Sandra, (we were on a first-name-only basis) as she was pouring "just a splash" of sulfitic cabernet for a guest. Sandra lives in Seattle, recently emigrated from Canada and became a U.S. citizen last Fourth of July. Did she vote? "Maybe." Did she vote for the jock or the nerd? "Maybe." Obviously still a Canadian at heart.
Another bartender (we were on a no-name basis) said he voted for the jock, but not without some trepidation. After all, "the nerds do know how to administrate things."
As for the chefs (more than 360 of them from all over the state), protocol demands that they be happy prepping porcini mushrooms. When asked whether they had actually voted in the election, fewer than a third raised their hands. "I think we could do better," said one gray-haired sage nearby upon seeing the tally.
Who wasn't at the party was more revealing than who was. Inaugural balls can be somewhat provincial and in this case, the province appeared quite small. The mayors of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater were all featured prominently on the program. The mayors of Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane? Not so much.
And turncoat Senator Rodney Tom, he who committed the ultimate jock heresy of decamping to nerdville when he switched from the Democratic to the Republican party, snagging the Senate leadership post along the way? He was introduced, but even the evening's emcee didn't sound very hopeful that Sen. Tom would appear. "Did he make it?" asked the emcee. And after a quick glance around the crowd: "Nope."
When it came time for the guest of honor to address the party faithful, he kept it short and sweet. "The single most important thing I can do is to not give a speech," said new Governor Jay Inslee, adding: "Let's go dance!"
The nerds surely have a few tricks up their sleeves, but last night belonged to the jocks. They were in charge. For the moment.